Peter Cornish looks at what it takes to make it and make it last in Ho Chi Minh City’s food and beverage sector.

Despite being Vietnam’s culinary capital, some Ho Chi Minh City residents consider the choice of restaurants to be limited, not living up to the expectations of a city this size. Others think the palate of local foodies is unrefined, unable to appreciate the subtle flavours of the food on offer and prone to covering everything in chilli sauce.

Regardless of personal opinion, there’s no denying the changes this city’s vibrant, burgeoning food scene has undergone over the past ten years. A steady influx of internationally experienced chefs and foreign-owned eateries are pushing boundaries of choice and expectations, raising the overall standards of what’s on offer, how it’s served and presented, and enticing customers eager to experience new trends and flavours.

But there’s also no denying the fickleness of the HCMC’s food and beverage sector, and the challenges facing novice and experienced restaurateurs alike. With the inevitable growth comes an increase in entrenched competition, changing loyalties and affections of customers, exorbitant rents, exploitative landlords and undertrained, unmotivated staff ready to swap jobs as soon as a better offer comes their way.

The choice of food available in the city just a decade ago cannot be compared to what’s on offer today. Street food was still a big part of the culture and for many, eating out tended to mean heading to the local quan, plastic chairs and metal tables, a crate of beer full of empty bottles and plates of various shared Vietnamese delights. The idea of sitting in a restaurant was not sexy and sitting by the road was one of the enjoyments that Vietnam had to offer. This was before the scare of fake food when street feeds were still the norm for most.

Western food was available, but it meant a trip to a few limited locations around town. Bui Vien and surrounds for a curry, a bowl of pasta or an attempt at a burger, a few choice places on Dong Khoi and Hai Ba Trung for something French or a perhaps a steak, or a journey over to Thao Dien for an upmarket meal and a bit of a treat.

It was a very different place back then and there were few mid-tier restaurants. Eating out was cheap or expensive. You could have a meal for two including drinks for VND100,000 in the backpacker area, or head over to Hi Ba Trung and blow VND500,000 a head with drinks on top. There were few local restaurants serving Western food, and barely any foreign-owned restaurants offering something Vietnamese. A lot of restaurants struggled to survive. But some did, and they are still around today.

So, in a city where restaurants open and close before you’ve even noticed, what is it that brings success and longevity, and are the success factors the same now as they were ten or even 20 years ago? Is it simply a matter of luck, with early comers benefitting from sparse competition and tapping a growing market of hungry foreigners yearning for a taste of home, or is there a winning formula that once understood brings inevitable success? Wouldn’t that be easy?

More than just luck

The team at AsiaLIFE could only guess at the answers to these questions. But intrigued and eager for insight we reached out to some who’ve been there done that, to ask their thoughts and opinions and to share their secrets of success. The answers we got were varied, although some key themes came to light. Whilst there is certainly an element of “right time right place” involved, there is also hard work, careful planning and passion for what they do.

We wanted to know how the restaurant sector has changed since the turn of the century when international owners really started to make a mark on the city’s culinary scene. Do the same success factors apply now as they did then? One of the most noticeable changes is of course the amount of competition that restaurants now face.

Steve Mueller was an early entrant, opening his De Tham Street Zoom Café in 1999 at a time when the Bui Vien Street backpacker epicentre was a mere hint of what it is today. There was little in the way of choice or competition, and most of the restaurants that were open have long since gone, Steve explained. Like others, this was a factor in early success, especially when catering for the transient and growing tourist market who have increasingly flocked to the area.

Owner of Skewers (2000), Elbow Room (2008/09) and the more recent Café Sweet Street on Le Thanh Ton, Tristan Ngo, also noted how competition has changed the market, and especially how newer entrants are responding to it. “People are trying to outdo each other, wanting to be bigger and grander, copying what others are doing rather than doing what they love,” he said.

Co-founder of multiple outlets, including Cafe Au Parc (2003), The Refinery (2006) and Hoa Tuc (2008), Noelle Carr-Ellison has chosen to ignore competitors and focus on what she is doing, trusting her own concepts and not feeling threatened by what others are attempting. An increase in international entrants has meant inevitable change and the raising of standards, she noted, but if people bring passion to their ventures then the benefits are felt by many.

Market has matured

As the choice of restaurants has expanded, customers have become savvier, pointed out Peter Holdsworth, who has opened multiple food and beverage outlets in Hanoi and Saigon since the early 2000s. Vietnamese customers are increasingly receptive to new dining experiences, but this is as much about the look and feel of a restaurant as it is the quality and service.

“Youngsters are looking for things that are more updated, following what’s happening internationally and being trendsetters here. They are no longer happy to just sit back and accept what’s on offer,” Peter said. The need to see and be seen has put the focus on building a brand identity, rather than just serving good quality food.

Evolving service standards

Another notable change that has impacted the way restaurateurs run their businesses and the service levels they offer is with staffing; hiring, training and retaining. While still an ongoing challenge for many owners, especially new entrants, most restaurants are now offering levels of service to their customers that are far from the norm of just a decade ago.    

