Tony Lam: When You Think You’re Done, You’ve Only Just Started
If you looked up the term “serial entrepreneur,” you’d find this definition: a person who continuously comes up with new ideas and starts new businesses. You’d also find a picture of Tony Lam.
Tony Lam owns seven different restaurants, won a pitch on shark tank, has worked for fifteen years in the technology space at Cisco, and is launching a new line of Vietnamese cold brew.
And that’s just the start. What does he chalk it all up to?
“In my life, for the most part, I’ve had luck and timing,” he says.
Lam’s foray into the restaurant space began with some chicken wings. When he was at Cisco, a colleague of his who visited Texas told him about a wing joint he had visited. He mentioned that Lam should try it out, and think about opening a location in the bay area.
That was the only push that Lam needed. Fifteen years ago, there was only one of these aforementioned wing joints in the entire bay area. That was all about to change – that little wing joint just so happened to be called Wingstop.
Lam, his college roommate, co-worker, and his cousin all took the journey to that singular Wingstop location. Their consensus? These wings were really good. And that was that.
Lam was fairly determined that he wanted to pursue the franchise opportunity, but like any good potential business owner, before diving headfirst, he asked for feedback. While their comments about the food was mostly positive, some reservations rang above the rest. This was appetizer food, they said. You’ve never been in the food industry before, they cautioned. Lam kept all of this in mind, but knew one thing: he loved the product. So he decided to give it a shot.
“I don’t even really like to cook,” he says. “But I like to eat.” Someone who loves to eat is as qualified as anyone to know when a food product really has something to offer.
So Lam and his partners signed the franchising form, and took a trip to Texas. The executives at Wingstop gave them the rights to open five locations in the Bay Area during a five year period. So that’s what they set out to do.
Lam opened their first location in the Bay Area, where they thought there would be a lot of foot traffic, especially from the local high school. Cue the crickets chirping: that very first location lost $100,000 dollars in the first year. Uh oh, they thought. We’ve signed on for five of these.
Lam and his team decided that it wasn’t time to quit. So they went full steam ahead and opened their second location in Fremont, California. This location also had a lot of foot traffic, anchored by Costco, Panda Express, In-N-Out Burger, and several other fast food restaurants. That store was profitable after the first year.
“Ok, now we know what the secret formula is,” Lam thought at the time. “The location.”
Fast forward fifteen years, and there are now close to 50 Wingstops in the Bay Area. And, following through on the deal, Lam and his partners own five of them. But not only does Lam own five of the stores, he runs the marketing co-op for all of the Bay Wingstops, with about 150 miles of coverage ranging from Napa Valley to Gilroy. Because he’s seen how operating a co-op can help everyone work together, and the advertising benefits every single one of the stores, he leaves some advice for those that might be trying to break into the business.
“For those guys out there who want to open a franchise, I highly recommend what people do is they have a co-op. In the long run, it helps all the stores. We get to see how each of these campaigns are working, we get to see the ones that aren’t working. If they aren’t, we make sure we never run that campaign again.”
At this point, someone else might sit back, survey their work, and consider themselves done. But that person definitely wouldn’t be a serial entrepreneur, and they wouldn’t be Tony Lam.
Lam’s other ventures range throughout the food industry and beyond, with one particularly sweet business called Maven’s Creamery.
Like many successful companies, Maven’s Creamery started in a garage, run by sister duo Gwen and Christine Nguyen. In 2014, with no culinary background, the sisters worked sleepless nights to perfect their product: a macaron ice cream sandwich. Before long, they were moving out of their garage into a small commercial kitchen. Ever able to spot a business on the rise, Lam began working with the team. In early 2015, Maven’s Creamery made its first appearance in a small dessert shop in Northern California. The product sold out – 400 units in four hours.
In order to keep up with growing demand, the sisters made an appearance on Shark Tank, and secured a deal with the sharks. Since then, the company has had a growth rate of 300%, year over year.
“It’s a great fairy tale story to talk about starting in a 400 square foot garage, to being on TV,” says Lam. “You can be an immigrant, and you can put your heart and soul into it, and you can make your dreams come true.”
If you think the story stops there, you haven’t been paying attention. Most recently, Lam is working with a Vietnamese coffee wholesaler called Omnibev – which, at the rate it’s going, you’re likely to be picking up off a grocery store shelf any day now.
Tammy Huynh, the founder of the company, visited her uncle’s coffee bean plantation in Da Lat, Vietnam. She was inspired by the authenticity of the coffee brewed there, and wanted to take that flavor back to the states. So, she set to developing her product, formulating, and reformulating. Then, she approached Lam about a partnership.
Using her unparalleled product and Lam’s marketing knowledge, the powerhouse made their way into 300 stores across California. Coming a long way from small farmers markets, Lam uses the Omnibev story to posit another lesson. “When you start, you should document your journey.” That way, not only will investors be able to see where you came from, you’ll be able to look back and see where you are now. It’s a way to show that you’re not only bottling Vietnamese iced coffee, you’re also bottling passion, a dream, and a story.
A poke restaurant in Vacaville. A seafood boil in Oakland that was voted to have the best seafood. A commissary kitchen concept open just for carryout and delivery. A probiotic salad dressing infused with CBD. A shipping company. Not to mention sitting on the board of five other tech companies. If you live in the Bay Area, or even California, there’s a high possibility that you’ve held one of Lam’s products in your hands.
Now, he’s spearheading Launch Your First, a company that unites with startups and entrepreneurs to help guide them to success and fuel their growth. After speaking with a number of restaurant owners who didn’t do any form of marketing, Lam recognized another need: giving these young companies the tools they need to rise to the top.
And you might want to get out your notes: Lam has plenty of advice, tidbits that he’s been doling out, especially to fellow members of the Asian Hustle Network.
“You’ve gotta believe in yourself,” he says. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you’ve got this great idea. All that matters is – did you execute on it?” He explains that you have to ask yourself if you have the time, energy, and the resources to act on your idea. If you don’t have all of those things? “Don’t even bother.”
Thinking of both his successes and his failures, he goes on to talk about how you have to know when to cut your losses, and your heart has to be in the operation. “That passion can’t be three months, six months, a year, or even five years. You’ve got to have that passion every single day.”
Of the people he’s spending time with and giving advice to, Lam truly wishes they take his lessons to heart. “I’m hoping that when they become successful too, they pay it forward.”
Maybe that, then, is the recipe to success: wings, ice cream, coffee, and some good karma.
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