On April 29, 1975, I watched in horror images of the Fall of Saigon. It was a tragic time in American history. The country's long, bloody involvement in Vietnam came to a chaotic end. Americans and Vietnamese alike were frantically evacuating as the Vietcong army marched to Saigon. All my life I heard stories about America's victories at the end of World War II. With that in mind, despite daily images of bloody battles and Walter Cronkite's daily casualty report on the evening news, I always thought we'd win. But we didn't. America was evacuating, not celebrating victory and staying behind to insure the country's rebirth as we had in Germany and Japan.
Americans were able to flee the advancing North Vietnamese army. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were not. Escape, if possible, would not be on U.S. helicopters or on commercial flights, but in boats. Rickety boats packed well beyond capacity with refugees carrying all they owned in the world - which was virtually nothing. And so began the saga of the Vietnamese Boat People.
Do you have whiplash from my quick change of direction from culinary and travel to the history of the Boat People? Stick with me. We're still on my usual theme. I'm merely setting the stage to tell you this story about immigrant success and victory over loss.
You may be familiar with Pinkberry frozen yogurt. It's an insanely delicious frozen treat that's popping up in franchise-owned shops all over the country and now the U.K. I discovered it in California recently. I was hooked. So when visiting my hometown of Thibodaux, La., last week, I had a hankering for Pinkberry. But the small, bayou-side town in sugarcane country had none. Instead, my sister-in-law, Becky, took us to something even tastier in Thibodaux, Bing Cherry. And here's where my story of entrepreneurial spirit, love of country and triumph over adversity begins.
The man behind the name
Bing Cherry, the business, is the brainchild of 25 year-old Tiffany Tran. But the business is named for her father, Bing Tran. The ever-cheerful Bing was born in Vietnam and raised in Bayou Country. At 10, as his country was succumbing to the communist north, his mother and three siblings embarked on a "do or die" journey with 57 others on his uncle's small boat. Initially settling in New York where a family sponsored them, the cold became too much for his mother. So in 1978, the family made their way to south Louisiana where many of the Boat People had already settled.
It was natural for Vietnamese refugees to settle in America's coastal regions. The Louisiana Gulf Coast offered opportunities in fishing, including crabbing and shrimping, and as workers in the booming offshore oil and marine construction industry. The sea was a major influence on their culture and here they found something similar to what they had left behind. As in all cases where large groups of immigrants settle, turf battles over jobs and, in the case of the fisherman, crabbing and fishing grounds, erupted. But they preserved. In his homage to the fast-disappearing bayou culture, "Bayou Farewell," Mike Tidwell describes the uneasy, sometimes acrimonious, settlement of the boat people and their contribution to the local culture.
Bing is a product of that assimilation. His family arrived with virtually nothing but dreams of a better future. Education is the road the dreams of all immigrants travel. So after high school, Tiffany, who always had a passion for cooking, studied culinary arts at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. After her graduation in 2008, Tiffany worked at the New Orleans Hilton Riverfront. Here she experienced working in diverse dining outlets and spent time under the direction of pastry chef Chad Gilchrist. This experience stirred her passion for all things culinary, but she loved baking and left the Hilton in October 2010, in search of a job in a small bakery.
'Swirl It Up, Top It Off'
Tiffany's story is not unlike many other young Americans who, faced with few job prospects, set up their own businesses. With Bing's entrepreneurial skills and backing and Tiffany's creative culinary talents, father and daughter opened their first yogurt shop in Houma, La., in May 2011. In 2012, Bing Cherry expanded to Thibodaux. It's now officially a chain!
When you walk into a Bing Cherry shop, you see five soft-serve yogurt machines along a wall, but not behind a bar.
And there's a good reason for the layout. This is not just soft-serve, it's self-serve, too! The cashier happily offered us small tasting cups so we could choose a flavor we liked. The omission unknown tastes makes for a much better decision where every calorie of the already low-cal dessert counts!
Now came the hard decision. The flavors from fresh fruit and natural ingredients were all delicious. Pomegranate, blueberry and mango burst with fresh fruit sensations. Other flavors included peanut butter, pina colada and the obligatory chocolate. In all, Tiffany has 10 different flavors she rotates. But with her employees, she is constantly searching for new ideas, such as roasted marshmallow for autumn.
Working in her small kitchen with a large hand blender, Tiffany blends about 20-24 gallons a week, all of which she sells. The yogurt is always fresh and is made every two days. Constant whipping helps prevent the formation of ice crystals. Apparently that's the trick and the real delight of her recipe. Smooth, velvety and loaded with flavor.
Although tasting the five different flavors could be satisfying enough, I picked up a cup - only one size, big - and proceeded to swirl in my fruity favorites. I passed on the 60 different toppings available, choosing not to adulterate the yogurt. Once my cup was full - I could see my eyes were bigger than my stomach - I handed it to the cashier to be weighed. Bing Cherry's pricing structure is easy enough - 45 cents per ounce. But the taste was worth its weight in gold!
Connecting the past
with the future
Sitting outside on a cool autumn afternoon, enjoying my yogurt, I couldn't help but engage Bing in conversation about his daughter and their creation. Within minutes, I had the full story. Running into him at the shop can be as enjoyable as the yogurt itself. His passion for his adopted country is palatable. His love of creating businesses is never-ending. Next stop for Bing, a new Vietnamese restaurant in Houma. For Tiffany, she would like to continue to expand, but the seasonality creates hurdles for her. Since Louisiana is so rarely bitter cold, I can't see that affecting her too much. Personally, I think her product surpasses Pinkberry and that her future is bright.
Regardless, her success to date and her unbending work ethic are tributes to her grandmother who, at great peril and privation, fled her disintegrating homeland for America, and to her father Bing who's dream of a better future in a country he loves seems boundless. Vietnam, against all odds, has prospered. The predictions of it sliding into a North Korean-like existence were never realized. And for the tens of thousands of Vietnamese who fled their homeland, life in America has been good to them. America is all the better for it.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.