Bringing Asia To The Masses: Heather Nguyen Is Sharing Her Culture By Curating Shopping Centers
As Tim Ho Wan General Manager David Li hurried out the door of the dim sum chain's location in the Katy Grand retail development, he jokingly berated Heather Nguyen for not saying goodbye, then suggested another site for a restaurant in the Houston area.
“No, that’s too close,” Nguyen told him. “It wouldn’t work.”
Li listened. After all, Nguyen was the person who managed to convince Tim Ho Wan to open restaurants in Texas in the first place. Called the best dim sum in Houston by the Houston Chronicle, the chain was founded in Hong Kong and, outside of Katy, has U.S. outposts only in California, New York and Hawaii. In China, the restaurant touts itself as the most affordable restaurant with a Michelin star.
Nguyen, a development partner for NewQuest Properties, leads the firm's Asia-Pacific retail group and is something of an expert when it comes to location.
A 23-year veteran at NewQuest, a privately owned firm with a $2.3B retail and mixed-use portfolio throughout Texas, Louisiana, Arizona and Georgia, Nguyen was tapped to lead the group in 2020 to build on the company's redevelopment of Carrollton Town Center, a 150K SF Asian-business-anchored retail center in north Dallas.
Today, NewQuest has five Asian-anchored shopping centers in three states and more on the way. Nguyen has focused on developing Asian centers for about a decade.
Nguyen takes her time to choose, recruit and curate the right businesses for these centers. Tim Ho Wan is an example.
“We spent several years recruiting them, going to Asia to try their restaurants, meeting with the founders," Nguyen said. "We’re really happy we were able to bring them out to Katy.”
Part of Nguyen's mission is to recruit popular Asian businesses to suburban markets like Katy and Frisco. While large cities typically have an Asian part of town, Nguyen is focused on helping them open in more mainstream locations, near major movie theaters, growing subdivisions and top school districts.
Tim Ho Wan shares a 19K SF building at Katy Grand with several Asian-inspired businesses Nguyen brought together, including Korean dessert shop SomiSomi Soft Serve & Taiyaki, Japanese book and gift store Kinokuniya, Taiwanese chain 85°C Bakery Cafe and Kura Revolving Sushi Bar.
People sometimes ask her, why Katy?
“[Katy] is where the growth is,” Nguyen said. “This is such a regional location, I feel like we can capture people who are inside the Memorial Area, Cypress, Katy, even Sugar Land coming up the Grand Parkway. It’s just a really easy location for people to meet at.”
Walking through several of the businesses last week, Nguyen chatted with the managers and owners who seem to know her well. At The Alley, a tea and boba shop, she asked if they were ready for their next Houston location.
That new location will be at West on West at 12220 Westheimer Road. The 10-acre, 90K SF center formerly known as Pavilion Center will be anchored by 99 Ranch Market, the country’s largest gourmet Asian supermarket chain, according to NewQuest. It is slated to open late this year. Other tenants include Gen Korean BBQ Houston and Teso Life, a popular Japanese retailer.
“We are almost 100% leased in that center,” Nguyen said. “It’s one of the first centers that I have leased up before the center opens, and 100% of the tenants we have in there are recruited.”
Nguyen's role as a location expert and curator of Asian businesses came naturally. Her family immigrated from Vietnam to New Orleans when she was just a month old. While working a hard labor job and with seven kids at home, Nguyen’s father began looking in the dumpsters near Chinese and Thai restaurants to see where they were getting their ingredients.
Using that as inspiration, he started a small grocery store to sell those ingredients. The family moved to Houston in 1979 and opened two grocery stores, including one at Vietnam Plaza in Midtown. Eventually Nguyen’s parents got into the import and export business, and the Vietnamese businesses moved out of Midtown in the early 2000s.
But Nguyen inherited an entrepreneurial spirit from her father. Seeing that kids in her children’s generation find Asian businesses more approachable when they are in more mainstream shopping centers, she made it her job to bring them there.
“Everywhere you go in the country, there's always a Little Chinatown. It's great, because it's very ‘first generation.’ You come in and you can really experience the authenticity,” she said. “What I realized is, the younger Asian generation here, they're looking for something different. They want something more mainstream, more approachable. And so I started studying that.”
It was a market that wasn’t served well, Nguyen said.
“I don't want that next generation to lose that,” she said. “So how do we modernize so that our children will continue to enjoy and appreciate this culture that is so beautiful?”
Jay Sears, a co-founder and managing partner of NewQuest, saw special qualities in Nguyen within 30 seconds of meeting her, he said.
“She's built really strong relationships with tenants, investors, landlords and so forth in the business that she's carried with her for 20-plus years,” Sears said. “She just continues to build a strong business around those relationships.”
As one example, Sears pointed to Nguyen's strong relationship with 99 Ranch Market, noting he and Nguyen had dinner with its CEO this week.
“Heather's curated all these incredible restaurants, Asian concepts, around 99 Ranch,” he said. “It's really created something very, very novel in our business."
When NewQuest bought Carrollton Town Center, it was close to being dilapidated. It was anchored by a struggling Hobby Lobby and most businesses were on two-month leases, Nguyen said. She wanted to fill it with Asian businesses, but had many people and businesses tell her no, which nearly made her give up.
Sears was an early believer.
“She was thinking about all of her other partners and she didn't want to let us down from a financial standpoint,” Sears said. “And I said ‘No, no, no. This is about a longer-term vision. You got this.’ And she did. Carrollton turned out to be just amazingly successful.”
Placer.ai found that the center's 99 Ranch Market was the top-visited 99 Ranch Market in Texas from April 2022 to March 2023. It had 3.1 million visits in 2022.
People tend to visit Carrollton Town Center happy to eat at whichever restaurant has the shortest wait time, Nguyen said. It is a struggle to find parking most nights.
“I love watching businesses succeed,” Nguyen said. “That’s the reward.”
Sears enjoys seeing Nguyen’s success.
“My greatest joy is to not only watch but participate with Heather and our other great folks to help them flourish,” he said.
While it was difficult to convince some Asian businesses to come to Texas years ago, with many preferring to expand on the East or West coasts, Nguyen said they now see the state in a new light, appreciating its business-friendliness and the fact that it remained largely open during the pandemic.
Teso Life opened its first location outside of New York in Carrollton. The Alley sorts its locations into West Coast, East Coast, Hawaii and Texas, the latter category only including its Katy Grand location.
“People say ‘Oh, you have to be in an Asian area,'" Nguyen said. "No. I would love to capture the Asian audience, but I think that's going to come wherever we are."