Lee’s Sandwiches, the multi-million dollar Vietnamese banh mi sandwich empire, began as a modest food truck run by a family that arrived in America with little to nothing.
Chieu Le, the founder of Lee’s Sandwiches and the eldest of nine children, was in his second year of law school before the fall of Saigon. In 1975, the Vietcong shut down the law school and took over the family’s property and sugar plant business.
The Les were forced to flee on a small fishing boat filled with 98 others, one of the first waves of people to escape Vietnam by boat. Fortunately, their boat avoided disasters like pirate raids and storms that countless others faced.
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According to the Los Angeles Times, Le and his wife arrived safely at a refugee camp in Malaysia where they stayed for 13 months. A month after welcoming their first born son, Minh, Le and his wife were on a plane to America.
When Le, his parents, four brothers and four sisters finally made it to the U.S., they settled down in San Jose, California. Le began taking night classes to learn English at San Jose High and bought food from a food truck that parked nearby the school.
Soon after Le stopped his English classes and began working for the Vietnamese owner of the food truck in order to support his younger brothers and sisters. Within a year, Le had saved enough money to buy a truck of his own and began a family operated food truck business in 1981.
He and his brother, Henry Le, the second oldest of the siblings, started Lee Bros. Foodservices after noticing that other immigrant trucks had trouble stocking food and ice. The brothers decided to add an extra letter “e” behind their name to help others pronounce it.
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Lee Bros. Foodservices would grow to become the largest industrial catering company in northern California. In 1983, their parents Le Van Ba and Nguyen Thi Hanh asked to sell their traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on the weekend to students and residents near San Jose State University. The rest was history.
They opened their first Lee’s Sandwiches location on Santa Clara street. In 2001, Le’s eldest son, Minh, proposed the idea of adding euro-style sandwiches, fresh baked baguettes, desserts, drinks and the famous Vietnamese iced coffee or “ca phe sua da” to the menu.
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Thanks to Minh, the family also adopted principles of American fast-food companies and transformed Lee’s into what it is today. Unfortunately, Minh wasn’t able to see the fruition of his ideas as he was involved in a tragic traffic accident a few months before Lee’s opened up shop.
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The family went on to establish their first store in Southern California on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster. Today, Lee’s Sandwiches is the world’s biggest chain of banh mi sandwiches with 60 shops throughout the U.S. and plans of expansion to Taiwan.
Recently, the South Bay Vietnamese community has been mourning the passing of Lee’s Sandwiches co-founder, Henry Le. Henry, the second eldest of the Le siblings, was born in Thot Not, An Giang, Vietnam.
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He passed at the age 58 from stage four liver cancer last Thursday, four days before what would have been his 59th birthday. His father, Le Van Ba, the patriarch of the Le family, had passed away at the age of 79 from cancer in 2010.
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The co-founding brother is remembered as a community leader, a human rights advocate, philanthropist and entrepreneur who helped grow the family owned Vietnamese sandwich empire into what it is today.
Ryan Hubris, a close friend of 40 years and former employee of Lee Sandwiches, told Mercury News:
“He [Le] would’ve wanted people to know that he was a humble man that did the best that he could and gave of himself as much as he could. Really, that’s his legacy.”
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Before his illness, Le had taken on a less active role in the company and served as the advisor of operations. He was the president of the Vietnamese Heritage Society and a founding member of the Vietnamese American National Gala. The organization’s mission was to unite Vietnamese Americans and create greater visibility and representation for the community.
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Le is also remembered as a philanthropist. As a devout Buddhist, Le donated to Buddhist temples in the surrounding San Jose area. In 2005, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Le sheltered victims of the storm in his office in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Le had lost a number of his properties during the hurricane, but he was filled with warmth and generosity. Hubris said:
“He [Le] was literally empty-handed. But instead of being bitter of devastated by the loss,w hat he did was reach out to the community and recognize how fortunate he was. It wasn’t about his needs, it was about the needs of others. It really formulated a lot of life lessons for me as I moved forward in my life.”
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Hubris was unaware of Le’s illness until a few months ago when Le became sick during a family vacation on a cruise. Doctors reportedly gave Le a year to live, but he passed within three months of his diagnosis.
“He was still so strong and active. The bulk of his days were spent outdoors. Nobody thought that he was sick.”
Former San Jose Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen, who considered Le a mentor, lamented on the community’s loss:
“We lost a man who lived his life full of live and full of happiness. And now we feel like a part of that is missing.”
Le was surrounded by his family in the final hours before his passing. His nephew recalled that Le emphasized the importance of sticking together in his final moments. Le’s nephew, Henry, said:
“It’s a family business at the same time you have to put business aside and focus on the family no matter what.”