The CEO of Sugar Bowl Bakery runs a business approaching $100 million in annual sales.
That’s a lot of cookies. It wasn’t that long ago that Ly says he only had $1 to his name.
His products are now distributed across the country at such outlets as Costco, Safeway, Kroger and Target. Recently the US Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation (USPAACC) named Sugar Bowl Bakery one of the “Fast 100 Asian American Businesses”
Ly founded Sugar Bowl with his four brothers who came to the United States from Vietnam. The four pooled their family’s entire savings of $40,000 in 1984 to make their dream happen. Their story of how they came to America gives you a good idea of the family’s fortitude and perseverance, qualities that have served them well at Sugar Bowl.
“My family’s first three attempts to leave Vietnam failed,” said Ly to AsAmNews. “We had to sell our property to the government in 1978 in exchange for permission to leave. We built a small boat that was crammed with other refugees and set sail for Malaysia. It was a six day journey, and what few things we had left to our name, were taken away from us when we were robbed by pirates. We weren’t even allowed to dock in Malaysia when we got there. We actually had to destroy the boat and swim to shore. The refugee camp conditions were horrible and after a year, we were finally able to come to America with the help of the U.S. Catholic Conference. The feeling of making it to America and being reunited with all of my family was indescribable. Even though I only had $1 to my name, I felt blessed.”
Those in the San Francisco Bay Area might remember Sugar Bowl Bakery as a coffee shop with baked goods. At its peak, there were six retail outlets, but all were shut down to concentrate on distributing their product nationwide. Today he has about 250 employees and is one of the largest family-owned national minority certified bakery manufacturers in the country. Despite its growth, the company continues to run as a family business. In fact, members of the family’s second generation have also since joined the company.
“When we first started our baking business, we didn’t know how to make pastries so we made desserts inspired by our own ancestry. I still remember walking into a meeting with samples of a Chinese cake, and the chef laughed at me and said his Caucasian clients wouldn’t want to buy it since it looked different and wasn’t as sweet as French pastries. This was a huge turning point for me because it made me realize I had to think differently about the way we approached our product line to please customers–and that approach is reflected in some of our newest offerings including the Organic line of our popular mini-desserts.”
As with any business, the path to success has not always been a smooth one.
“The biggest mistake I’ve made is not always trusting my gut,” he said. “I’ve had to learn from trial and error that more often than not, if something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t.”
More than 30 years since being founded, Sugar Bowl continues to add to its product line. In April it launched a USDA-certified Organic version of our popular mini-desserts. Its newest product is the Batter Crisps, which are cake-flavored cookie thins. They’ll hit store shelves this fall and come in four flavors–French Vanilla, Devil’s Food, Carrot Cake and Lemon Snow.
What’s one of the smartest decisions Ly ever made?
“Having all my brothers and my sister-in-laws working under different roofs so we could preserve our normal relationship as family members,” he said.