“Staffing has changed, it used to be easy to find cute girls to hire, but with so many jobs available it’s now a lot tougher. Most of our staff are college kids who want to practice their English, they come and go quickly, especially around Tet,” Steve told me.

Although there are still inevitable distractions for serving staff, it is now rare to see your waiter “mining for gold” moments before he brings you your plate with the offending finger perilously close to your food. And the days of being asked to pay for incorrect orders are all but gone, and in most cases, you are likely to get what you asked for.

Levels of staff experience have improved tremendously, explained Erwann Serene, formerly the chef at La Camargue and now owner of La Cuisine (2009). As competition has increased there has been a need to train to a high level so that service expectations are met. “Ten years ago, it was hard to find waiters who spoke English, and many were scared of talking to foreigners. Now they are comfortable with it, they can engage and learn more and the service is better as a result,” Erwann said.

But as staff become more trained and experienced they look for better opportunities and conditions, a problem as relevant today as a decade ago. New restaurants open and you see the same staff as elsewhere, turnover is high which suggests unstable environments for them to work in.

Tristan confirms the opinion of many successful owners that the key to longevity of staff is in hiring the right staff and treating them the right way. “When I hire my philosophy is to value the mentality and character of the person over their experience. A shitty attitude doesn’t help anyone. Personality is important as they drive the business,” explained Tristan, who still has staff who joined him when he first opened in 2000. It seems the way to keep staff is to treat them with respect and look after them, which is hardly rocket science.

Modern Technology

Another notable change in recent years is the advancement of technology and the impact this has had, especially in terms of delivery, marketing and customer reviews. People talk about life here in terms of ‘pre-app’ and ‘post-app’ and this change is perhaps no more apparent than in the food and beverage sector, especially when ordering out and giving feedback on your dining experiences.

Gone are the days when ordering a food delivery meant finding a phone number, calling the restaurant, repeating your order, explaining how to find your house down various hems and hoping the delivery guy turned up while the food was still hot. It’s now done simply and quickly on your phone.

This advancement has had a tremendous affect on existing restaurants, able to increase their sales to a wider market. It has also opened up new market opportunities for ghost restaurants, offering their services without the overhead costs of a bricks and mortar location or waitstaff, and allowing for experimentation with different concepts without the otherwise huge risks of failure.

Social media

Noelle highlighted the huge effects that social media and online review sites, most notably TripAdvisor, have had on the industry, especially the impact on consumer decision making. While restaurants have been able to use social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram to their advantage, reaching a wide audience with ease and low cost, there are downsides to this development too and they don’t necessarily put bums on seats.

TripAdvisor can be like a popularity contest, explained Scott Marquis, former owner of Scott & Binh’s (2010), and current owner of Scott & Jeremy’s (2016) and La Fiesta (2014), which can play havoc with the effort and hard work as owners strive to make their business a success. This opinion was reiterated by Erwann who explained that just one bad review can cause tremendous problems and potentially ruin a reputation.

Yet while there have been fundamental changes in the way the F&B sector operates, accompanied by an increased competitiveness of the market, it seems that those who have survived the test of time are following the same approach now as they did when they first started. Their advice is simple, and while not guaranteeing success, is certainly something to reflect on.

Follow your passion

Calvin Bui, former owner of Pop Fries (2013) and current owner of Sanchos Beer & Mexican Kitchen (2016) sums it up simply as “you gotta have passion.” Consider your options seriously and ask yourself if this is really what you love to do, he said.

If you’re in it simply for the money, once the romanticised honeymoon period is over and the going gets tough, you’ll find yourself struggling to pull through, advises Tristan.

Consistency in what you do is equally important, according to Scott and Erwann. The meal you serve today should be the same standard as the one you serve in six months’ time, which can be a challenge if you have a high staff turnover. Build a team and take care of it, recommends Scott, and make sure you have the right partnerships in place advises Erwann.

Move around, talk to staff and choose your concept carefully was the consensus.

According to Noelle, 10 years ago, there were an about 900 restaurants in the HCMC, today there are more than 3,000 and the market size hasn’t developed at the same speed. Avoid saturated areas like Thao Dien and look for new opportunity advised both Erwann and Noelle.

Use technology advancements to your advantage and look at your data. “Know what happening, what’s selling and what’s not selling, test, test, test and keep to your budget,” recommends Calvin.

Spend your investment money wisely in the places needed, don’t spend extravagantly on interior decor if you’re opening a simple cafe, and remember, the kitchen is important even though it’s often not visible at front of house.

Establish your regular clientele, know what they want and keep it personal, but be aware that sometimes a restaurant has a short shelf-life and it’s time to change it up and get people interested again, warns Scott.

Don’t open until you’re ready as the first impression you show customers is the one that counts Erwann advised, and if all else fails, Noelle suggests a move to Myanmar.