Getting to Know: Freshroll
On some level, the origin of Freshroll feels like the setup for a sitcom: two college friends reconnect after years apart, then driven by passion and a desire to do something new, open a restaurant dedicated to making Vietnamese cuisine a bit less intimidating for the uninitiated. Luckily, co-founders Nam Hoang and Chad Piini had a hit on their hands. We sat down with Chad to talk a little bit about their journey.
Born Out of Passion
As a child growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, Nam developed a love for Vietnamese food while experimenting with different ingredients in homemade "freshrolls." Determined to share his appreciation for the flavors and health benefits of Vietnamese food with others, Nam decided to create a restaurant where customers could customize their meals and experience the cuisine for themselves. In December 2011, he left his finance career and used a bank loan, support from his parents, and help from family and friends to open Freshroll in San Francisco.
“This restaurant is my life’s dream. And while I was advised by many not to invest all my eggs in one basket, it would simply have been a conflict of my passion if not every penny and bit of my soul were devoted to sharing this very special part of my culture with the rest of the world,” explains Nam on their website.
Chad, a native of Soledad, California, was friends with Nam since college and decided to pivot from his burgeoning law career to join him in the restaurant venture, using the quality produce of his hometown in the Salinas Valley to help create the amazing dishes at Freshroll. We sat down with Chad to talk a little bit about their journey.
What is a Freshroll?
Freshroll’s menu concepts started out based on many of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cooking. Vietnamese cuisine is known for its balance of flavors and the use of fresh ingredients. Dishes often combine sweet, sour, salty, and spicy elements, and fresh herbs and vegetables, such as mint, basil, cilantro, and lemongrass, are commonly used in Vietnamese dishes.
Freshrolls have their origins in Vietnamese spring rolls, also known as gỏi cuốn. Spring rolls have a rich history that dates back over 1,000 years. It's believed that they originated in China, but were introduced to Vietnam during the Han Dynasty. The rolls were first made with rice paper, which was used to wrap various ingredients such as shrimp, pork, and herbs. They quickly became a popular snack and eventually evolved into the spring rolls we know today, which are typically filled with a variety of vegetables, meat, and noodles, and served with a dipping sauce.
Vietnamese cuisine has a relatively short but significant history in America. Many Vietnamese restaurants have incorporated elements of other Asian cuisines, such as Chinese and Thai, into their menus. In recent years, there has also been a trend towards fusion cuisine, with restaurants combining Vietnamese flavors and techniques with those of other cuisines.
In many ways, Freshroll follows in that tradition. They are a fast-casual concept that allows customers to select from a variety of ingredients to create their own bowls, rolls and sandwiches. At first, they were okay being pigeonholed as a Vietnamese restaurant but Chad explains that they wanted to do more.
“Many of our recipes are family ones so, there's obviously a Vietnamese tilt to it,” said Chad. “But we kind of want to be bigger than that.”
Taking the Concept Further
In order to expand, they wanted to make Freshroll more inviting. To do so, they simplified things. Bahn Mis became FreshSandwiches and FreshBowls to match the branding of their signature Freshrolls and make their menu more inviting to potential customers that might not be familiar with traditional Vietnamese offerings. This made them especially more appealing to tourists frequenting the Bay area and helped underline their straightforward concept.
“If someone accuses us of being Vietnamese Chipotle, that's great. Chipotle's doing a great job, so we're okay with that,” said Chad. “We’re not trying to compete with Turtle Tower or other Vietnamese places out there with a much bigger menu and maybe some things on the menu that you've never heard of before.”
One of Freshroll’s signatures is their selection of sauces and they have maintained the same selection of sauces since their humble beginnings. Their most popular is a secret family recipe peanut sauce. But the Vietnamese vinaigrette, a fish sauce featuring lime and red pepper, is their second most popular.
As for main dishes, pho has been more frequently ordered at Freshroll as well and it’s a clear favorite for Chad who was introduced to it by Nam when he was in college.
“I wish I could have it for breakfast,” said Chad. “The soup is easily, hands-down my favorite”
Overall, It’s this dedication to approachability that has helped Freshroll survive over the last few years. But as with many restaurants who have had to brave the COVID-19 pandemic, it hasn’t been easy. Despite having 5 stores in February of 2020, a lack of customer base forced them to close two of their locations.
“There were definitely doubts. In the fall or winter of 2020 we were like, what are we doing here? There's not much revenue and we're struggling quite a bit.” said Chad. “We just put our heads down and made it work.”
What’s Next for Freshroll?
Freshroll most recently reopened their third location in 2022. Together, Nam and Chad have made Freshroll a success, using only the best ingredients and striving to minimize their carbon footprint by utilizing recyclable and compostable containers whenever possible at the restaurant.
“If you took a graph from March of 2020 until today, things are going up. They're going up very, very, very, very slowly, but things are headed in the right direction,” said Chad.
As the old saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race” and here at CaterCow, we’re happy to be part of Freshroll’s continued growth.