Weather can make or break an ice cream vendor's best-laid plans, and just after sunset on an unseasonably cool June evening is just about the last time you'd expect throngs of people to go out in search of cold food. Nonetheless, hundreds of people are crowding a tiny strip mall in Tustin just across the street from Gen Korean BBQ House on Newport Avenue. Their destination: an ice cream shop.
Multiple cars circle the parking lot, vying for one of the 80-something spaces, stalking people as they walk away from the thin line of shops. The drone of the crowd just a few dozen feet away is occasionally broken by revving engines from one of the multiple European sport cars in attendance.
After a few minutes, I finally find a spot on the very outskirts of the lot. When I reach the crowd gathered in front of the shop, one of the ice cream men, dressed in black Nikes, burgundy pants and a black T-shirt emblazoned with stark white, slender typeface, greets me warmly, gripping my hand. “Thanks for coming,” says Andy Nguyen, smiling through every word. “There's some people you should meet.”
The 30-year-old, his hair cropped on the sides and slicked back à la an undercut, glides to the end of the winding line of friends and family so he can introduce me to Danny Park, the LA-based organizer behind the K-Town Night Market and OC Block Party. There's also Ted Kim, co-owner of The Great Food Truck Race Season 3 winner Seoul Sausage, stopping by before continuing on to another engagement. Among the crowd are also fashion bloggers and streetwear mavens, as well as the man who's going to bring East Coast fave Halal Guys to Orange County. They're all smiling and mingling, taking photos they'll post on Instagram.
A sizable slice of the Southern California Asian-American cultural illuminati is at the grand opening of the third outpost of Afters Ice Cream, the chic parlor known for its sharp design, streetwear aesthetics and ubiquitous Milky Bun, a warm doughnut bursting with your choice of ice cream and toppings. Cloudy skies and wintery weather be damned, hundreds of doughnuts and pounds of ice cream will be served tonight.
It hasn't even been 18 months since the first Afters Ice Cream opened next to a Hallmark store in a random Fountain Valley plaza. But co-owners Nguyen and Scott Nghiem already own the dessert game in Southern California, from Little Saigon to Coachella. And if the indefatigable duo have their way, the rest of America–even the world!–will soon succumb to the hot-cold-sugary allure of their genius sweets.
Nghiem and Nguyen have known each other since second grade, but their families have known one another as long as either can remember. Recalling the exact details of how they met or how their group of nine friends formed requires in-depth discussion.
“I went to preschool with Scott's cousin,” Nguyen says a little less than a month after the Tustin grand opening.
He and Nghiem are currently sitting outside of their Fountain Valley store. It's a few hours past noon, and it's set to be a hot and humid day. In the background, families shuffle into and out of Afters.
“No. We didn't go to preschool; you went to kindergarten together,” interjects Nghiem, thinking back to ages 5 and 6. “I transferred from Carrillo to Susan B. Anthony [Elementary School in Westminster]. I don't know why. . . . Oh! My cousin, his mom wanted to babysit all of us together, so my parents made me transfer for the sake of ease,” he says, laughing.
The pair went through school together, eventually graduating from Westminster's La Quinta High School. Instead of working on projects or schoolwork, they got in trouble. “We schemed together,” Nguyen says, smiling wryly.
“Yeah, scheming,” Nghiem agrees. “We got in a lot of trouble when we were kids.”
“Shoplifting,” Nguyen and Nghiem say, nearly simultaneously.
“Just kid stuff,” Nghiem clarifies. “We were rebelling because Asian culture is so uptight. School was never for us. We were never scholars or anything; we were just trying to find our own way.”
The pair work off each other effortlessly. During lunch earlier that day at a new sushi bar in the same plaza as their Fountain Valley location, they took pictures of each other's plates without so much as a shared word. Afterward, they briefly remarked on how they had been interested in renting the space, but the business had been sold before it even closed. It would've been perfect for a poke spot, they thought.
After high school, the pair tried making it on their own, away from the other. Nghiem went to Cal State Fullerton to study marketing; he operated side businesses while working toward his degree, which he got to please his parents. “College was always a backup plan,” Nghiem says. “Since I had been so bad my whole life, this was the one thing I could do for my parents, getting my degree, so I studied whatever I could apply to any kind of business. At the time, I had two or three other businesses already–I was manufacturing car exhausts in China, I was in the early stages of flipping real estate–so it was painstaking seeing the amount of time I spent in school that I could've put toward the businesses.”
In the meantime, Nguyen spent a year and a half at OCC before dropping out to briefly work in real estate. “At that time, I was sharing office space with a friend who was doing his own clothing brand, and I wanted to invest in his next project,” he says. “He told me he didn't think I was ready for it. So I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to start my own clothing brand.' I was always interested in clothing, and it was a lot more fun than doing real estate. I didn't do real estate because I liked it; I did it because it paid well.”
