A lot of folks were forced to reinvent themselves during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for Sang founder Lan Pham, it was more of a return to roots.
Pham came to the United States as a refugee of the Vietnam War. She was just a child—one of eight who traveled with her single mother by boat in search of security and a better life. Despite rocky landings in refugee camps, her mother provided her and her siblings with the stable future we all call the American Dream.
Now, she celebrates her hyphenated life by blending the culture of her two homes: setting out as an entrepreneur and starting her own business that sells traditional Vietnamese iced coffee in a convenient can.
“I’m so excited and nervous,” she says, “but that’s a good juxtaposition of feelings for entrepreneurs when they’re just starting out.”
After a little more than a year of prep, research, development and supply-chain struggles, Sang is now available in five unique flavors including Traditional, Dairy-free Oatmilk, Straight Black, Latte with Saigon Cinnamon, and Oatmilk Latte with Saigon Cinnamon.
You can find Sang both in Citarella, Fairway and Butterfield Market stores across the Hamptons and New York City, as well as online with nationwide shipping via Amazon and the official Sang website.
Pham says this is just the beginning for Sang, a company that will push far beyond iced coffee in its mission to share the flavors of Vietnam with the world. We spoke with the CEO and founder to learn more about this mission, and what makes Sang stand out from the competition.
You just celebrated the official launch of Sang. How was this idea born, and how long did it take to get here?
I worked in partnership and marketing for almost the last two decades, but I was connected to a lot of founders in skincare and lifestyle brands. I was so inspired by meeting all these other founders, and I worked in the airline and hospitality industries before. That was hugely impacted during the beginning of COVID, so I was furloughed for about six months until things picked up again and the company brought me back; but when they brought me back, I just didn't have the same passion that I did.
During COVID, there was a lot of violence towards Asian-American women in New York City. I came to America when I was a baby and the aggression--it was always underlying racism like, “you're cute, like a China doll,” or “go back to your country.” It was racism and oppression, but now it has become a full-on attack. Just the other day, someone just told me to “go back to my country,” and I just never had that living in New York City.
With all of that, I wanted to represent my culture and really wanted to be in touch with Vietnam. I love coffee and I was just like, “Google is your best friend.” So I just started Googling and Googling the idea, and a year later, this is where I am!
Starting your own company in the face of racist remarks is a wonderful way to show what Vietnam brings to the table.
I'm so lucky, because my mom couldn't have done this 40 years ago. We are the American dream. We came here in the belly of a boat. We were all in refugee camps for a year. To have this privilege 40 years later. There's the annoying racist stuff, but there's also friends and allies celebrating your culture. Asian representation is so much more widespread than when I was a kid.
My mom raised three doctors, engineers and business owners. For the longest time, she did not understand what marketing and partnerships was about. She was just like, “my daughter is not a doctor.”
Your background in marketing and partnerships certainly must come in handy now that you’re a CEO-Founder, multi-hyphenate entrepreneur.
The hyphen is always really important! Our culture today is about bridging those things. I can't say that I'm 100 percent American, and I can't say I'm 100 percent Vietnamese. I think we should be at a point in the culture where we all respect everyone's hyphen and the different hats they wear. It's not just the immigrant experience. It's the experience of being different.
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Where does the name Sang come from?
Sang has three different meanings. It means “bright,” it means “morning,” and it means “luxurious” in Vietnamese, depending on where you put the accent. When I was thinking about names and what I wanted the company to represent, I wanted it to be a bright spot in your day. We were in such dark times, and having a cup of coffee and having that moment; that's what the company represents.
How did you go about crafting the beverage and its three flavors?
Just as every culture has its way of drinking coffee, in Vietnam, it's made with sweetened condensed milk, and it is really strong. The robusta bean cultivated in Vietnam is usually one and a half times or two times stronger than the Arabica beans, and Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee beans in the world.
I wanted our canned drinks to be the traditional Vietnamese iced coffee that a lot of people know and love. At the time, it was trending on TikTok, and Starbucks had a “how to hack your Vietnamese iced coffee drink.” I'm not the first to can Vietnamese coffee or anything, but it’s about what our company represents. We're made in America with 100 percent Vietnamese beans. We're trying to get certified organic, and we are non-GMO.
We are the first to make Vietnamese iced coffee in a can with oat milk. It's sustainable, and it's a little healthier for you. The oat milk is very similar to the traditional Vietnamese iced coffee, then we have the traditional with a blend of condensed milk. Then we have black coffee with a touch of vanilla to appease the black coffee lovers that still want to try Vietnamese coffee.
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How do you see the company evolving?
We're starting with coffee, but we're not just a coffee company. We have other products in development. It's a mission-led brand, to represent the culture, tastes and wonderful flavors of Vietnam.
Anthony Bourdain loved Vietnam. He filmed eight episodes in Vietnam for his various shows. He validated the culture of Vietnam as the first famous critic to say street food can be amazing. He described a Pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, to be as complex as a French soup. We want to carry that spotlight for these flavors. For the longest time, Asian-American restaurants were all Chinese or Japanese. It's so nice to have a moment where Southeast Asian cultures are highlighted.
I am a single mom living in New York City. Balancing all of that and being an immigrant woman too; it makes me want to help others who share my experience. We are looking to partner with other immigrant organizations too, because my family was lucky. We lived in three different refugee camps and we weren't separated once we got to the States. We were eight siblings and my mom was a single mom, too.
I am fortunate to be able to quit my job and do this full time, pay myself a modest salary or whatever. I just want to pay it forward to any immigrant or any girl not seeing themself reflected in the media and or when they go to stores. You're like “I want some chips,” but they're all barbecue. Yuzu is delicious, and there are all these other Asian flavors. I want Sang to tie it all together, and transfer this experience to any kid out there now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Sang and shop its three original canned coffee flavors at eatdrinksang.com.
Photography by: Courtesy of EatDrinkSang.com