Story and photos by HA GIANG
As soon as customers arrive at Saigon City Marketplace’s entrance, a pile of rice bags piled about five feet high greets them. When they reach the checkout counter, another pile of rice bags, equally high, stands tall.
Throughout the day, these high piles of rice bags visibly lower at the same rate as the stream of shoppers rises in the spacious supermarket, which is very different from other Asian groceries in the area.
Not Jasmine from Thailand, not Nang Huong from Viet Nam, not Ong Dia or Ba Co Gai either. The rice bags have a different and distinctive name, though still unfamiliar to the consumers.
They are bags that bear the name Panda Rice printed under the picture of a round-faced Panda, its intelligent eyes gazing at a bowl of steamingly hot rice.
Panda Rice, such an unusual name. And one that is catching on.
Just a little more than a year ago, even businessman Nguyen Minh Chieu, owner of Saigon City Marketplace and the Westlake Co., and Quoi Pham, his son-in-law and general manager of Saigon City Marketplace, had not heard of Panda Rice, let alone try to promote it through their supermarket.
And, Chieu and Quoi, said just over a month, they have sold 2,500 bags of rice. At 40 pounds each, that’s about 50 tons.
Fifty tons in one month? Why so much?
“Because Panda Rice tastes good, and it’s fragrant, reasonably priced and is grown in the USA,” Quoi answered, succinctly, as if he has tried to explained that many times before.
“Last week there was an elderly lady who bought a bag to try, and then came back to buy three or four more bags a week later, in case we are sold out,” Quoi said.
After eating Panda Rice for one week, the woman told Quoi that her blood sugar was “substantially lower” and that’s she wanted to stock up.
GREETINGS: Quoi Pham, general manager of Saigon City Marketplace, stands next to his premier product which is getting raves in the Vietnamese community.
Quoi said all kinds of rice contain some sugar.
“When our customers claim that eating Panda Rice helps to reduce their blood sugar, we have no reason to doubt them, but it’s hard to verify what they claimed,” Quoi said.
Before getting into the grocery business, Quoi worked as an electrical engineer. A graduate of Oregon State University, he used to work for Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Micron Technology.
How did an engineer turned grocery manager discover Panda Rice for his store?
Over Thanksgiving 2010, the Nguyen family took a cruise to the Caribbean Islands to get away from work. But during the 10-day vacation, destiny intervened.
During one of the dinners aboard the ship, the family met an American who told them his company specialized in growing high-quality rice. He told them how when he founded his company in 1980, his vision was to provide himself and a select group of growers with a marketing alternative to the large, impersonal marketers dominating the rice market. He envisioned a mill that would work with large volume of premium rice. The result of this collective vision was a platform upon which to build a viable market niche.
He continues to grow, mill and market the highest-quality premium rice in the United States. He serves the domestic market and exports a high volume of rice to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Mexico and the Middle East.
After finding out that the Nguyen family was in the food business and owned a supermarket, he invited them to give his rice a try, guaranteeing it to suit “the Asian palate.” Plus, he said it carried a Grade 1 ranking from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Unconvinced, Chieu and Quoi agreed to try it.
When they returned from vacation, they got back to their busy schedule. The rice that had been sent to them sat a while. After all, Quoi said he thought at the times, Vietnamese prefer Thai rice to American rice.
One day, to declutter the kitchen, his wife took out the rice bag and decided to serve it to her family.
“It tastes very good!” said 7-year-old son William. “Yummy!”
Even Richard, 3, spoke up, adding it was “very soft and chewy.”
The next day, Quoi’s wife gave him a more detailed report.
“Honey, this new crop is actually quite good and tasty,” Quoi remembers his wife telling him. “The rice is still soft the next day. Today I made some steamed rice with roasted chicken, and the kids ate everything.”
Immediately after, the extended Nguyen family all became “rice tasters.” Quoi’s wife led a test program, combining the “USDA Grade 1 Rice” with different dishes.
