The young man and the sea
In 2012, Nguyen Pham moved the Sunh Fish Company out of a tiny retail grocery space into a 17,500-square foot Midtown warehouse, turning the family business into a destination for both local restaurants, foodies and home cooks
Every day after work, Nguyen Pham comes home smelling like fish.
His wife Sheree hates it, says the Sunh Fish Company owner. It wouldn’t be as bad if she ate fish, but she’s more of a “meat-and-potatoes” kind of gal. So, sometimes she asks him to change clothes as soon as he gets home.
“It’s unavoidable: I smell like fish even if I barely touch two fish,” says Pham. “Once I’m in my element, I start smelling like the sea.”
Seafood is certainly his element. On any given day, Pham phones a supplier in Japan or Hawaii to bid on a certain item, recommends a fish to a local chef or packs up boxes for a shipment. He jokes that he now grows scales instead of skin. But still—after taking over the business his parents started, investing his life savings into it and spending more than a year renovating its new location—he’s never been more serious about wanting Sunh Fish to succeed.
Pham, now 33, started smelling like fish as a toddler. His parents, Suong and Nho, entered the seafood business in the early ’80s while they lived in a housing project in the Dos Rios Triangle neighborhood near Loaves & Fishes. Several times a week, they loaded young Nguyen into their van between 3 and 4 a.m., picked up fish from San Francisco and delivered it to customers in Sacramento. Then, they dropped their son off at preschool. On Sundays, Suong and Nho—who met in a Philippine refugee camp after emigrating from war-torn Vietnam in ’78—operated a produce stand at the Central Farmers Market on Eighth and W streets.
In 1985, they moved their seafood business into a small rented space inside the Asian Food Center on Broadway, and named it Sunh Fish, a combination of the first two letters of each of their first names. Longtime customers recall a 6- or 7-year-old Nguyen standing on a box behind the counter, ringing up their purchases. Despite Suong and Nho’s reservations, Nguyen continued working there off and on throughout the years—even putting in a full-time stint as he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from UC Davis. “[My parents] always tried to push me away from [the business],” says Pham. “They pushed me to go to college [and] pick a profession where I got weekends off.”
But if he hadn’t stepped in, he says, his parents wouldn’t have had any weekends off themselves. There was another problem, too: Some customers couldn’t come to terms with the idea of shopping at an Asian grocery store for quality seafood. Sometimes they stayed away because they associated his family’s store with the bargain produce and groceries offered in some Asian stores, says Pham.
“Towards the last years of being inside that Asian store, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” he says. “I hated going to work there every day. I loved what I did, but I couldn’t stand being in that confined space.”
Still, after 27 years inside Asian Food Center, the family company had managed to stay afloat through word-of-mouth reputation and selling wholesale seafood products to local restaurants. This would prove invaluable, as Pham’s dad started gradually handing over the business to his son in 2002. Eventually, the younger Pham decided to move Sunh Fish into a larger building.
Although it relocated only a few blocks from Asian Food Center, Pham says it still seemed a risky move at the time. In 2010, he dipped into his savings and began a year-and-a-half-long, $2 million renovation of a building in Midtown. The vacant 17,500-square-foot warehouse formerly housed the Verge Gallery & Studio Project (now Verge Center for the Arts), and an auto-parts store before that.
The store reopened in April with a bevy of new features: a loading dock for its six delivery vehicles, several offices, a break room, a handful of walk-in freezers, wooden live-seafood bins, washing and cutting stations, and a large storefront into which Pham still hopes to lure a high-quality meat vendor. The warehouse, he says, was styled to feel like a high-end East Coast-style seafood market.
From here—as it did at the old location—the family still ships fish to many local sushi restaurants, including Midtown’s Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine and Arden Arcade’s Sushi Hook. But it has also expanded its clientele, adding high-end American restaurants—such as Midtown’s Mulvaney’s Building & Loan and Del Paso Heights’ Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar—to its distribution list. Pham says he now ships to approximately 115 restaurants, all in the Sacramento area.
“Without [my parents], I wouldn’t be able to do [any] of this,” he says. “I just kept their formula and modernized it—did it in a way where it appeals to more people, to better restaurants.”
His parents’ formula included valuing quality and customer service over finding larger clients or increasing marketing efforts. When he took over the store, his parents insisted he agree to keep these ideals intact. As such, Pham recently turned down a deal with a school district because he didn’t want his products becoming “high-quality fish sticks.”
This philosophy may seem anti-business, but it’s helped Sunh Fish maintain a closer relationship with local restaurants.
“It’s still really personal,” says Ryan Rose, executive chef at Zocalo. “Everything still goes through him, and even though he has a lot of guys who work for him, he still knows everything that’s going on.”
Today, the bulk of Sunh Fish’s business still comes from local restaurants. Chefs often walk freely in and out of the store’s freezers to handpick orders.
“It’s a lot of fun to go down there and talk to the guys about what’s good,” says Adam Pechal of Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en.
The biggest shift since Sunh Fish’s move, however, is the fact that it now attracts more retail customers—even if the store resembles a gigantic freezer. There’s no décor, no shopping carts and definitely no play area for the kids.
But these aren’t normal customers. Some might even call them foodies. And they “get it,” says Pham. They’re happy to put up with the cold and spend a little more on seafood. They hear about the quality and line up to purchase fish, lobster, crab, scallops, oysters and caviar—from more than 100 sources spanning the globe (European fish, in particular, is popular these days). All-day-long lines on Christmas and New Year’s eves almost “brought tears,” says Pham.
There are some things, though, that will always remain the same.
Although Pham has now taken the lead role, Sunh Fish is still a family affair. His dad regularly helps out at the store (he’s never really fully let go of it, says Pham), and Mom and Dad both help watch the grandkids. Pham and Sheree, a full-time mom, have four kids—including infant twins.
“My parents finally accepted [and are] proud of the fact that I did this because … coming into a country and not speaking the language, having to grow up in poverty—all those barriers kept them from getting their own space,” says Pham. “Now that we did it, my mom [says] this is the best she’s ever seen the company, [and] this is the most fulfilled she’s ever been.”