Despite growing pains and early issues with cash flow, production, distribution and shipping, the clothing line took off. IMKing sold in stores across the world, becoming de facto uniforms for a generation of hip-hop-heads.
Within a few years, Nghiem started a shoe company, THOROCRAFT. “Streetwear was really trending, so that's why, instead of doing another streetwear brand, competing with my own friends, I went into footwear,” Nghiem says. “It was the cool thing to do at the time. I didn't want to do another clothing brand. That'd be awkward.”
Despite the similarities in their stories, Nguyen and Nghiem, consumed by business, had grown apart. In 2012, Nghiem stepped back from his business grind to focus on his personal relationships. And part of that was looking up Nguyen.
Afters Ice Cream was born in a gym.
After reconnecting, Nguyen and Nghiem would go to the now-shuttered LA Fitness in Fountain Valley, across the street from what became their first location. Four or five times a week, as they worked out, they'd talk about the things they had in common: business ideas, streetwear, food. Nghiem, looking for his next project, had dessert stuck in his mind. It was something he had been thinking about for years; the name “Afters” was based on a Google search that took him to the Wikipedia dessert page.
“We started talking about business ideas, and, unexpectedly, we had some really similar ones: dessert, late-night, ice cream even,” Nghiem says. “There were some points in our discussion that the ideas were so similar–like, dead on–it was kind of crazy.”
As their discussions became more in-depth, they became more paralyzing. Afraid of slighting the other, neither one capitalized immediately on their plans. “I told Andy I was going to do this dessert thing, and he said, 'If you're going to do it, go for it,'” Nghiem says. “And I was like, 'If you're going to do it, go for it.' We didn't want to butt heads by any means, but we were hanging out so much that we just had come up with so many concepts together.”
Then, one day, Nghiem saw something upsetting. Two other guys, whom Nghiem declines to name, were opening a similar concept to Afters, but they were going about it all wrong, he felt.
“That day, I went into the gym, and I told Andy, 'Yo, dude, I'm pissed today because there's these two goober guys, and they're doing it,'” Nghiem recalls. “'They have no experience. They came from nowhereland.'”
“It wasn't exciting,” Nguyen says. “It was manufactured. They were on TV, and they were saying, 'We pre-buy everything; we don't make anything.' It was kind of a joke.”
Driven by the newfound competition, Nghiem decided to move forward, and he wanted Nguyen as his business partner. Nghiem contacted the landlords of a space sandwiched between a Pick Up Stix and a Hallmark store in a then-withering plaza. It was barely a block off the 405.
Now, he just needed to convince Nguyen. “Deep down inside, I was like, 'Dude, I can do this, but I've been talking to Andy about this the whole time,'” Nghiem says. “I said, 'Let's do this together. We've been talking about it so much.' He took a few days to think about it. . . . He came back and said, 'Let's do it.'”
“I already knew I wanted to do it,” Nguyen says, laughing. “I was already itching again. I had done clothing for so long. I had all of these ideas; I wanted to see if I could make the magic happen again.”
The pair signed a lease and began working on a dessert concept, trying to find the thing that would set them apart. They did all of the design in-house, from the black-and-white color scheme and typography to the ice cream flavors. Based on the things they liked and grew up with, Nghiem and Nguyen made flavors that they felt tapped into the current zeitgeist.
“Whenever I get boba, I get jasmine milk tea,” Nguyen says. “I'll make an ice cream flavor out of that. I see everyone drinking Vietnamese coffee; I'll make a flavor out of that. Cookie butter–it's the most popular thing in Trader Joe's; I think it'll make a good ice cream flavor.”
The guys went through several iterations of their now-famous Milky Bun. Before arriving at the eventual, magical combination, they tested white bread, wheat bread, taco shells and waffles. “We worked with a lot of things, but everything was too expensive,” Nghiem says.
“One day, I'm driving here to meet Andy for lunch, and I'm stopped at a light, and I see a doughnut shop, and I'm just staring at it. I was like, 'Maybe.' I bought a box, and it was kind of funny because Andy was like, 'We're going to eat; what are you doing?' But we tried it, and we knew. This was it.”
It was it. Nguyen and Nghiem were unprepared for how quickly success would come. The day after their soft open in February 2014, they were faced with a line of people waiting for Afters Ice Cream to open. Though they initially hoped to sell one or two dozen Milky Buns per day, they were soon selling hundreds.
“We knew it would be good, but we didn't know it was going to be great,” Nghiem says.
“That first week, there were days when we would just not have Milky Buns,” Nguyen adds.
