They met over chicken wings and a game of pool more than 15 years ago, two men whose families had fled war-torn countries and wound up in Minnesota chasing the American dream.
Cheng Lor was whisked out of Cambodia in the thick of the night as a toddler, eventually escaping the killing fields of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
Binh Le left Vietnam aboard a dangerously overcrowded fishing boat when he was 7, clinging to family members against typhoon waves in the South China Sea.
Now business partners, the longtime friends are at the helm of a company that embodies their shared history. Each arrived in America poor, scared and hungry. They graduated from college, landed good-paying corporate jobs and looked after their parents, who had risked so much to find a safe haven.
At the duo’s airport concessions company, Aero Service Group, family needs are as important as profits, the men say, and workers facing hard times don’t automatically get shown the door.
“We’ve been to that food shelf and we’ve been in public housing — there is no luxury there,” said Lor, 41, of their family-centric business.
It’s an approach that seems to be working. Aero Service Group has 170 employees at airport hubs in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Baltimore-Washington and Des Moines. Under licensing agreements, Aero’s brands range from quick-serve spots such as Arby’s and Ben & Jerry’s to sit-down Mexican and Italian restaurants and a brewpub.
Among Aero’s Minnesota properties is Cocina del Barrio, the popular Terminal 2 tequila bar and restaurant, which Aero owns and operates independent of the local restaurant chain.
Revenue at Aero has quadrupled in the past five years, Lor said, and the company is bidding on a new concept at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s Terminal 1 this summer.
In an industry not known for its large margins or high salaries, Lor and Le believe they can make their family-focused model work. Like many immigrants, they worked in restaurants and understand the industry’s demands.
“Both of us lived through a period where we were just trying not to starve to death or get shot,” Lor said. “It puts life in perspective. Risks in business? They aren’t so overwhelming.”
Success by accident
Lor swore he’d never go back into the food service business, eyeing the corporate world of suits and ties instead.
His father had been a merchant in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 after five years of civil war. On a moonless night in 1977, Lor and his parents made a break for Thailand, setting off a four-year odyssey doing slave labor and moving to various refugee camps, where his infant sister died of typhoid.
After the family arrived in the United States, Lor’s parents found work at restaurants, as did Lor, whose first job was as a cashier and busboy at Peking Garden in St. Paul. His parents eventually opened their own restaurants, and Lor poured all of his time and earnings into that.
Seeking a different path, he studied accounting in college, went to law school and landed a job that he enjoyed, as a corporate attorney with Lindquist & Vennum.
In 2005, Lor began thinking of ways to set his parents up for retirement. He pursued an airport-based restaurant because it had built-in traffic and his parents wouldn’t need to be there every day.
To his surprise, Lor himself was energized by the management side of restaurant work, saying it gave him a sense of purpose and the ability to lift up the lives of others.
“Aero is a company by accident,” said Lor, who left the law firm to focus on Aero full time. “But it’s fueled by the story of my parents — their hard life and their courage.”
War and peace
When Le joined Aero in 2008, he and Lor became an able team.
Lor, the accountant and lawyer, excels at the nuts and bolts of financing. Le, 40, an entrepreneur who runs several other Twin Cities area businesses, brings a knack for market analysis and business concepts. His electric smile and creative mind complement Lor’s orderly and low-key approach.
Both Le and Lor speak of a debt they owe their parents that is without bounds.
Le’s father fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War, and the family left their small fishing village in a boat under cover of darkness. Like Lor, Le and his family saw war, famine, cruelty and death as they moved through refugee camps on their way to America.
“We lost everything,” said Le, whose parents live with him, his wife and 11-year-old son. “We had to beg for food. We didn’t know what we would eat the next day.”
When Le sees people in need holding signs at highways or downtown streets, he reaches into his wallet.
“You may think you know what they are going to do with that money — but you really don’t,” Le said.
That same ethic carries to Aero, which is the smallest airport business but one of the largest contributors to an American Cancer Society fundraiser each year, Lor said.
The company also financially supports the Minnesota Parkinson Foundation and a fund that helps women with breast cancer pay bills and get household help while they undergo treatment. Lor has served on several boards serving the Southeast Asian community and is a board member of the North Memorial Foundation.
Roots, never forgotten
To Lawrance Williams, his bosses’ mission to “enrich the lives” of their employees is more than lip service.
Williams was homeless and in legal trouble when he interviewed for a job as a dishwasher at Barrio two years ago.
“He was jumping from shelter to shelter, and in good weather, sleeping outside,” said Aero general manager Robb Siever.
Siever gave Williams bus money to get to work, and bought him new jeans, a backpack and a lock to prevent his few worldly possessions from getting stolen. The manager wrote letters to judges pleading for leniency, highlighting Williams’ work ethic and honest attempts to steady his life.
Williams has since worked his way up from a $9-an-hour dishwasher to prep cook, boosting his income by a third. He has had stable housing for more than a year.
“I’m really grateful they put up with everything I put them through,” said Williams, 24, his voice catching with emotion. “They stood by me. A normal employer would have fired me by now.”
Lor called Williams “a cherished employee.”
“These are stories that make us get up in the morning,” he said. “Because our general manager gave him a chance, he turned his life around.”
Aero offers health insurance, paid vacations, sick and bereavement pay and time-and-a-half wages for working holidays. The company subsidizes nearly 75 percent of transit fees, so that workers such as Williams pay just $20 a month for a bus card. Kitchen staffers get free meals, while better-compensated servers and bartenders receive significant discounts.
“They look at the bottom line,” Siever said of Lor and Le, “but they want to hire good people and treat them well.”
Annual turnover is well below the industry standard of 65 percent, Siever said.
Flexible staffing allows Aero employees to tend to important family matters, said Bulmaro “Bul” Sanchez, a gregarious waiter at Barrio who emigrated from Mexico.
“Some people come to this country, have a little success and forget where they came from,” he said. “Not these guys.”
Sanchez’s mother is the last of his relatives remaining in his hometown of Oaxaca, and he juggles annual visits to see her while raising three school-age children in the United States. The owners and managers know the names of his children and often ask how they are doing in school and sports.
“They don’t look at us as employees,” Sanchez said, “but as part of the family.”
At a time when immigration issues remain a political hot button, Lor and Le are grateful that the United States provided them refuge and programs that helped them afford food, shelter and an education when they arrived.
Their business, Lor said, is an “opportunity to pay it forward.”
“This is our country,” he said. “We want to give back to it and give the opportunity to others that has been provided to us.”