Kicking off the first feature of Outstanding Operators is Mary Aregoni of Saigon Sisters.
Aregoni is being recognized for redefining the Chicago area food scene, serving a Vietnamese concept that has proven versatile in meeting different market venues and sizes.
Inspired by her history, Aregoni founded Saigon Sisters in 2009, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother who were both successful entrepreneurs in food distribution in Laos, before having to relocate due to the Vietnam War.
After a 20-year career in marketing and IT at Procter and Gamble that sent her all over the world, Aregoni took the plunge into the restaurant business, with the help of her sister, mother and husband.
In developing Saigon Sisters, Aregoni said she noticed a lack of Vietnamese cuisine in downtown Chicago. With a goal and passion to bring her heritage and food culture locally, she first tested her concept in the Chicago French Market, a food hall featuring various local brands.
Out of a 200-square-foot market stall, Aregoni sold fast-casual Vietnamese cuisine, such as Banh Mi sandwiches.
“It was a great entry into testing if our concept is sustainable,” said Aregoni. “And it is, after one year, we had long lines all the time.”
The food hall success led Aregoni to eventually expand and open a full-service, intimate, 1,800-square-foot, 35-seat restaurant, in the heart of the West Loop.
Maximizing revenue output within four walls
The full-service location also serves as commissary for the food hall location to keep up with demand. The restaurant also powers successful delivery and catering.
Managing multiple concepts is made possible with menu offerings that are simple to work with.
“Because it’s basically soup, salad, sandwich and bowls, but Vietnamese flavor,” said Aregoni.
“Bao is very popular and the pho is super popular in Chicago when the winter weather is cold,” she added.
Aregoni says her production team makes four meats (including vegetarian tofu and jackfruit options) and sauces that turn into 37 combinations, that can be put in a bao, a bowl or a Bunmi. Bowls feature stir fry rice, noodle, brown rice or salad.
“Those meats and sauces can go into all those venues and it looks like we make so much food but actually we just use different vessels,” said Aregoni.
In addition, Saigon Sisters dine-in location also offers Thai cuisine. A few years back, Aregoni opened a Thai concept but had to close it due to the pandemic. Rather than axe it all together, Aregoni combined the menu into her current offerings.
Saigon Sisters is available through all major third-party delivery providers. By offering delivery within a five-mile radius and managing timing thresholds, Aregoni says she’s able to ensure quality.
“We are able to crank out the food pretty quick, I’d say a 20–30-minute turnaround…when we put those timing thresholds in, we are able to get the order out and the driver comes exactly when we finish.”
Aregoni also says that when her cooks are too busy with a lunch or dinner rush, she can toggle off delivery or takeout orders at her fingertips utilizing Toast to manage the multiple channels.
Catering proves profitable
As mentioned, Aregoni also maximizes her space by offering catering—a profitable avenue for the business, especially as workers continue to return to the office.
Saigon Sisters offers its Vietnamese and Thai menu for catering as well as a Mexican concept.
“One of my cooks had his own Mexican restaurant at one point and it was very popular and he’s an excellent cook,” said Aregoni. “So, he and I came up with a Mexican menu for catering, so we basically have a virtual ghost kitchen within our space.”
When asked how the back-of-house handles the multitude of concepts, whether it’s dine-in, delivery, catering or being a commissary, Aregoni relayed utilizing slower day parts is extremely beneficial.
Aregoni has cooks either working on catering, for example, in the morning before the restaurant opens or after the lunch rush when “there’s really nothing to do.”
“I love catering…I only need four catering [job] locations and I make that much money compared to all the other locations sitting there open until 8 o’clock,” she said. “It’s really unbelievable what the volume can do, so you maximize people.”
To better manage and track catering orders, Aregoni again utilizes Toast.
For catering drivers, Aregoni tries to use her three in-house drivers (or herself) as much as possible—but if needed will contract catering delivery through DoorDash. She relays the preference is to do catering delivery themselves to keep more of the profit as well as build a relationship with clients when setting up and explaining the cuisine.
Inspiring women in restaurants
In addition, since beginning her entrepreneurial journey, Aregoni has also played an active role in supporting and advocating for women in the restaurant industry. She’s a member of Les Dames D’escoffier, NAWBO, Women’s food forum, and helped start www.LetsTalkWomxn.com in Chicago during the pandemic to help women-owned restaurateurs come together to collaborate and learn from.
“Anything I can do to help advocate for women in this industry, I love hiring women as much as I can to train them to take on more leadership roles,” said Aregoni.
She also completed the James Beard Women Leadership program to further develop into a mentor for others.
Looking ahead, Aregoni hopes to one day expand Saigon Sisters into high-traffic locations such as airports. Although the business got its start in Chicago, Aregoni believes it can be replicated easily and internationally.