Mark Gustafson is an imposing figure, both in physical stature and in what he has contributed to our community. Referred to by many as the ‘Godfather’ of HCMC’s craft beer scene, and the ‘Prince of Pork’ for his American style ‘oink oink eateries’, it’s hard to imagine anyone else who has so impacted on our enjoyment of food and drink in such a short space of time. By Peter Cornish. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Gustafson’s ventures into the world of food and beverage started at a young age with an attempt at the American staple, mac n cheese. The easy to follow recipe of macaroni, cheese and water, thrown in a pot and boiled for 15 minutes, didn’t turn out quite as expected, so the following day Mum showed him how to do it properly. Soon he was cooking regularly for the whole family.
At the age of fifteen, with skills on the BBQ already honed, Gustafson got a job at a local pizza restaurant and was learning every recipe he could. He stayed with the pizza joint until his early twenties with the dream of one day opening his own place, but financial limitations prevented this and he ended up taking a job with a local car dealership where he remained for the next 12 years.
Whilst selling cars Gustafson continued cooking in his spare time, opening a small catering company, holding BBQs for friends and family and selling gourmet frozen pizza from home. His skills in the kitchen spoke for themselves and word of mouth lead to business success, but Gustafson still dreamed of owning his own restaurant.
Towards the end of the 2000s, Jake, an old friend living in Vietnam, got in touch to say he would be visiting Chicago to check out the annual Lollapalooza concert. He asked Gustafson to pick up the tickets and to grab one for his friend Tim Scott, another Vietnam resident, who would be joining him for the trip.
A short time later, Gustafson was collecting them at the airport and bringing them home to his back porch and a feast of BBQed ribs, roast and brisket.
Scott was blown away by Gustafson’s meaty creations and wanted to learn everything he could about American style BBQing. When Gustafson handed him a glass of his homebrewed American craft beer, the foundations for one of HCMC’s most successful food and beverage businesses were laid. It was just a matter of time before the two were plotting their next moves.
The following year, Gustafson made his first trip to Vietnam and discovered why Scott was so impressed with his homebrewed beer. Ideas for opening a restaurant were hatched, and two years later he returned to HCMC, this time for Jake’s wedding.
As his gift to the couple, Gustafson offered to cater the wedding party and, serving up his own style of American BBQ, triggered what would become the success of Quan Ut Ut.
After the wedding, Gustafson returned to the States in December 2012, saying that he would be back within a year. True to his word, he returned with a couple of suitcases, his favourite guitar, and some hard-to-find ingredients December 2013, ready to get down to business.
A week before his arrival, Scott and Deforges, the third partner in their venture, had found a location on Vo Van Kiet and by March the following year they had recruited the right team, fitted out the restaurant and were ready to open doors.
Setting up a BBQ and smoker outside Quan Ut Ut was just the first step in the new business venture. Also on the cards was a brew house, but licensing problems in the city centre prevented this.
Not deterred, Gustafson started brewing small batches every day and word soon spread that there was some real beer in town. Within days there were people waiting outside the restaurant as the shutters went up at 4pm, eager to grab as many bottles as they could.
As the success of Quan Ut Ut grew and more staff were hired, Gustafson had more time to focus on his brewing and was soon producing a pale ale, blonde, amber and IPA. Come October 2014, Platinum launched at the restaurant with a ready supply of craft beer on tap and the community of HCMC’s craft brewers was starting to kick off.
By the end of the year, what was to become a movement of craft beer brewers that brought international recognition and admiration to the city was well under way. PSBC had their Christmas party at Ut Ut, Fuzzy Logic was being pulled in District 2 and Phat Rooster where getting their brew on quickly.
Soon there were regular tasting events and the team behind the BBQ restaurant’s success were starting to look at new opportunities. The idea that became BiaCraft Artisan Ales was taking shape.
It wasn’t long till the first BiaCraft in Thao Dien was being fitted out and questions were being asked about beer. Gustafson had been brewing all summer and the kegs were filling up, but keeping them stocked regularly would prove a challenge without expanding their brewing operations.
The team realised they needed a brewer, or brewers, and the idea of opening a taproom showcasing beers from the emerging brew scene seemed like the obvious way forward.
Fuzzy Logic was already on board. Platinum and PSBC quickly followed, along with Phat Rooster and what was soon to become LAC. On opening night, they had six lines. Within a couple of months this had grown to ten.
The new bar was attracting a lot of attention, kegs were moving quickly and anyone who wanted to sell their beer there was welcome to join the fun, giving new brewers an ideal opportunity to showcase their beers.
Fast forward to autumn 2016 and BiaCraft had established itself as the city’s premier craft beer bar. Quan Ut Ut had already launched its second location and BiaCraft was about to open in the city centre.
What started out as expat centric businesses had transitioned successfully in attracting the local market by creating an environment where they felt comfortable, and offering them world class products produced locally in Vietnam.
Dreams of one day owning a restaurant brought Gustafson to a city of opportunity. His culinary creativity made him a success.
What he puts his talents to next, we will have to wait and see, but we can be confident it will be for the community, and that the community will get behind it.