Food & Drink

Immigrant success story behind United Bakery in West Sacramento

Production worker Gilberto Castro adds ingredients into a large mixing bowl at United Bakery in West Sacramento earlier this month. The business has plans to move to a larger facility.
Production worker Gilberto Castro adds ingredients into a large mixing bowl at United Bakery in West Sacramento earlier this month. The business has plans to move to a larger facility. rbenton@sacbee.com

When Dinh Nguy walked into David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods sometime in 1991, he brought with him samples of breadsticks from his fledgling company, United Bakery.

The wine shop in the upscale Pavilions shopping center already enjoyed a prestigious reputation, and Nguy had high hopes of making it his first customer. But there was just one problem.

“We don’t know nothing,” Nguy said with a laugh, recalling those early days when his “bakery” was little more than a 20-quart mixer and an oven in a 900-square-foot space at a rundown shopping center in Rancho Cordova. “We don’t know where to get supplies. We don’t know how to get customers.”

Working alone and learning through trial and error, Nguy (pronounced “wee”) had created Italian-style Grissini breadsticks, pencil-thin and appealingly crisp. He would take that skill and, with an exhausting work ethic and a drive to please his customers, turn United Bakery into a booming business that sells breadsticks and other breads throughout much of the United States and parts of Canada. Overwhelmed in its current facility, United Bakery just went into escrow on a 65,000-square-foot building in the industrial section of West Sacramento.

“I had no knowledge of him. We had a lot of people bringing products through the door and trying to get them in the case,” said David Berkley in a recent interview. “The thing that immediately impressed us was when I tasted the breadstick, it was crunchy and crisp. When I tasted it the next day, it was still crunchy. I thought, ‘There’s a really nice market for this.’ 

Indeed there was. Nguy sold 20 pounds of breadsticks a week to Berkley in those early days, and kept scouring the region for more customers. He worked 16 hours a day. He made plenty of mistakes, but never the same one twice. Nguy had already come so far. In 1979, he left Vietnam at age 11, hustled onto a refugee boat by his mother. Sick and frightened, he traveled with his uncle and older brother on a craft crammed with more than a thousand others. They landed in San Francisco, and the three lived in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room.

“That makes him a strong person. He doesn’t give up easily,” said his wife, Mina Szeto (pronounced Cee-tow), who moved from China to the United States as a child. The two met in school and have been married since they were teenagers.

When I tasted it the next day, it was still crunchy. I thought, ‘There’s a really nice market for this.’

David Berkley, former owner of David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods

Nguy struggled with his new language and performed poorly in school. He eventually landed a job in a bakery, often working extra shifts. In 1990, he and his young wife moved to Sacramento. Nguy set up United Bakery on a shoestring budget and started making breadsticks.

“Most of them are really bland. I try them all and I said, ‘We could make a lot better,’ ” Nguy said. He decided to focus on quality ingredients and time-honored baking practices, going without preservatives and additives common in most grocery-store bread. He took the same approach with sourdough loaves and rolls.

Berkley was so struck by the quality of the breadsticks that he quickly commissioned a custom-made box to display them next to the deli. The breadsticks were so tasty and crunchy, customers found them irresistible.

“It got to a point where customers would come in and moms would have their kids with them, and I would pass out the breadsticks to the kids. I became ‘the breadstick man.’ That was my title,” Berkley said. “In the Christmas season, it was candy canes, and the rest of the year it was breadsticks.”

In a couple of years, Nguy outgrew the building and moved to a 2,600-square-foot space nearby. In five more years, business continued to expand and United Bakery relocated to a 9,500-square-foot property in West Sacramento. By then, his wife had left her job at the call center for AAA Insurance and became chief financial officer of the business.

Nguy took on more customers, driving to the Bay Area at 3 a.m. to drop off samples or fill orders. When he landed a Whole Foods account there, he was ready to expand again. Five years ago, they moved into their current 28,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility after receiving an $850,000 business loan from the city of West Sacramento. The bakery recently sold its old building to another local success story, Chando’s Tacos, which will use the facility for a restaurant and business headquarters.

The breadsticks, sourdough bread and other United Bakery products can be found throughout Sacramento and much of the country, including 200 Sprouts grocery stores, Winco stores and many others, along with restaurants.

“Obviously, it has been a big success,” said West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. “I’m a huge fan of them. We’ve made some good bets with the business loan program and some not-so-good ones. They’re definitely one of the good bets.”

We’ve made some good bets with the business loan program and some not-so-good ones. They’re definitely one of the good bets.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon

When United landed a huge private label account – contractually, Nguy is not at liberty to say from whom – the bakery reached capacity once again and could not take on new business. In fact, the private label company inspected the building and said it needed to be much larger. That prompted United to start looking for a new space, one that will have the latest high-tech ovens as well as many green features, including solar power and geothermal heating and cooling. Moving from one location to the other is so complex that it’s expected to take 18 to 24 months, Nguy said.

If you’re wondering about the couple’s secret to success, you may not like the answer: There really is no secret. Indeed, husband and wife have different roles in the business. He oversees the baking and handles sales, she deals with the money. When asked to explain how United Bakery is doing so well, they give different but complementary answers.

“When you fall down again, you get up again,” said Szeto. “Don’t look back and keep going. Don’t make the same mistake again. Don’t blame other people. The worst thing in America is we love to turn on the TV and see someone’s sad story. Yes, it may be sad, but get over it.”

“I want to make a quality product that people enjoy. I want people to be happy. That’s what drives me. It’s not the money,” Nguy said.

“Work hard, work smart and be honest. After 25 years, we still can’t wait to get to work every morning. People enjoy our product. That’s very important to me.”

Nguy says the most important traits of his bread are quality and consistency. The first loaf has to be identical to the hundredth loaf. The taste has to be clean and natural, the texture fresh and tender.

After 25 years, we still can’t wait to get to work every morning. People enjoy our product. That’s very important to me.

Dinh Nguy, founder of United Bakery in West Sacramento

“When you make a couple of loaves, it’s easy. When you make 10,000 or more, that’s a lot of challenges every day.”

Despite their success, the couple doesn’t give off any signs of wealth. Nguy drives a 2003 Toyota Tacoma pickup, Szeto a 14-year-old Lexus. Their house in Carmichael, he says, is “a decent house.”

Asked what their dream purchase might be or where they might go on a dream vacation and you get a startling answer. Vacation? They’ve never taken one. One of their daughters joined the Navy so her parents wouldn’t owe money for college. The other daughter is an aspiring fashion designer in Los Angeles.

“You can’t help but admire their work ethic. They’re kicking butt,” said Lisandro “Chando” Madrigal, who negotiated with the couple when he bought their building. But Madrigal says the all-work mindset is not for everybody.

“You have to balance it. You have to have a life. I’ve got four children and I’m not going to be married to the business,” Madrigal added.

To the typical visitor, the current bakery looks cavernous, 28,000 square feet of built-out warehouse space replete with huge, powerful mixers that handle 200 pounds of dough at a time, large walk-in refrigerators, scores of rack ovens that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and teams of employees working shifts from 3:30 a.m. to midnight. United Bakery now employs 40 people, Nguy said.

But he explained that the business is in a holding pattern until it moves.

“We’re already maxed out here. We can’t take on any new customers,” he said as he walked through the bakery, where employees were mixing and shaping bread dough.

Berkley, who sold his business several years ago, was pleased to hear about Nguy’s success.

“I am thrilled that he has been so successful and I’m thrilled that his hard work, his diligence and his tenacity have paid off,” Berkley said. “I’m thrilled that he remembers our doing business together and I’m very proud to be his first customer.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @blarob

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