“How come all the houses look the same?” then-24-year-old Andrew Ly wondered while touring San Francisco for the first time. The air was colder and the streets were quieter — completely different from the atmosphere of his war-torn home country.
Ly and his family came from Giồng Nhản, Bạc Liêu, a town near an army post in Vietnam where his parents worked as farmers growing fruits and vegetables. When the Vietnam War began to intensify from 1968 to 1969, Ly’s family moved further away from the army post to a town called Giồng Nhản to escape the fighting. His parents opened up a small grocery store, which Ly helped manage.
But in 1978, Ly and his family decided to flee Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, which marked the beginning of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under communist rule.
“We grew up during the Vietnam War, it was horrible,” Ly tells NextShark. “It was the most unforgiving war that people have encountered. We decided to leave Vietnam after the communists took over. Our family was pretty big, so we left in three different groups.”
Ly left Vietnam for Malaysia with his parents and two of his brothers’ families on a boat. During their voyage to Malaysia, they encountered pirates twice, who shot at them and robbed them everything they had. When they reached a Malaysian shore, the local villagers rejected them. “They didn’t allow us to come in, but we had no choice,” Ly recalls.
Luckily, a delegate from the international magazine Far Eastern Economic Review arrived and protected the family. They contacted the International Red Cross to bring Ly and his family to a refugee camp in the U.S.
“I often tell people that I’m grateful for coming to America. Surviving the war was one thing, surviving the journey to Malaysia was another thing. We came to America without any money and without speaking any English. We did not have high education,” Ly shares.
At the time, Ly looked at the 1.7-long mile Golden Gate Bridge as a beacon of newfound hope and the beginning of his family’s American dream.
“My father, some siblings and I worked in restaurants as a dishwasher. Others worked in janitorial services. I also helped my brother, who worked as a janitor and as a handyman for a few months. I also worked as a newspaper carrier,” Ly says.
It was when a family friend told Ly and his four brothers about a neighborhood coffee shop that was for sale that they took a chance in the business industry.
“It was the neighborhood’s coffee shop serving donuts and pastries to neighborhood patrons,” Ly says. “As Asians, entrepreneurship is our life so we combined our savings together. It was about $40,000, and we also borrowed some from friends as a working capital.”
The brothers eventually bought the shop in 1984, marking the beginning of Sugar Bowl Bakery.
While the bakery started with only $300 sales per day, the company would go on to become one of the largest minority-and family-owned bakeries in the U.S.
Ly and his brothers sold their pastries to hotels, cafes, restaurants, convention centers and colleges in the Bay Area. Their dedication and passion eventually led to business and manufacturing expansions that would create job opportunities, particularly for immigrant communities.
The story of Ly and his brothers would go on to be recognized by former President Barack Obama.
“That’s what America is about. This is the place where you can reach for something better if you work hard,” Obama said in a 2013 speech honoring the Vietnamese brothers.
“Life is so hard, but also rewarding,” Ly, who is now in his late 60s and the chairman of the board of Sugar Bowl Bakery, reflects. “This country is the country of opportunities. It has opened up for everyone.”
As a refugee and immigrant, Ly holds the celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month dear to his heart.
“It honors us people who bring our rich cultures from Asia into the country,” Ly says. “The AAPI month enables us to be proud and celebrated. It recognizes us as individuals who come here to work hard, to raise a family and to create jobs.”
In 2020, the company opened a manufacturing facility in Tucker, Georgia, where they were able to hire 300 new employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are 25 different languages spoken there. We have immigrants from Africa, Philippines, Vietnam and Korea. We open up to everyone, but most of our workers there are refugees,” Ly shares.
Besides creating job opportunities, the 38-year-old company partners with organizations to give back to the community. They support foundations, such as the Asian Pacific Fund, College Success Foundation and Illuminators Educational Foundation, to strengthen the Asian and Pacific Islander community and to help underrepresented students of color via educational programs and leadership opportunities.
Sugar Bowl Bakery also supports the Children’s Miracle Network, a non-profit organization that helps sick and injured children in local communities. To reduce their environmental impact, the company also partners with Plastic Bank to build an ethical recycling ecosystem. Their facilities are currently powered with solar power, which helps offset about 50% of their California bakery’s electric use.
As Ly reflects on his journey, he reminds himself of the importance of integrity.
“As Asians, we embrace family values and disciplines. We have great integrity with our friends, families, vendors and customers. We always constantly do that,” Ly says.
Sugar Bowl Bakery produces pastries, cake cookies and brownies that are available at supermarket companies like Acme, Foodtown, Ralphs, Vons and at wholesaler Costco.
“We come here as Asians and we will always be Asians. We will never be somebody else. I speak this way with my accent, and I will always eat Asian food. I will always honor my culture, and I will speak Vietnamese and Chinese,” Ly says.
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