How Vietnam's signature fermented foods found their way to US

By Vien Thong   January 2, 2023 | 05:27 am PT
When domestic demand declined, the owner of Song Huong Foods took it as an opportunity for his family company to sell pickles and fermented seafood to the U.S.

After working for more than 10 years at Mobile World Investment Joint Stock Co., Nguyen Le Quoc Tuan, 37, took over Song Huong Foods (SHF), a company owned by his family, in 2018.

It had been in the market for more than two decades and was most famous for its fermented foods.

In the beginning Tuan invested in several other startups, but later decided to focus completely on SHF and chose pickled Vietnamese eggplant as the main product to make.

In 2021, when Ho Chi Minh City was locked down to curb Covid-19, Tuan donated some of his products to people in need, earning his eggplants publicity.

In 2022 their sales boomed but overall the business was in dire straits as demand for other products collapsed.

"I saw a number of stores selling our products shutting down in 2022," Tuan said.

He decided to turn to exports to save the business.

"Overseas Vietnamese love to eat Vietnamese specialties, and so I decided to focus on export."

Nguyen Le Quoc Tuan, CEO of Song Huong Foods. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Nguyen Le Quoc Tuan, CEO of Song Huong Foods. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Tuan chose fermented seafood and pickles, including of Vietnamese eggplants, for his company’s debut in the U.S. market.

SHF’s products landed in the U.S. on December 12 through a contract signed with CTWS Group, which distributes products to more than 200 markets and 30 wholesalers in 32 American states.

"It took us more than six months to get through all food safety tests and get a certification from the Food and Drug Administration to make Vietnam’s signature fermented seafood products and two types of Hue snacks available in 32 U.S. states just before the upcoming Lunar New Year," Tuan said.

The snacks are banh loc and banh nam, dumplings made from tapioca and rice flour.

According to CTWS Group, this is the first time the fermented products are being sold in the U.S.

Local production is difficult due to the lack of raw materials and challenges in the production process, and "therefore, the main source of supply is still Vietnam," the company said.

Tuan said: "I believe that most overseas Vietnamese would love their homeland specialties. SHF’s banh loc and banh nam were already famous among them before we exported because many of them had taken back the cakes to the U.S. when they visited Vietnam."

He targets shipping 12 million cakes to the U.S. in 2023.

"We have a bigger plan which is having one SHF product sold at Costco supermarket chain. I myself will go to the U.S. to promote our products."

He next wants to export to Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Russia, and China.

Song Huong Foods fermented seafood and pickles on sale at a store in Houston, Texas in December, 2022. Photo by CTWS

Song Huong Foods' fermented seafood and pickles on sale at a store in Houston, Texas in December, 2022. Photo by CTWS

A CTWS spokesperson said SHF has the advantage of owning traditional recipes for making fermented foods.

But to stay successful, Tuan and his team need to maintain "the same enthusiasm and diligence" as now, he said.

"They need to find and develop more traditional Vietnamese products to serve the overseas Vietnamese community. Along with that, they must maintain competitive [prices]."

A vegetarian for the last six years, Tuan said his dietary preferences have nothing to do with the business.

"My family has been in this business for more than 25 years and I have just stopped eating meat for six years, and so I could not use that reason to let go 200 workers and millions of customers."

But as long as he is still in charge, SHF would focus on plant-based products, he said.

He expected the economic downturn to continue in 2023 due to the negative global outlook.

"But I believe that in any period there will be difficulties and challenges depending on how we perceive and prepare. If we put our minds to whatever we do, and prepare for what we must do, then I believe there will be an opportunity in every challenge."

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