Mai Vang's story was already pretty compelling.
Born in Laos after the Vietnam War, Vang and her family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for about eight years and came to the U.S. in 1989. Vang would go on to graduate from St. Paul's Harding High School and St. Olaf College before launching a successful career running an insurance company.
Then, about nine years ago, "I woke up and I don't hear anything," said Vang, now 44. She was completely deaf.
"I can't even hear my own voice," she said.
With her career derailed and facing huge medical bills, Vang got the idea of making and selling egg rolls, which she'd made for teachers and students at Harding.
Today, her Eggroll Queen food truck shows up at festivals and farmers markets and is parked outside the State Capitol most days from spring to fall. Not content with using her egg roll income solely for herself, Vang often donates to community causes.
Eye On St. Paul recently reached out to Vang to learn more about her life as the Eggroll Queen. This interview was pieced together through an in-person conversation, text messages and online messaging. It has been edited for length.
Q: How did you lose your hearing?
A: I just woke up one day and couldn't hear. It took me about four years [of sadness, confusion] before I got going.
Q: How did you get started?
A: I started making and selling egg rolls in order to pay my medical bills. Then I made them to help people. But when you make food for strangers, for the public, you have to be licensed. And that's how the food truck began.
Q: So you started the food truck to raise money for yourself and then you started using it to raise money for other people?
A: I sold egg rolls to raise money. I did the food truck to make the egg rolls. And then, people came from everywhere to buy egg rolls and I don't know who they are. So, it was public safety [to get a license and the food truck].
Q: Where does the recipe for the egg rolls come from?
A: I don't really like cooking. Or cleaning. That was not my thing. But in high school, we made egg rolls for all the teachers. It was kind of fun. So when I couldn't work anymore, the idea came to me. I used to be in the insurance business. But you can't help your customers if you can't hear.
Q: Your truck's last day of the season was Halloween. Do you make egg rolls in the winter?
A: I do pop-ups two or three times a month.
Q: So you do the cooking. Who else helps?
A: I have sons. They help. I can't do the truck by myself. I tried. It's hard. All the customers are really nice. But they don't know I can't hear. So I need the help. All the boys helped when we started. The oldest left for college two years ago. The second oldest went to join the Marines. The two youngest still help. I couldn't be where I am today without their help.
Q: I see you also help others with their fundraising.
A: We give money to schools. One other thing we do is benefits. We donate our time. People helped us. Now we're paying it forward. The community was there for us. It's only right to give back, right?
Q: Are you having fun?
A: Oh, yeah. So when we first got the food truck, we don't make money. We don't make a profit. People say, "Why do you continue the food truck when you don't profit?" But it's fun. It also helps you to have something [to do]. When I lost my hearing, I didn't have anything to care about.
Q: When does the food truck start up again?
A: In April, on weekends. Then every day [after] the kids get out of school.
Q: Where can we find you?
A: We used to park at the State Capitol and in Rice Park. But last year, [with COVID] we couldn't do that. So we do a lot of farmers markets. The one downtown and the one in Woodbury. Also, at Arcade and Larpenteur. [Locations are listed on her website and Facebook page.]
Q: Where do you live?
A: On the East Side.
Q: What did you study at St. Olaf?
A: Asian Studies. And I got a master's in business from Argosy [University]. We were doing really well. Then it all went down the drain. We had to start over.
Q: You seem pretty successful with all you do.
A: Well. I can't say successful. My husband is our only income now. But we are back to normal. This has really helped pick us back up.
So now we are back on our feet, and we want to continue. We are able to pay it forward.