Rice with roasted chicken. Rice with grilled spareribs. White Rice with fried onions. Red Rice with salmon. Every single combination was delicious, earning glowing praise.
But when it comes to porridge, Panda Rice was beyond comparison, they found. The soft white grain coalesced together in the bowl, tender but still a bit springy, releasing a taste of wholesome sweetness — delicious just by itself.
Seeing the premium rice potential with each of his wife’s experiments, Quoi began his intense research.
What’s the difference between American rice and Thai rice? How is U.S. agriculture different from Asian countries’ agriculture? And what are the quality standards required for “USDA Grade 1 Rice”?
Quoi was pleasantly surprised by his findings.
According to the United Nations, rice is the world’s main food, accounting for 80 percent of the diet of more than half of the world’s nearly 7 billion people. It is grown in more than 100 countries, and another 100 countries most import it. Even with today’s technology, rice cultivation in Asians countries still largely depends on the weather and rainfall distribution.
With advanced technology, the U.S. is the only country that can produce rice of all three grains, and is the third-biggest rice exporter in the world. All stages of rice agriculture in the U.S. is fully automated, enabling this country to produce the purest, highest quality of rice.
USDA’s regulation specifies that in order to be awarded the highest-quality ranking of “USDA Grade 1 Rice,” a particular rice can only have a maximum of two broken grains in each 500 grams and should contains no impurities.
A few trips back and forth to rice fields in Northern California allowed Nguyen and Quoi the opportunity to witness the automation process, which led them to conclude that the rice they were evaluating was worthy of being introduced to Asian consumers. Saigon City Marketplace would distribute U.S. premium rice to its consumers, they decided.
Chiêu is happy about this decision. However, he is happy not just because of business reasons.
“This rice is grown in the highland, therefore, the grain can tolerate cold weather, is small and tasty, reminding me of Nanh Chon rice, grown in Ba Ria, Viet Nam,” he said.
Quoi said the work required to launch Panda Rice was very time consuming.
First they needed to decide on the name, a logo, a marketing plan and a price. Nguyen came up with Panda Rice, and the naming process proved to be the most difficult task.
The name needed to accommodate to reflect a logo design so that at first glance, the consumers would know instantly that it was a product geared to Asians — but not too Vietnamese so that it could be distributed in other Asian markets.
They also had to decide on packaging, preferring a 40-pound bag over 50 pounds so that female shoppers could better load the bag into their carts.
Panda Rice sells for $25 for 40 pounds, compared to $40 for 50 pounds of Thai rice.
“We decided to have a very small markup to introduce Panda Rice into the market.” Quoi said.
Besides the low-price policy, Saigon City Marketplace also has tasting counters at the store every Saturday and Sunday.
Looking at the customers gathering at the rice-tasting booth as they sampled freshly cooked rice from the tiny paper cups, they nodded in approval, and lifted bags of rice into their carts, it’s easy to see the appeal of Panda Rice.
GOOD EATS: Ms. Nancy, during a tasting of Panda Rice at the supermarket, said the soft texture of the grain is ideal for molding rice into cakes or making delicious sushi.
“It tastes very good!” said Nancy, a shopper. “So soft and chewy, this rice is good for sushi and rice cake.”
Dung, another shopper, pushed her cart containing a bag of Panda Rice. She had bought one bag last week and returned for another just to stock up.
“When I rinse the rice, it still has a lot of bran,” she said. “That tells me Panda Rice has lots of nutrition.”
Duy, a young male shopper, accompanied his 76-year-old grandmother.
“My grandma loves to make porridge with Panda Rice,” he said.
Tasty. Pure. Reasonably priced and helping the U.S. economy. Those are among the reasons consumers buy Panda Rice.
Those who have not tried Panda Rice can go to Saigon City Marketplace at the corner of Brookhurst Street and McFadden Avenue in Westminster, Calif., any weekend. Visit www.pandariceusa.comfor more information.
SATISFACTION: Outside the supermarket, customers Nguyen Trinh and Do Thinh are happy they were able to buy rice they describe as affordable and tasty.