Chinese, Japanese and Thai food have appeared on many a fast-casual restaurant menu for some time. The latest menu addition from Mama Fu’s Asian House, however, just might put another Eastern cuisine on the fast-casual map: Vietnamese.
Last August, the Austin, Texas-based Pan-Asian chain known for its flex-casual menu — counter service by day, full service by night — rolled out the Bánh Mì Vietnamese Street Sandwich. An homage to the traditional street sandwich of Vietnam, Mama Fu’s version features wok-seared protein, sweet-and-sour vegetable slaw and a spicy mayonnaise, all served on a toasted French roll.
Developed from idea to execution in just 90 days, the sandwich has been a runaway hit for the 13-unit chain since it was added to the limited-time Black Market Menu less than a year ago.
“We sell nearly as many bánh mìs each day from our Black Market Menu as our average rice and noodle dishes from our core menu,” said Randy Murphy, Mama Fu’s chief executive. “This is even more significant because the bánh mì clearly sells more during lunch dayparts than dinner, unlike our other menu items, which are more even across both dayparts.”
The quick success of the product may be due to the fact that it marries the familiar (a sub sandwich) with the foreign (Vietnamese cuisine), and it’s easy to eat on the go.
“Bánh mì already looks like something Americans would know how to eat,” said Regan Wright, a researchat CTI Foods. “It’s also very approachable because of the East-West fusion that’s been at play in Vietnam for hundreds of years.”
Vietnam is a former colony of France. “For so long, Asian cuisine in America required chopsticks and a flimsy take-out container,” she added. “Bánh mì opens the door to Asian flavor, but in a convenient, handheld package.”
The vision for this popular menu item came from Murphy and Stephen MacManus, Mama Fu’s vice president and chief operating officer, both of whom have traveled extensively in the Far East.
“We thought we could drive people in for something different than a burger or a [sub],” said MacManus. “I have always been enamored of street food. Having a bánh mì fits in with what’s going on with street food, food trucks, … with our noodle bowls, rice bowls.”
With Vietnamese fare a largely untapped area on fast-casual menus — except for the omnipresent spring roll — MacManus and Murphy knew they had to move rapidly. And, as a small chain, they’d have to do it without having to add too many outside ingredients or costly equipment.
Quickly whipped up by Mama Fu’s R&D team, led by MacManus, the sandwich features generous amounts of, beef, tofu, vegetables or shrimp, wokseared in a blend of two of the chain’s signature sauces: classic Asian brown sauce and a Thai basil sauce, which is a combination of hoisin and Asian chile sauces.
The protein is topped with a vegetable slaw made of match-sticked daikon radish, carrots and pickles in a sweet-and-sour vinegar and sugar marinade. It’s served inside a freshly baked and toasted 7-inch French roll smeared with Mama Fu’s Dynamite Sauce — a blend of mayonnaise, Asian chile sauces and lime juice. To execute the sandwich inexpensively, the recipe uses existing in-store ingredients, with the exception of the roll and the daikon.
Like most products at Mama Fu’s, the initial version went through vetting with a network of executives, followed by a series of outside expert reviews and in-store testing at the chain’s Triangle location in Austin.
Along the road to final rollout, all manner of changes were made, including adjusting the salt content and modifying the sauce, which, in test, many customers said made the bread too soggy. During development the team also realized that the frozen rolls they originally wanted to use weren’t cutting it. Instead, they sourced fresh bread from bakeries near each of the nine company stores. In addition, they wanted to serve the bread toasted, but their stores didn’t have any toasters. So they added convection toaster ovens at a cost of less than $110 per store. Since the chain didn’t already have sandwiches on the menu, black wire baskets and traditional sandwich liners were brought in to serve the bánh mì.
To market the product, the chain added the sandwich as a limited-time offering on its rotating specials menu, added in-store point-of-purchase signage, used e-mail and social media, and launched a YouTube video that showed real people attempting to pronounce the product’s foreign name.
“In the fast-casual, approachable Asian concepts, there has not been a ton of exploration into sandwiches of any sort,” said Wright. “Mama Fu’s is breaking a little bit of ground by offering a sandwich alongside traditional favorites such as pad Thai, [the chain’s signature] General Fu’s and fried rice, et al. As we ... see fast-casual Asian concepts continue to evolve, I think we’ll see more of these unique handheld products.”