After growing up hungry in Portland, Cognac entrepreneurs help fight food insecurity in Maine

By Tim Cebula, Portland Press Herald
March 7, 2022

Kevin Ly, the 34-year-old founding partner of Golden Wat cognac, has a good life now, by all accounts. He’s a successful entrepreneur who earned a graduate business degree, then launched a multinational liquor brand in 2020. He’s also a family man, living in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, with his college-sweetheart wife and their two young kids.

But as a child in Portland’s Riverton Park, a low-rent public housing community, Ly grew up hungry. He was the eldest of four siblings living in a three-room apartment with their young, single mother, who had recently immigrated from Cambodia.

“We had a kitchen with absolutely nothing in the cabinets but some ketchup packages,” Ly said. “And we didn’t even have it as bad as some families I know.”

Ly’s Golden Wat business partners – childhood friend Hobi Nguyen, and his cousins, Jamie and Peter Teng – grew up in Riverton Park as well, reliant on subsidized food handouts. “It was rough,” recalled Nguyen, 35, who now lives in Houston to manage Golden Wat’s Texas sales. “In our Portland neighborhood, we had a community center where on Saturdays they’d give out free food. Those were good days.”

“When we saw the white cargo vans coming with food to the community center, it was like Christmas,” Ly said, noting that the majority of his food as a kid came from school and government assistance programs. “People take food for granted. For us, it was like a gift.”

The trauma of childhood food insecurity prompted Ly and his partners to donate the $5,000 profit from Golden Wat’s Maine sales in 2021 – their first full year of business – to Full Plates, Full Potential, a Brunswick-based group that fights child hunger in Maine. The donation comes at a critical time. Child food insecurity has grown significantly in Maine since the start of the pandemic. Full Plates, Full Potential Executive Director Justin Strasburger said one in five Maine children currently faces food insecurity.

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