Vietnamese immigrant’s tea business booming


In 1988, 11-year-old Chris Nguyen and nine of his closest family members were sent to a Thai refugee camp to await sponsorship for their journey to America. For six months, Chris and his family were packed like sardines in unsanitary conditions in a warehouse like-building. Every day for those six months the family was fed the same two meals of cabbage soup and rice.

Chris was born in Dalat, Vietnam, a city known to many locals as “Le petite Paris,” or Little Paris. “When you go there, you don’t feel like you’re in Vietnam. That’s just how beautiful it is,” Chris said. His family owned and lived near a coffee farm, but with the spread of communism and the ban on foreign trade, Chris and his family struggled to survive.

Chris’ mother tried to escape Dalat three different times.

“I can remember, as a child,” he recalled, “she carried me in her arms through swamp water.” His mother was captured every time, but thankfully with Chris in her arms she was shown more mercy than others. At the age of 10, Chris and his family moved from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam to begin the long process of moving to America.

When he started sixth grade at Starview Elementary in Westminster in 1989, Chris didn’t speak a word of English. The next few years were tough for Chris. Many other kids made fun of him because he couldn’t speak English. He got into many fights, explaining that, “when you come from a third world country, your survival is to punch people in the face.”

Chris survived and graduated a semester early from La Quinta High School in 1996. At the time, Chris’ mother had moved to Texas and he rebelliously decided to stay. At one point he was working three jobs, struggling to stay afloat. In April of 1997, Chris began working for Starbucks. Three months later he was promoted to shift supervisor and in six months was promoted to assistant manager. In 1999 Chris opened his first Starbucks in Fashion Island and was the youngest store manager in the district. From 1999 to 2003 Chris has helped open and staff 14 stores in the district.

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In 2001 Chris graduated from Vangaurd University in Costa Mesa California with a degree in management and that summer he began graduate school at the University of La Verne. Chris cashed out his stock options, which every Starbucks partner is granted yearly, to pay for his education.

After graduating with his MBA and on the verge of becoming a district manager, Chris left Starbucks to start a new business venture as the project manager of a booming construction company. He stayed with the company until 2008 when business slowed due to the economy.

Chris took a year off and travelled around Europe. “I went out to find the answer. And to take a break,” he said. It was in Italy where the idea for Chris’ own business was born.

He returned home from Europe and began working on the concept for a new tea company. For a while, Chris was financially stable enough to survive without work, but needed health benefits. He returned to Starbucks as a shift supervisor, working the minimum 20 hours a week.

Today, Tea Amore is a blossoming full-leaf artisan tea company selling over 250 blends that Chris purchases from around the world. Much of the tea is certified fair trade and organic and comes from only the finest growing regions of the world. It is sold in mom and pop restaurants throughout Long Beach and LA and has a large online sales base.

Chris funds Tea Amore solely with his paycheck from Starbucks, “Opening a business is a gamble. If you slowly invest into a business you tend not to do stupid things. I won’t close my eyes and throw darts at it, slow and steady is the best way.”

Chris took a chance in going back to his roots and starting his own tea company. Now, Tea Amore is steaming with success.

Chris Nyuyen wearing Starbuck's dark green collar shirt, standing and smiling in front of a Starbuck's Coffee.

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