"I have had so many different lives," says the petite and boisterous Quynh Trinh, owner of We Suki Suki, a 450-square-foot banh mi shop located in the historic neighborhood of East Atlanta Village. She is not exaggerating.
It's almost hard to keep up with the larger-than-life stories Quynh tells—speaking a mile a minute about moving to Chicago from Vietnam at a young age, thanks to the kindness of a family from Minnesota who sponsored her family's immigration. They came to America with nothing, and in those early days, her mother would make steamed chai bao to sell and support them.
Quynh is the former brand manager of Tiger Beer, is responsible for helping open the Versace store at Atlanta's posh and exclusive Phipps Plaza shopping center, and has also worked for big brands like Bebe and MTV Asia. But now nothing gives the entrepreneur (who is simply called "Q" by friends and customers) more pleasure than getting her hands dirty and serving up authentic banh mi to hungry hipsters and passersby in a neighborhood of Atlanta where she easily dominates the market for such cuisine.
We Suki Suki opened on Valentine's Day of 2012. "We finally signed the contract [on] February 13," says Q. "I didn't get the key until 5 PM that night. I opened the very next day, because I'm an all-in girl. Everything, my savings. And we had to open. We Suki Suki means 'we love love,' and I had to open on the day of love." That love is evident when she puts her whole heart and soul into the banh mi she and her noodle understudy, Jade Feldman, cook up every day.
It sounds like a scene from a sitcom, but while we're speaking, a customer walks in to order her food, and as she's leaving, turns to Q and gushes, "There's so much love in this! So good! Thank you!"
Maybe it's love, or maybe it's just quality ingredients that make the bahn mi the perfect combination of crispy bread, tangy pickled carrots and daikon, and creamy, yet not overdone Vietnamese mayo. Either way, it keeps Q in business with her raving regulars.
A photo posted by We Suki Suki (@wesukisukieav) on Nov 7, 2013 at 11:30am PST
She started with just two George Foreman grills, a toaster oven from home, and a coffeemaker. Before We Suki Suki inhabited the space, it belonged to an ice cream vendor, and Q transformed the ice cream freezer into a refrigerator.
We Suki Suki's banh mi offerings are classic and simple: bread—toasted in the traditional French style banh mi is known for—graced with marinated chicken breast or fresh tofu made by a local company called Viet Tofu. She says, "When I first started, we only did three sandwiches. Chicken, pork, and tofu. Now we have five sandwiches. I just add one more as the years go by. That's it. We keep it focused." She also makes her own tapioca bubbles for the Vietnamese iced coffee "boba" (a.k.a. bubble tea), the creamy beverage Q offers alongside her sandwiches.
She goes to a Vietnamese market each day to source her products, where she rubs elbows with her competitors who are stationed exactly where you'd expect to find excellent multicultural cuisine: on Buford Highway, the well-known international district just north of Atlanta. Her restaurant's sign reads: "Buford Hwy EAV: a global grub collective."
But that distinction is what drives her. "I had a lot of friends who said banh mi wouldn't make it here—it wouldn't be a hit. And I said, 'Oh, yes it will.' If you're the only banh mi spot in Atlanta outside of Buford Highway, where are people gonna go? And you make it as authentic as possible, and you do it priced right," Q says. "You can do a $9 banh mi, but why? That's not what a banh mi's supposed to be." She sells her own sandwiches for a flat $5, tax included.
Though banh mi is Q's passion, it's evident she won't stop there. Recently, she's begun transforming her tiny space into something of a street-food cooperative. East Atlanta Village is one of the city's popular nightlife spots, yet it has few options for nighttime dining. When one of her customers suggested that We Suki Suki keep late-night hours, Q wasn't interested—at first.
Q didn't want to make her banh mi at night because she already runs her shop during the day and didn't want the extra hassle. "This is enough for me," she says. So she told the customer—who just so happened to be a cook at Candler Park Market—that he could use her space to develop some much-needed after-hours street eats: tacos.
"Everyone else, their kitchen is closing out by midnight," Q says. "And so that was how the idea was born." Now, Q rents her space to the cook and one other partner, who cook there on Fridays and Saturdays after We Suki Suki closes. "They have to show me a spreadsheet of their hours and costs, and they have to report weekly. In addition to that, they have to show that they're actively marketing their brand."
To maintain the branding identity of We Suki Suki, she had them use her template for a simple menu. "A two-man team churning out five different tacos, guacamole, and three drinks is exactly what I wanted," she says. Eventually, her goal is to have someone like her—or "the taco boys," as she affectionately refers to them—in the space during every off-hour, resulting in a 24-hour super-vendor.
Running a restaurant might seem like an unlikely venture for someone with Q's resume, but her food experience goes way back. The first business she co-owned was a Vietnamese-Mexican bodega, called Viet-Mex, that she and her aunt ran while she was still in high school. Later, in 1990, Q joined Levy Restaurant Group and helped at the front of the house when they opened Eurasia, giving her some food-service chops and an understanding of how a large restaurant works. She moved out of her parents' home at 16, and started her first business, a stationery company, at 19. She says, "That was my first corporation with a SBA loan for $75,000. After two restaurants."
She relocated to Atlanta in 1994 to be closer to family, and quickly felt at home in the Southern city of international transplants.
The only thing that really frightens Q is stagnation. "If I get bored, that is my death," she says. "I've got to continue to stimulate my senses in terms of my creativity. And I do have a vicious desire to be remembered. I want to be a legacy. And I want to win the Nobel Prize."
With that kind of ambition, what's next for Q? On their upcoming summer break, she plans to take We Suki Suki on the road when her two children go on their summer break from school. "I want to have a food adventure with them, to have a summer vacation integrated with food," she says. They plan to travel, creating fusion banh mi sandwiches wherever they go, based on each city they visit. "If we went to Miami, we would do the research about what makes Miami Miami. Everyone knows about the Cuban sandwiches, so we would be challenged to make a Cu-banh mi."
You hear that, Nobel committee?