The two were hit with other problems. They didn't have enough staff. The ice cream was either too hard or too soft. The Wi-Fi occasionally cut out, rendering the credit card readers worthless. That first week, the line ballooned to a two-hour wait. “Family and friends were coming in to help us out,” Nghiem says. “We knew we had to come up with a strong system–and quickly.”
By the first summer after opening, Afters had worked out all of the kinks, and while lines still grew to extraordinary lengths, they were moving quicker. But then Nghiem and Nguyen decided to host a car meet in the plaza parking lot. Exotic vehicles filled the 500 available parking spaces and backed up the freeway. Fountain Valley Police shut the event down, and the city started paying special attention to the business and its operating hours. The storefront was forced to close at 10 p.m., no matter how many people were waiting.
So Nguyen and Nghiem bought a food truck and operated it out of Santa Ana. “It was the third day that we were to close early, and I was texting this guy, telling him we need a truck,” Nguyen says. “Finally, he says, 'If you want, you can come check out the truck right now.' It was 1, maybe 2 in the morning. We all met in this empty lot to take a look at it.”
The pair bought the truck and repainted it. After all of the retrofits had been made, the engine died, requiring a tow each time it needed to be moved. “No one really tows those things, so it was expensive,” Nguyen says. “We were losing money on it, but by that point, we had to have something for our customers. Some people drove two hours to get here. We had our team members standing outside, handing out maps and fliers.”
Eventually, things settled down. Their relationship with the city improved. The guys sold the truck and looked for a place to expand, picking Chino Hills to better serve customers in the Inland Empire and LA. Since the first week, people have expressed an interest in franchising, but Nghiem and Nguyen have thus far decided against it. “We just figured, 'We can do this,'” Nghiem says. “What's something else that someone can bring to the table?”
A few months after the Chino Hills location opened, Afters was invited to attend Coachella as part of the festival's quest for better food vendors. Originally booked for the VIP area, Nguyen and Nghiem pushed to serve the general crowd after receiving dozens of messages following the announcement the dessert shop would be attending.
Underestimating Afters' draw, Coachella let Nguyen and Nghiem bring 10 staffers into the festival, 20 less than the 30 they had requested.
“They said, 'No one comes to Coachella for the food,'” Nguyen says. “'It'll be quiet.'”
But Afters quickly attracted a line longer than any other food vendor. Dozens of people posted Instagrams of the Milky Bun. Even though it was one of more than 60 vendors at Coachella, 5 percent of all food posts from the festival featured Afters.
“Our staff was angry,” Nghiem says. “Everyone was so overworked.”
Before long, people were staying in line and missing sets they had planned to attend. Customers tried to keep the stand open after-hours, throwing money at the workers as Coachella staff turned off the lights and asked the booth to close.
After the first weekend, Afters was given a second booth to serve from, but thanks to word of mouth, the lines only grew longer. After the festival concluded, Goldenvoice asked Nghiem and Nguyen to stay on for Stagecoach, the company's country music festival.
Business started slow, and Nguyen and Nghiem returned to Orange County after a few hours, leaving their staff in charge. It wasn't long before they received a call that a line was starting to form again.
“That's when I realized we could have an impact on everyone, any kind of person,” Nghiem says. “Everyone likes ice cream, and everyone's willing to try us out.”
Nowadays, Nghiem and Nguyen work much less in the stores and focus more on meetings and location scouting. Afters' upcoming spot in Long Beach will feature a surprise in the back. Plans for next year include total Southern California domination, LA and San Diego included. Then a departure out of state–and out of the country.
“We're going to focus on places where we want to travel,” Nghiem jokes.
Both founders also have side projects, with Nghiem opening a nail bar to modernize the manicure/pedicure experience and Nguyen starting a nonprofit that allows him to speak at schools, encouraging students to follow their passions. To date, he estimates he has spoken at more than 30 schools.
And then there are concepts and plans they're not quite ready to announce.
Their base of operations, however, remains in Orange County, and it will for a long, long time. Nghiem and Nguyen still live within 10 minutes of the original Afters. “Every project we will do will start in Orange County,” Nghiem says. “If we can't be successful where we're from, what's the point?”
“What we really want to do is make Orange County cool,” Nguyen says.
“When people visit for the first time, they're like, 'Where's Fountain Valley?'” Nghiem says. “'Is it in the 626? Or is it in LA?'”
“I love Orange County,” Nguyen adds. “It's close to everything, but it's not too crazy. It's got everything you could ever want. A lot of businesses based out of here will say they're from LA because it's bigger, but we want to make OC bigger than just some TV show.
“I mean, we made it on the most Yelped list of 2014,” he adds. “Fountain Valley was on that list. We put it on the map. So many people have heard about it now. And, you know, getting on that list–it wasn't easy.”