Login | November 13, 2019

Texas immigrant family succeeds in egg rolls business

Employees of Van's Kitchen package egg rolls at the Van's Kitchen production plant in Dallas, Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (Ben Torres/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

CHERYL HALL
The Dallas Morning News

Published: November 7, 2019

DALLAS (AP) — Theresa Nguyen Motter knows how to make one thing really, really well: egg rolls.
The Dallas Morning News reports this year, tens of millions of these tasty Asian snacks will be sliced and diced, deep-fat fried, quick-frozen and packaged at her Dallas-based Van's Kitchen manufacturing plant near downtown.
The hand-held treats will head to 5,000 supermarkets nationwide, including Kroger, Brookshire's, WinCo and Walmart. They'll bring in annual sales in the $35 million-plus range for this family business founded in 1986 by Theresa's Vietnamese immigrant parents, Kim and Van Nguyen.
"We're going to grow 30% in the next 12 months," says the 54-year-old CEO of Van's Kitchen.
These are her parents' traditional egg rolls with some interesting twists.
"We have a bit of fun with our vegetable egg rolls, putting in some edamame and water chestnuts to give them a crunch and different texture. Those are very popular," Motter says. "We bridge the gap between what people are comfortable with and bold flavors — something that catches their interest so that it's not, 'I can get that anywhere.'"
Theresa and her husband, Carl Motter, chief sales officer, love to let their imaginations run wild.
"We made some cheeseburger egg rolls last year and some chicken-taco egg rolls. They were limited-time offers," she says. "Like that company down south that makes ice cream, we ate more than we sold."
Their most memorable: Twinkies, Zingers and brownies fried in wrappers for Bennigan's, which named it the "Triple Bypass."
Theresa was born in Saigon as Thanhha Nguyen. Her family still calls her Ha. When the pre-teen became a naturalized citizen in the late 1970s, she changed her name to Theresa after her patron saint, St Thérèse of Lisieux, "The Little Flower of Jesus."
"I tell people I was very fortunate to come to the United States and have the opportunity to lead a company," Theresa says. "I could have been born in Vietnam and stuck there. I could have been born in Mexico, Laos or Cambodia or wherever."
She was barely 3 when she and her mother joined her father in the United States, where he'd been teaching Vietnamese for two years to U.S. soldiers headed to combat.
Her mother had $40 in her pocketbook and didn't know how to speak English. She and her mom learned to speak English by watching "Sesame Street" and "The Price is Right."
"They would say washing machine and then show one," Theresa recalls. "It was genius on her part."
Her mother worked as a waitress and did odd jobs while her father earned his degree in linguistics from the University of Texas at El Paso. The Nguyens planned to return to Vietnam after the Vietcong were defeated. They figured her dad would become a diplomat and an English teacher in their homeland.
Then Saigon fell in April 1975.
"My father was shocked and horrified. He didn't think it was possible for the country to fall with the U.S. backing it," says Theresa, who was about to turn 10 at the time. "There was no Plan B."
The family, which by then included her younger brother, moved to Carrollton. Van went to work with a friend from college who had an egg roll manufacturing plant.
But as that partnership ran its course, her parents decided to open their own egg roll company.
One minor problem: Her parents worked in sales and distribution. Neither knew how to make Chinese egg rolls.
They bought a restaurant and used it as an egg roll test kitchen.
The Nguyens and a partner started Van's Oriental Foods in July 1986 in a small warehouse in Irving.
It wasn't exactly an instant success.
Theresa, who had just earned her degree in marketing, was headed to a corporate job when her parents pulled a guilt trip on her, saying that they had worked hard to put her through college, and now they needed her help.
"I agreed to work for them for six months," she says with a laugh. "I always tell people I'm not very good at math because I've been here 33 years."
Jose Mejia, the company's very first employee, supervises the prepping room, where cabbage, carrots, onions and celery are cut up before they're assembled into egg rolls.
"He's actually worked here longer than I have," Theresa says as we stop to meet him during a tour. "He came to work when we were setting up our original plant."
Why has he stuck around for more than three decades?
"They treat me like family," he says.
Five years ago, Theresa's parents turned Van's Kitchen over to her.
Van says he and Kim were ready to enjoy the fruits of retirement and felt it was time to let go. "We have full confidence in Theresa as she continues to grow the company," he says.
Her mom still comes in several times a week to say hello and work the line with her work family.
It bugs Theresa that people think that her dad still runs the company and that she's just the female front. "Gosh, it's just terrible that you have to continue to fight that," she says.
"I can handle my own," she says. "I'm fortunate to be married to a strong man like Carl, because it takes a lot of confidence to have your wife be your boss."
She hopes her two sons will see her as a role model.
Her husband certainly does.
"She's a great leader and a working mom," Carl says. "She's raised two kids and, arguably, an adult kid, while leading the company and helping it grow. She is passionate about helping women understand that they can be in business and that they can be leaders. We have a lot of women who work for us, so she immediately influences them, but she also influences the community at large."
Every week, Cherie Wiley, deli/bakery merchandiser for Kroger's Dallas division, buys more than 500 cases of Van's Egg Rolls and dipping sauce — that's 1.25 million individual rolls annually — for 110 stores in Dallas, East Texas and Louisiana.
She's been an enthusiastic customer for three years since adding Van's to Kroger's fresh-food, ready-to-eat deli offerings.
"Our competition is for share of stomach — not only with the grocery industry but also with the restaurant industry," Wiley says. "We were looking to expand our variety of unique items.
"I don't know too many people who don't love egg rolls."
Wiley is thrilled that Van's is locally and certified woman/minority owned. "Local and diversity are important to us when we consider partners," she says.
So are quality and freshness. "All egg rolls are fried. When you fry anything, it's all about the quality of the oil, right? You never have to worry about that factor. It's a great taste. It's fresh. It's never greasy."
It's also a big deal that Walmart has been buying Van's products for three decades, Motter says.
Now the Motters want to make egg rolls the hottest thing in convenience stores.
They see their Asian handhelds as a natural fit for C-stores looking to expand their grab-and-go selections. They can be kept warm and ready on the rolling grillers typically used for hot dogs.
Carl is heading the initiative, which is still in its early stages.
"Convenience store offerings tend to be real impulse, hot and ready to go," he says. "Spaghetti on a plate is not going to work very well if you have to put it on your dashboard."
Carl recently hired someone to take over the grocery client list so he can concentrate on convenience stores.
The company reinvests its profits in the business and hiring more employees. It's overhauling its production line. The number of employees has grown from 70 five years ago to 100. "We're hiring if anybody's interested," she says.
An employee came up with the idea of founding a national egg roll day — NERD — on June 10. "It gave us a fun way to highlight egg rolls," Theresa says. "It was a good talking point for our clients."
Funny thing, though: There are no eggs in egg rolls.
There's considerable debate about where the name came from, but one thing is fairly certain: Egg rolls are an early-1900s invention that didn't have widespread popularity outside Chinese restaurants for decades.
Theresa remembers doing demonstrations in grocery stores and having to explain what an egg roll was. "People would ask, 'What do you have in here? Does it have rat, turtle or snake?' I'd say, 'You gotta be kidding. It's just chicken.'
"Now it's 'What region of Asia are you from? Are these traditional Vietnamese? Are they Chinese?' With the Food Network, the world is becoming a smaller place, and people are way more educated about food."
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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com


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