Hayward immigrants bake own success with hard work, perseverance
By Rebecca Parr
HAYWARD — While living in a squalid Malaysian refugee camp, Andrew Ly never dreamed that one day the president of the United States would praise his family for its hard work and success. “I was busy trying to survive,” Ly said as he walked earlier this week through his family’s Sugar Bowl Bakery, where millions of brownie bites, madeleines and palmiers are baked and packaged daily. The Ly family has been named Business Family of the Year by the Hayward Chamber of Commerce, the latest honor of many for the company, including being recognized by President Barack Obama during a 2013 immigration speech in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Ly, his four brothers, sister and parents fled Vietnam in 1978 in a cramped 45-foot boat carrying almost 150 people. They were robbed by pirates as they crossed the sea to Malaysia, where their captain was beaten and the boat turned away at two ports. The desperate refugees landed at a fishing village, knocking a hole in the boat so they would not again be pushed back into the ocean.
The family settled in a refugee camp; Andrew Ly was there nine months, but some of his brothers remained for more than two years. They began to immigrate to San Francisco in 1979. “We did not have any money and did not know any English,” Ly said.
The brothers moved in together and worked at whatever jobs they could find. Pooling their savings, they bought a small doughnut shop called the Sugar Bowl Bakery in San Francisco’s Richmond district in 1984. Everyone in the family helped out at the shop.
“We worked pretty hard. We didn’t take vacations for a long time,” Ly said.
Ly took English classes and then enrolled in college, graduating with a degree in financial accounting from San Francisco State.
The brothers expanded to seven coffee shops, but their enterprise really took off when they capitalized on a shift in the hotel industry. San Francisco hotels began outsourcing their pastry operations in the early 1990s, and the Ly brothers moved quickly to fill the orders.
“We got a small business loan in 1993 to set up a bakery to make doughnuts, croissants, muffins, Danish, other pastries and birthday cakes. We delivered to all the hotels in the Bay Area,” Ly said.
The family opened two plants in San Francisco’s Bayshore area to handle the increased production. They started selling their products under the Sugar Bowl Bakery label or house brands in major retail stores throughout the country, with Costco being the largest. They also ship to Costco stores in Canada and Mexico, and to other retailers in 10 countries.
Ly started looking for a new building to handle the increased production and, after a three-year search, decided on Hayward, buying two buildings in the city’s industrial area in 2010.
“We took a look at many cities, but Hayward seems to have bigger buildings, and a lot of people told us it had a lot more friendly city government,” he said.
City Councilman Greg Jones, who was city manager at the time, helped the family relocate its business in Hayward.
“Our goal was to make the move as simple as possible,” he said. “We made sure the plans were reviewed expeditiously.”
The Ly family is one of the more community-minded Hayward corporations, Jones said.
“They’re wonderful people. They’ve been supportive of the community and the chamber. And they have a focus on hiring locally,” he said.
More than 300 people work at Sugar Bowl Bakery, which operates 20 hours a day for five or six days a week.
The Ly family’s recognition by the president and others has benefited Hayward, Jones said.
“It’s helped us attract other food industry companies,” he said.
Andrew Ly’s brothers are still part owners of the company, but he has been in charge for the past two decades. Some of his nieces and nephews manage the day-to-day operations with him, he said.
“I always try to make sure my brothers trust me. We sometimes have arguments, but we come back together to make sure we get things done and talk it over. Sometimes it’s very hard, that’s for sure,” Ly said, laughing.
His philosophy has remained the same since those early days with their first doughnut shop, he said.
“My goal is to make an improvement every day,” Ly said.
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473 or follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.