Saigon Sisters Celebrates Eighth Anniversary

Like her customers, restaurateur Mary Nguyen Aregoni has experienced the craving for something that fulfills her appetite, delivers a sense of adventure, and nourishes her soul.

As a child, Mary embraced a new culture after her family left behind war and refugee camps in their Asian homeland. After establishing a successful career, Mary left the IT world to satisfy her hunger to create her own business. As an entrepreneur, Mary journeyed back to her roots to build Saigon Sisters, a unique chain of fast-casual Vietnamese restaurants celebrating its upcoming eighth anniversary.

“Everything I do in my business is somehow related to my past, my family and a part of who I am,” says Mary, who was a baby when her family was living in Laos to escape the dangers of war in their homeland of Vietnam. The aftermath of the war reached Laos in the mid 1970s, and Mary's family believed they had no choice but to leave everything behind and search for freedom elsewhere. They settled in a refugee camp in Thailand for two years, before immigrating to the United States in 1975 when Mary was 8 years old. It was decades later in 2009 when Mary took a leap of faith herself, leaving a successful 20-year career at Procter & Gamble for a taste of entrepreneurial success.

“I long to learn more about my roots, which takes me on trips back to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to know where my grandmother and mother came from and understand the regional dishes and ingredients,” says the founder and CEO of Saigon Sisters. “What a great privilege to make a living out of an expression of who I am and make an impact on so many people who can enjoy the iconic and inventive dishes of Vietnamese and Thai cuisine.”

The authentic recipes of Mary's family have been enjoyed by thousands of satisfied customers since she opened her first location in Chicago's French Market eight years ago.

“The number eight is regarded as a lucky number in Asian culture, and we want to show our gratitude to this city and to customers who have supported us from the beginning as well as new customers who discover us every day,” says Mary. She is celebrating the chain's upcoming anniversary by offering a revamped menu and multiple specials leading up to the big event in December.

It was a decade ago that Mary and her sister, Theresa Nguyen, first came up with the name Saigon Sisters and an idea to sell Vietnamese spring rolls at farmer's markets. Two years later, after leaving corporate America during the recession, Mary passed a sign seeking food vendors for the new Chicago French Market and got the inspiration to act on their concept.

“I thought, spring rolls are not French, but banh mi sandwiches are influenced by the French baguette, and so are some other Vietnamese dishes. We grew up immersed in French culture and hung out in open markets a lot where our mom and grandmother worked, so it was the perfect place for Saigon Sisters to start,” says Mary.

Thanks to Mary's grit, Theresa's pluck and their combined courage to cash out savings and retirement accounts to get their business started, Saigon Sisters was chosen as one of the initial vendors for Chicago's now-popular indoor food market.

The sisters designed their logo with a simple mint leaf because mint is a key ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine and is one of many aromatic herbs and—as well as healthy vegetables, seafood and meats—that Saigon Sisters infuses in their dishes.

“My mother, Mama Suu (Nguyen), was ecstatic because she could become an entrepreneur again through us and work in a market similar to one where she and my grandmother started their successful businesses back in Vietnam and Laos. The market was an adventure where my sister, brother and I went to play, eat and explore the many vendors and their wonderful street food,” says Mary. “I was a little foodie when I was a kid, so I craved that food when I came to the States. I had to learn how to cook it because I couldn't find it easily in the Midwest. Now as a restaurant owner, I love to satisfy that craving in other people.”

Soon after the Chicago French Market opened in 2009, Mary's customers returned the favor with rave reviews, while industry experts from Zagat, the Michelin Guide, TimeOut and Chicago magazine doled out awards to Saigon Sisters for their flavorful pho (soup), tasty spring rolls, savory salads, fresh banh mi (sandwiches) and delectable che (custard dessert).

The increasing popularity of Saigon Sisters led to three more locations: a full-service restaurant in Chicago's West Loop, a quick-service restaurant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and a new storefront offering the food from Mary's early childhood in Thailand called Bang Chop Thai Kitchen.

“Our four restaurants are all places where a diner can feel transported to Southeast Asia through our delicious, authentic Vietnamese and Thai cuisine,” says Mary. “I am more fulfilled in what I have accomplished in eight years in this business than I was after 20 years working in a corporate culture. I am living a life that is my calling. My life story is reflected in my logo, brand, recipes and menu. Saigon Sisters is a reminder of my dad's family, where they were from before the fall of Saigon and its name change to Ho Chi Minh City. It has nothing to do with politics or the war but simply a place in time that was part of my heritage and honoring my father, who passed away in 2004. Despite all the ups and downs that come with the restaurant industry, it's a never-ending journey full of learning and discovery, and I love every minute of it.”

After weathering a lifetime of fresh starts and risking a huge personal investment of time, money and emotion, Mary and Theresa have defied the odds and are now savoring the sweet taste of success pursuing their dreams and passions.

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