Sonny Nguyen, “Change Agent” at 7 Leaves Cafe is recognized as a COAST
Magazine Game Changer, 2019. (Photography by Leonard Ortiz)
Sonny Nguyen has the title of “Change Agent” at the 7 Leaves Cafe company – sometimes called “Vietnamese Starbucks” for its success in bringing classic Southeast Asian drinks to the U.S. market, broadening the palate of consumers beyond the Asian population.
But he maintains he’s just the most “black-and-white” of the four brothers from Garden Grove who all shared one bedroom for most of their lives and then founded the company, children of immigrant parents. They all succeeded at the conventional careers their parents dreamed for them – a software engineer, an IT specialist, a lawyer and Sonny, the banker.
“We reached a point where we had done what our parents wanted us to do; we had these safe jobs with some prestige. But we felt something was off,” tells Sonny. It was his brother Q who saw they could sell teas like mung bean and taro milk from Southeast Asia that weren’t offered commercially in the Western world.
“Q is the creative genius in the family. For me, I have none of that. But when you ask me about things that are people-related, business-related, I think holistically. It’s like yin and yang. We pair very well.”
For instance, when Q told him, “If we can make $1,000 a day, that will take care of everybody’s needs,” Sonny responded, “Maybe we can adjust that goal just a tad.”
Today 7 Leaves has more than 20 locations, with new cafes set to open next year across the country. The cafes serve drinks, sure, but also serve as gathering places – the brothers offer free printing services at some locations, a nod to the students who are fans of the brand. Says Sonny, “We want to be a beloved American brand.”
“Our business model is not a real business model in terms of how do we get certain things. We try to think of how we can give to communities,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of entrepreneurs think that way now. They want instant gratification. Care about people and they care about you. It’s a reciprocation.”
For Sonny, innovation boils down to “a consistent and repeated agitation that happens over and over about the status quo You are bothered by it and you start to ask, why is it like that? From that agitation, you start asking, why does it have to be this way?”