Chipotle Mexican Grill’s foray into Asian cuisine is prompting hopes among a new crop of restaurant chain entrepreneurs that American diners will soon embrace the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich as the next burrito or taco.
Long before Chipotle’s ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen opened in September in Washington, D.C. , with bánh mì as a menu cornerstone, the West Coast bánh mì chain Lee Sandwiches had been expanding rapidly, with 43 units and climbing. In New York, the 2-year-old Baoguette chain has plans to open its fifth location in a few weeks.
Earlier this year, Bun Mee in San Francisco debuted with a modern, fast-casual take on the sandwich. And next week, BONMi is scheduled to open in Washington, just a few blocks from ShopHouse.
The bánh mì is a traditional baguette sandwich prepared with a variety of proteins combined with crisp marinated or pickled vegetables and sometimes pâté and creamy mayonnaise or aioli. The Vietnamese-style baguettes typically are made from a mixture of rice and wheat flour, which offers a crispy crust and tender texture.
Previously available only in Vietnamese mom-and-pop restaurants, the sandwich also has become a frequent offering on menus across all segments, from New York fine-dining chef David Chang, who is often credited with inspiring the bánh mì craze in 2009, to the Nom Nom food trucks in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
These burgeoning bánh mì concepts, however, focus almost exclusively on the sandwich, along with a few Asian sides and salads, as well as Vietnamese-style coffee and desserts.
Chain officials maintain it’s a concept that will appeal to a broad audience in cities across the United States — especially as most bánh mì sandwiches provide a filling meal for less than $10.
Read about four bánh mì chain concepts with national growth aspirations.
One of the country’s largest bánh mì chains is San Jose, Calif.-based Lee’s Sandwiches, with 43 units in five states.
Lee’s was founded by a Vietnamese family that arrived in the United States in the early 1980s and initially built a catering truck business. Company founder Chieu Le changed the family’s business name to Lee so it would be easier to pronounce.
In 1983, Le’s parents, Ba Le and Hanh Nguyen, started serving bánh mì sandwiches from a catering truck. It was such a hit that the couple opened their first brick-and-mortar location of Lee’s Sandwiches in San Jose. In 2001, one of their children developed a more Americanized, contemporary take on the family sandwich shop, serving as a model for Lee’s Sandwiches today, said Jimmy Le, also a son of the founder and the chain’s vice president.
Today, 37 of Lee’s locations are operated by franchisees, and the chain is growing. Thang Hoang, director of marketing, said another 15 are expected to open by the end of next year. Lee’s Sandwiches also is considering international growth, Le said.
Lee’s is known for its freshly baked sandwich bread, as well as pastries, ice cream and Vietnamese desserts. Certain units also are bakery facilities that supply nearby locations with baguettes.
The company also produces bottled Vietnamese-style coffee drinks, as well as roasting beans and ground coffees, which are carried in some Costco and other retail stores.
Lee’s bánh mì variations range from the classic “Lee’s Combination,” with sliced ham, headcheese and pâté, to a version with sardines, onions and tomato sauce.
The average check ranges from $5 to $20, Hoang said, depending on whether guests are coming for a pastry and coffee or sandwich.
Huang said he has no fears of ShopHouse growing into a national chain and competing for bánh mì market share with Lee’s.
“We are Vietnamese,” he said. “We know our sandwich best.”
Michael Bao and his wife Thao Nguyen opened their first bánh mì shop in New York in 2009 at the height of the gourmet sandwich craze. The tiny 400-square-foot space had only a few counter seats and the menu was brief, with just a handful of bánh mì variations.
Now the couple has four locations in the city and plans to open two more before the end of the year. Their fifth unit, scheduled to open later this month, will be a relatively large 900 square feet, said Stanley Tran, a partner in the chain.
In addition to traditional bánh mì, the menu has expanded to include noodle dishes, summer rolls, pho and salads, like a green papaya salad with shrimp. The average check is about $15, Tran said.
Once the chain reaches 10 units, the couple plans to take the Baoguette concept outside New York, eventually even to Vietnam, Tran said.
Vietnamese-American Denise Tran — no relation to Stanley Tran — was studying to become a lawyer in New York when a bánh mì craze hit the city in 2009.
After a trip to Vietnam to taste the real thing, Tran decided on a career change. She said she believed the bánh mì had potential.
Tran developed Bun Mee, a fast-casual bánh mì restaurant with a name that played on the phonetic pronunciation. Tran found a busy spot on San Francisco’s chic Fillmore Street, far from the Asian neighborhoods of the Tenderloin, which she felt would prove the concept’s crossover potential. The restaurant opened in April.
Knowing that Bun Mee is the first bánh mì experience for many of her customers, she designed a menu that offers both traditional and Americanized versions, such as the Sloppy Bun, with red curry ground beef, house garlic aioli, onion, cucumber, Thai basil and jalapeños — with the option of an additional fried egg.
“I think I’m a more bánh mì-inspired sandwich shop,” Tran said. “It kind of reflects me. I’m a mix and that reflects in our menu choices.”
The 1,200-square-foot space has only 16 seats, and Tran said about half of her business is takeout. The average check is $11 to $12, and all sandwiches are under $10. The menu has grown to include noodle and rice bowls, as well as salads and crispy egg rolls.
Tran is looking for a second location in San Francisco, but her focus now is on perfecting operations as she readies for growth.
Her goal for the first year of operation is to reach $1.5 million in sales, which may be within reach following a rave review by the San Francisco Chronicle  in September that specifically called out Bun Mee’s pork belly bánh mì.
Tran also welcomes ShopHouse to the bánh mì niche.
“It just confirms my theory that the bánh mì is the next taco,” she said. “I think there’s room for Chipotle and other players to come into the niche and educate a broader audience. The bánh mì will become part of the lunch time vernacular.”
Not far from ShopHouse in Washington, a group of investors is planning to open the first BONMi restaurant Oct. 17.
Another contemporary, fast-casual concept, BONMi will measure about 1,800 square feet with about 40 seats, but is designed to be scaleable, said Alexis Kukuka, spokeswoman for the operating company Bahn Mi LLC.
Also going for a playful, phonetic spelling, BONMi’s menu will feature a variety of proteins, such as garlic-lemon grass chicken, pork meatballs, garlic-black pepper pork butt and brisket — many of which will be prepared with sous-vide techniques.
“We can prepare it with very little oil, and it really intensifies the flavor,” Kukuka said.
Vegetarians will also be able to choose from chile-garlic tofu or butternut squash bánh mì.
Salads will include the signature Kickshaw salad, made with vermicelli noodles, cabbage, fresh herbs, cucumbers, bean sprouts and pickled vegetables, topped with a peanut dressing.
Unlike many bánh mì shops, BONMi will not offer pâté as an option, instead focusing on other authentic ingredients.
For instance, the chain is using Vietnamese-style baguettes, made partly with rice flour. All sandwiches will range in price from $6 to $7.50.
Even with ShopHouse a short walk away, Kukuka said BONMi welcomes the attention its future competitor has brought to the bánh mì.
“It’ll bring a lot of weight to the sandwich,” she said.