Pho Sure

By Mary K. Zajac

photo of Karen Cheng

Karen Cheng ’94, co-founder of Star Anise Foods [Photo: Peter Lemieux]

photo of Karen Cheng

Karen Cheng ’94, co-founder of Star Anise Foods [Photo: Peter Lemieux]

How far is the distance between finance and pho? For Karen Cheng ’94, about four years and 7,500 miles.

In 2005, the Wisconsin native was a decade into a career in finance and living and working in Asia. Cheng was beginning to think about what might be the next professional direction her life would take when she met Thao Nguyen on a hiking trip in Hong Kong. The two women became fast friends, and over the next few years, brainstormed long distance about leaving their respective careers and starting a business together. In 2009, Cheng, now based in San Francisco, called Nguyen, a native of Vietnam who was living in Sydney, with the idea for making healthy pho noodles based on Nguyen’s grandparents’ recipe.

“I had always loved food,” says Cheng, who points to a working trip to Vietnam in 2007 as planting the seed for her new business.

In Saigon, Cheng walked down alleys and back streets discovering stall after stall of intoxicating food. “You would just smell as you go,” Cheng recalls. She was particularly drawn to pho, the traditional Vietnamese dish of bone broth coupled with herbs, meat, and noodles. “It was fresh, delicious, and so simple,” Cheng says, “And the combination of star anise and Saigon cinnamon was super pungent. It just permeated everything.”

The women named their new company Star Anise Foods, as a nod to one of the primary ingredients in pho. And not long after the fateful phone call, Cheng, who was six months pregnant with her first child, and Nguyen, a third generation expert pho maker, spent seven weeks in Saigon meeting with potential suppliers and perfecting their first product: Happy Pho, a do-it-yourself soup mix with no artificial flavors or preservatives that home chefs could create in their kitchen in under five minutes. Their new career as food entrepreneurs was launched.

According to Cheng, Star Anise Foods is the only company making authentic Vietnamese dishes that are gluten-free, non-GMO (food that is made from genetically modified organisms), vegan, and shelf-stable. The Northern California regional office of Whole Foods Market was the first client to pick up the product. Today, nearly a dozen retailers, such as Wegman’s, Mom’s Organic Markets, and Publix, carry Star Anise Food products, and you’ll often find Cheng doing in-store demos of the company’s growing product line which includes noodles, brown rice spring roll wrappers, and Vietnamese simmer sauces.

Starting a business—especially one based in three continents—is a risk, Cheng admits, but she believes in serendipity and taking chances. Not quite 20 years ago, Cheng and her family piled into the car and left her hometown of River Hills, Wisconsin, for an East Coast college tour. Her father missed the exit for Georgetown, got lost on the Beltway, and somehow ended up at Johns Hopkins. No one in her family knew much about the university. Cheng left Baltimore smitten. She applied to only one college—Hopkins—and early admission at that.

In 2003, Cheng, an international studies major, established a scholarship for students like her younger self: in need of financial aid, possessed of a “can do” attitude, an interest in international cultures and arts, and the desire to pursue a non-traditional career. Sounds like the recipe for another successful food entrepreneur.