FIRST PUBLISHED IN NEWYORKER.COM, SEPTEMBER 3, 2013
Last year, an unusual Wyoming real-estate deal made international headlines: the tiny town of Buford, population one, had been purchased by an anonymous Vietnamese businessman. What did the buyer want with an exit off the interstate containing little more than a trading post and a pair of gas pumps? It was unclear; the businessman flew back to Vietnam without saying, and, until Tuesday, there had been little news from Buford.
The town, twenty-five miles west of Cheyenne, was founded in 1866 as a military fort. Its population once numbered two thousand, but in recent years has dwindled to just a single resident, Don Sammons—“a man with his own zip code,” he boasted on his Web site. Sammons positioned Buford as “the nation’s smallest town,” a claim advertised on three consecutive highway billboards. Yellowstone-bound tourists would pose for snapshots in front of the “POP. 1” marker, or purchase Buford mugs, key chains, and stick pins. “People had dogs named Buford, or an uncle named Buford—it always amazed me the connection people had to that name,” Sammons told me last week.
Sammons, a bearish sixty-three-year-old, moved to Buford from California in 1980 with his wife and son, and bought the ten-acre town twelve years later from the former owner’s widow, for a hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars. He relished the business challenge that came with inventing fresh ways to promote Buford, with its gas station, convenience store, modular home, restored nineteenth-century schoolhouse, garage, and tool shed. But after his wife died, in 2007, Sammons started looking for a way out. The sense of adventure had waned. “It was becoming a job,” he said. His grown son, who’d left for Colorado and who Sammons said is “more of an artist,” had no interest in carrying on the family business. So in April, 2012, Sammons put the entirety of Buford up for auction. “I brought Buford into the twenty-first century,” he told me. “I took it as far as I could.”
The sale was brokered by Williams & Williams, an Oklahoma auction house. Bidder No. 949 flew over from Saigon, and after an auction that lasted eleven minutes he walked away with Buford, for nine hundred thousand dollars. The deal included a post-office box, a liquor license, a plow, three vehicles, and a Union Wireless cellular tower. (Technically, it didn’t include an actual town, since Buford is not incorporated and therefore not considered an official municipality under Wyoming state statute, George Parks, the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, told me.)
The unidentified Vietnamese buyer explained in a statement that he was a founder of a company that distributes home- and personal-care brands in Vietnam. “Owning this property can help us facilitate our distribution in the US, meaning we can bring to the US made-in-Vietnam products,” he wrote, adding, “It is an American dream!” Other than that, he said little about his plans.
The new owner was eventually revealed to be Nguyen Dinh Pham, thirty-eight. He told me last week that he didn’t actually have a plan for Buford when he bought it. “This town is very unique and famous,” he said. “I believed I could do something with it.” When he returned to Vietnam after the purchase, the town withered for a year. Sammons, who moved to Colorado after the sale, grew remorseful. “My assumption was that the buyer wanted what I did back in 1980—to be able to have a great lifestyle and slower pace of living,” he recalled. “But then I felt like all the work I put into the store for the last twenty years was in vain. It was very disheartening for me.”
He didn’t know that Nguyen was quietly laying plans to make Buford the face of a new Vietnamese coffee company. Last year, Vietnam surpassed Brazil to become the world’s largest coffee exporter, but there are few Vietnamese retail coffee brands, and none are sold in the United States. “We feel that’s unfair,” said Nguyen.
On Tuesday, he was back in Buford to inaugurate the town as the U.S. headquarters for the newly formed PhinDeli Corporation. (“Phin” is the metal filter used to brew Vietnamese coffee; “Deli” is short for “delicious.”) Nguyen will serve as the company’s chairman. PhinDeli’s C.E.O., Tuan Do, is a Vietnamese marketing executive.
Now, as drivers approach Exit 335 on I-80, they see billboards announcing the town’s rebranded name: PhinDeli Town Buford. (Officially, the town will remain Buford.) In one of the signs, a photo of Sammons has been replaced with an image of Nguyen, with his arms folded, wearing sunglasses. The other billboards show Nguyen and Sammons shaking hands and holding up a T-shirt, consummating the town’s handover.
Other than that, little has changed so far in Buford. Nguyen’s marketing plan is predicated on the town’s enduring charm. Tourists can still pose in front of the population marker, which will remain at one; after the town’s relaunch, Nguyen planned to return to Saigon, where he lives with his wife and two children, but a caretaker will occupy Sammons’s old house. Two employees will work at the store and gas pumps. The convenience store, in addition to selling PhinDeli Town Buford trinkets, will now sell bags of PhinDeli coffee. Visitors can try samples while seated at a new coffee counter; on the wall behind it, a ten-foot painted mural illustrates PhinDeli’s manufacturing process in Vietnam.
The company is releasing four coffee blends, which, starting Tuesday, will be sold through Amazon.com—and eventually, Nguyen hopes, in supermarkets. Visitors to PhinDeli’s Web site will find a “Vietnamese Coffee Statement” drafted in the form of a Declaration of Independence:
All men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, the pursuit of Happiness and enjoyment of Coffee. We are the PhinDeli Corporation with a mission to bring the best of Vietnamese coffee style for all the consumers worldwide with its unique taste and 100% safety. We officially announce the Vietnamese Coffee Statement right in the U.S land Buford, owned by Vietnamese. We also officially announce the new naming of PhinDeli Town Buford with its 147 years of history.
PhinDeli: The Can-do Coffee
If you want to bring Vietnamese coffee to the U.S., Nguyen feels, what better place to start than a rural town in the American heartland? “Bill Gates started Microsoft in his garage, and now everyone uses Microsoft Office,” he said. “It’s not where you start but how you go.”
Sammons, meanwhile, hasn’t left Buford entirely: he has been named the town’s co-mayor and is advising PhinDeli on operating the convenience store and fuel pumps. “It’s a different direction than I would ever have taken it,” Sammons told me, of the town’s reinvention. “As a parent you do as much as you can do with a child, then you turn it loose to make their own choices and decisions. Buford now will be carrying on. It’s going to get bigger, and have a life of its own that I find thrilling.”