Before she opened Tin Tea, Northfield’s only Vietnamese food store, last year, Chau Truong felt empty and aimless.
Despite her busy life as a student at St. Olaf’s College studying psychology and business, Trung said that taking classes online during COVID-19 restrictions made her upset.
“I love customer service,” the 20-year-old said from her top seat from the parking lot window at Tin Tea. “I love talking, communicating and being creative. I also love solving problems.”
The search for solutions was passed on to Trong, the only daughter of hard-working parents Tung and Lim Trong, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam 30 years ago.
Like her devoted parents, Trung said she may have worked 60-70 hours a week last year in order to start her new job. She has been involved in every aspect of the business, from store design to marketing and social media, creating recipes for hot and cold drinks.
She has created her own recipes for milk tea and fruit tea by watching online tutorials. Recipes for spring rolls, chicken, pork, tofu, and veggie pan mi – a crunchy baguette with paté, pickled vegetables, onions, cilantro, and cilantro – come from her mother.
This isn’t the first time she’s had to balance school and work; During high school, Truong worked as a barista in two different cafes in Faribault.
Supportive Vietnamese Community
In addition to her family, Trung gets a lot of support from her community.
“I know all the Vietnamese business owners in Northfield who run nail salons,” she said. “They have been very supportive. They are regular customers and give helpful advice. They are very entrepreneurial.”
But support comes with a lot of outside opinions.
Trung said she’s heard many customers ask why she didn’t add the famous Vietnamese soup to her list of offerings. Others pressured her to expand her menu and open a restaurant.
Ahead of opening on June 25, 2021, she did a lot of research on current trends in the food and beverage industry, as well as other Vietnamese offerings available around southern Minnesota. Trung said the treasury town of authentic Baan Mei and spring rolls was in Burnsville.
“I love the simplicity of our menu,” she said. The drinks menu at Tin Tea features milk teas, fruit teas, and hot teas, both decaffeinated and decaffeinated, as well as fruit flavors, such as mango, kiwi, elderberry, and dragon fruit. The long list also includes winter melon, white rose milk, lavender milk, and hazelnut.
Juices are also on the drinks menu, and bubble tea is available with tapioca pearls, otherwise known as boba, crystal boba and popped pearls.
Location, location, location
Trung said she likes the location of her store off Jefferson Road because of how well Tin Tea appears from Interstate 3.
“I love all of our parking spots, the view we get from the highway, and the sunsets we see from here,” she said.
People warned her that the location of a mall in the Gaza Strip would not have much foot traffic. This has never been a factor, especially with all the middle school, high school and college students visiting the store in droves.
“We get clients from as far afield as Faribault, Oatuna and Medford,” she said. Once upon a time, Tin Tea had three buses running from Shattuck Street. Mary’s School in Faribault. “Fortunately, the Student Life Coordinator called ahead to let us know, so we had time to prepare the tapioca for bubble tea.”
On some school nights, she said, the front room, which features casual seating and a few high tables, is filled with students. On other nights, there was a line extending outward.
“People love bubble tea,” she said with a smile. “Northfield is the perfect place for a young business like mine. Bubble tea is a growing craze with millennials. I wanted to jump on it before anyone else.”
Running a full-time company, while you are a full-time undergraduate student, has been Truong’s endearing job.
“I couldn’t have done it without my family and friends and my boyfriend (Thor Killen),” she said.
As the owner and general manager of Tin Tea, Truong credits her parents for teaching her how to communicate her love through food.
“I owe them everything,” she said of Tong William. “I watched them work every second to improve the lives of their children.”
The store is named after Tin, Truong’s 13-year-old brother.
“I wasn’t supposed to do this during college,” Trung said. “But when we found the place, it was a rush. I had a conversation with my family about running a business while expanding my education, and we went from there.”
With initial help from her parents to fund the start-up, she now has nine employees, half of whom know how to prepare tapioca pearls, which require an hour and a half of cooking in boiling water.
“We haven’t had any kitchen accidents,” she said proudly.
The Trung family left Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, for the United States 30 years ago. Tong came first, followed by Lim and his baby Dat four years later. The family settled in Faribault, where Tong worked a difficult job at the factory. Zhao Wuten was born here.
Trung said she loves Vietnamese food.
“The food is very healthy with all the fresh vegetables; it’s very good and very cheap,” she said. “It’s the food that connects me to my culture.”
With her grandparents, aunts, cousins and uncles still living in Vietnam, she visited the South Asian country at least four times in her young life. She is planning to spend her winter vacation from Saint Olaf in Vietnam with her family members.
Trong will begin her junior year at St. Olaf’s College this fall. She is a psychology major with a management focus.
“I love my teachers and peers,” she said.
Trung graduated in 2020 from Faribault High School, was a class valedictorian, class president, captain of the tennis team, math team, science team, and president of the National Honor Society.
Besides her family, Truong credits the women in the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce who guided her in every aspect of running her own business.
A few weeks ago, Chamber members, community members, family and friends watched Trung cutting the ribbon in front of her work with oversized ceremonial scissors.
“I felt very proud of myself that the company had such an overall success,” she said. “It was great to share that moment with my crew and family.”