Sonny Nguyen, Co-Founder of 7 Leaves Cafe, On The Company’s Rapid Growth

Sonny Nguyen photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

Seven years ago, Nguyen and his six co-owners (pictured below) opened their first shop in a tiny corner plaza in Little Saigon. Today with 20 locations and counting, patrons dutifully line up for their Vietnamese coffee, milk teas, and other handcrafted drinks.

What does the 7 in ‘7 Leaves’ stand for?

There are 7 co-owners: four brothers, two in-laws, and a long-time friend. My brothers and I were in our thirties and already successful in our careers when we first opened. I think starting our business later was a factor to our success. And as the stores became successful, we just kept reinvesting what we made.

Why was opening your first shop in Garden Grove significant?

We grew up there. It’s our community. Our family escaped Vietnam after the war, and lived in Philippines for a year until we got sponsored by a family in El Monte. My dad found opportunities in Perris, helping out with landscaping, but there was a language barrier. He needed to connect. He heard there was a growing Vietnamese community in Garden Grove so we packed our bags and moved.

Fondest food memory growing up in Little Saigon?

Once a month, my dad would take us out to eat at Pho 79. We would just order a beef broth. No drinks or appetizers. We were so used to eating at home that going out was an experience. Kind of magical in a sense. Today, you have a new wave of businesses like The Vox Kitchen, Brodard, Boiling Crab, and The Loop coming out of Little Saigon. It has become a mecca of food innovation.

Where did the idea of opening a tea shop come from?

Q, my second-eldest brother and the creative genius of 7 Leaves, had traveled to Asia. He came back and said, ‘There’s something that I’m seeing outside of the U.S. that doesn’t exist here. They’re making these drinks and the preparation is so different from anything else. In Asia, they cook their drinks, like soup.’

What are some of your drinks that are ‘cooked?’

Our Herbal Tea has seven natural ingredients including artichoke, chrysanthemum, and jasmine green tea. We cook it in a pot and it boils and simmers for four hours. When you cook it, you get the extracts, the nutrients, and all these complex flavors. You let it cool and there’s a fermentation that happens and it’s served when it’s chilled. The illusion is that our drinks are premade, but you can’t make them any other way.

What are some ingredients in your drinks that people might not know of?

We get a 10-pound taro root, chop, cook, and mash it up, and infuse it to make our taro milk tea. For our mung bean milk tea, we use pandan leaves, which people use to wrap and steam rice. It gives the drink a beautiful aroma. Our vision is to create drinks that represent different cultures. Before people might have been skeptical to try something new, but now people are like ‘let’s go on a food adventure.’ It’s completely changed. 

Now you have franchise requests from places like Dubai. What do your parents think?

My brothers and I didn’t tell our parents that we quit our jobs until we had five stores. Now that we have all this community support, my mom feels like “OK. This is cool.”

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