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A Hawaiian business eyes the mainland
A Hawaiian business eyes the mainland
Year: 2002
Winner: Thanh Lam
Company: Ba-Le Sandwiches & Bakery in Honolulu, Hawaii

In the five years since he won the SBA award, Thanh Lam has opened only two more Ba-Le sandwich shops. That's because the company's 25 franchise locations in Hawaii - 13 in Honolulu alone - have saturated the local market for Vietnamese sandwiches.

Sales, however, continue to inch up and topped $10 million for 2007 - a 40% increase from 2002's revenue. One key to growth: Ba-Le has built up its roster of wholesale accounts with large restaurants in Hawaii. The company's next move, Lam says, will be to open locations on the mainland, in California and New York.

Lam, a native of Vietnam, arrived in the United States in 1979 after fleeing his country's Communist regime, via a refugee camp in Malaysia. His first venture was a bus service taking customers from San José to the casinos of Reno, Nev., but he was soon lured away to Hawaii by the offer of a single sandwich-shop franchise location in Honolulu. By 1986, Lam had bought his partner out, although he never dreamt he would gain national recognition.

"I never even finished high school in Vietnam," he says. "I didn't think I could win this."

NEXT: A birdbrained business hits $100M

Last updated April 23 2008: 2:06 PM ET

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