Meet the “Sauce Hustler” Who Turned Her Family Recipes into an International Sensation

published Mar 22, 2024
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a feature on lisa tran and tantan cafe
Credit: AT Owned: N; Credit: courtesy of Tân Tân Foods; Design: The Kitchn

The first thing you notice when you meet Lisa Tran is her enthusiasm. The self-described “sauce hustler” has a joyful drive for sharing the fresh, tangy, and sometimes fiery flavors of her Vietnamese sauces with customers. 

At a recent local food makers fair in Portland, Oregon, she stood in front of her vendor’s table (not behind it like most sellers there) with small spoons at the ready, encouraging shoppers to try one of her family’s four sauces — a not too sweet hoisin sauce with subtle licorice overtones, a luxuriously creamy peanut sauce, a piquant vegan “fish” sauce, and a complex chili sauce. Most shoppers were drawn over to her display table after only a brief taste, often exclaiming they didn’t know that hoisin or peanut sauce or chili sauce could taste so good. 

Tran came by her sauce acumen through her family. Born to immigrant parents Vinh Tran and Hongmai Nguyen who left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Tran grew up in her family’s restaurant, Tân Tân Cafe, in Beaverton, Oregon, on the outskirts of Portland. After years of restaurant work, she took her energy and business savvy to the next level when she turned her mother’s scratch condiment recipes into a sauce company with products available as far away as Ireland and Peru. 

We sat down with the savvy entrepreneur to talk about her journey from restaurant kid to specialty food maven in today’s retail landscape. Her story is one that is as inspiring as it is tasty. 

What prompted your mom to make her own hoisin and hot sauce for the restaurant? 

My family’s restaurant celebrated our 25th anniversary last March, and while it’s a lot easier (to) access ready-made sauces these days, back in the ’90s that just wasn’t the case. The sauces available were imported from overseas with ingredients that often overpowered the delicate Vietnamese flavors my mom so carefully cooked. She wanted to enhance, not overwhelm, her food so she made her own hoisin and hot sauce. Our customers really gravitated towards these sauces and would often ask to purchase deli tubs of them to bring home. 

What made you pivot from the family’s restaurant business to putting bottled sauces on grocery store shelves?

In 2016 we were running two Tân Tân Café and Delicatessen locations when I found out I was expecting twins. I quickly realized that I needed to find something more sustainable for a family life than 14-hour workdays. I came back to the idea of customers’ requests for our sauces and thought, let’s bottle them! I naively thought this endeavor would be an easier Monday through Friday, nine-to-five work week.  

How did you learn how to bottle your sauces and get them into grocery stores?

CPG [consumer packaged goods] was an entirely new area of business for me; it was like learning a new language. I was fortunate to be accepted into the Spring 2016 cohort of the “Getting Your Recipe to Market” course taught at the Oregon Small Business Development Center

The “final” for the course was pitching to the buyers of New Seasons Markets [a local grocery chain]. My mom, husband, and I made hoisin-glazed baby back ribs, Mom’s spicy fried rice, and a cold peanut sauce noodle dish using our sauces. It not only showcased the flavors from our hoisin, peanut, and hot chile sauces, but also showed how our sauces could be used by home cooks. 

The buyers loved it and we were the first from the course to land in all 14 of the New Seasons stores at the time. By the end of 2017 we sold over 11,000 bottles of sauce! Fast forward to 2023 and we sold about 450,000 bottles and are now sold internationally in specialty stores as far as Japan. (The best seller — the sweet-salty with just a hint of anise hoisin sauce — is also Lisa’s favorite.)

That’s a lot of sauce! How did you tackle scaling up to tens of thousands of bottles of product?

We work with a wonderful family-owned local co-packer that helps us produce and package our sauces. We’ve built a strong and trusting relationship with them from the very beginning. I love that I always can ask questions about ingredients or stop by anytime because we’re trusted partners. They took a chance on me and believed in our family’s product and for that I am forever grateful.

Do you have a favorite sauce in your line? 

Any good parent would say that they love their sauces the same, but to be honest I love our Vietnamese hoisin sauce the most. This is the sauce where you can compare it directly with the larger brands and really taste the difference in flavor and quality. I believe that sauces should elevate flavors of your ingredients and not overwhelm, and that’s what our hoisin does.

What is the biggest challenge for you right now? 

The [COVID-19] pandemic was an interesting time for us because sauce sales skyrocketed while the restaurant struggled. Post-pandemic, I was a little worried that sauce sales would decrease, but so far so good. I’m so happy that home cooks have embraced Tân Tân and have added our sauces to their pantries! 

As the CEO of a food company, mother of twins, wife, and daughter, do you have any plans of slowing down?

I am a restaurant kid, so I don’t know what slowing down means. But as my kids are getting older and are more interested in our family’s business, I try to involve them as much as possible, which means that a gift box a customer ordered online might just be packed by one of them! I am so very lucky that I have a wonderful and supportive family in my husband, children, parents, sisters, and best friends as well. 

What would you love to see happen for your business in the year of the dragon? Afterall, “Tân Tân” means new beginnings, right? 

I have several other recipes that were put on hold when the pandemic hit, so I have plans to launch them soon. There are also many other retailers and more customers to share Tân Tân with!

Tân Tân Foods sauces are available nationwide at grocery stores including Kroger, H Mart, and Whole Foods Market and online.