A recent returnee to Vietnam, Caroline Le has been charting her own small business plans with her food and beverage company, JuicElixir. Leveraging her education in food science, her business focuses on creating some of Ho Chi Minh City’s only cold-pressed juice and smoothies offerings.
We were introduced to JuiceElixir’s owner Caroline Le by her colleague Linh Thai, one of our first People of Vietcetera profiles. We met up with her at The Workshop Coffee to learn more about her business and what her feelings are about Vietnam’s business environment, from the perspective of a recent returnee to Vietnam.
Why did you come back to Vietnam? It looks like your career was on the rise in America.
I was required to come back to Vietnam for two years as part of the fellowship program that funded my graduate studies in America. At the beginning, I was counting down for the two years to pass. But things started to get into a groove with time. 18 months after returning, there’s little reason to leave Vietnam now.
After a period of struggling to adapt, I started to attend events and workshops about starting a business in Vietnam. I went to the first CrowdPitch event where I learned about similar businesses like Living Juice. Also through this event, I was introduced to work for a Japanese hydroponic vegetable company. During my time there, I got to know about a fruit supplying company called Vietgreens, they owned a little smoothie shop in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. At the time, they wanted to close down the shop, so I asked them if I could take over the shop to experiment with my own business. That was 18 months ago and it’s worked out ever since.
Given your educational background in food science, how did that experience lead you to launch a cold-pressed juice business in Vietnam?
During my last semester at Cornell University, I signed up for a marketing course “Brand and Brand Management’. A case study in the course involved developing the brand strategy for a juice startup, The Juice Press, in New York City.
The investor of the company, Michael Karsch, is the cousin of the course lecturer. The connection gave us the chance to learn about this amazing startup. The Karsch family came to visit Cornell and sat in our class presentation while we presented our strategies to build The Juice Press brand. At the end of the class, I went up to speak with Mr. Karsch. He was interested in my research background about the anti-cancer properties of fruits and vegetables. He offered me an internship at The Juice Press to help apply my work at their company. I visited Manhattan to sample some juices and learn more about their business. As much as I was excited about the opportunity, my fellowship wasn’t able to sponsor a visa for the internship.
I returned to Vietnam after finishing my degree, leaving behind the opportunity to work at The Juice Press. However, that experience inspired me to start my own juice business. When I came back to Vietnam, I noticed there weren’t any similar business at the time. At the same time, there was a rise in the small business and startup scene in Vietnam. I quickly learned about different aspects of building a business by attending several workshops in the city. I started to brainstorm for my ideas. Today, JuicElixir has thrived into a sustainable small business. We take pride in not copying other businesses. We try to build using our own uniqueness and creativity.
Tell us more about JuicElixir. What are its goals?
We are a cold-pressed juice and smoothie business in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. JuicElixir is the combination of the words ‘juice’ and ‘elixir’, which in English refers to a medicinal magic potion. As the name suggests, JuicElixir thrives on the Hippocrates quote, “let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” We focus on ingredients with medicinal attributes especially those with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Through combining and balancing their tastes, we create a juice that can help make living healthy as effortless as possible. Our team is on a mission to increase the intake of fruits and vegetables among the general population for chronic disease prevention.
What are some challenges that you’re facing in growing the JuicElixir brand?
We’ve been growing organically since the beginning,. I didn’t plan on starting my business so soon fresh out of college so it’s been a challenge to finance the business. We run slim on costs like marketing. Given that it’s new trend and the Vietnamese people have not really got used to the concept yet. So it takes effort and time to educate the consumers, and this is the biggest challenge for any new products introduced into the market.
Who are some of your customers for cold-pressed juice in Ho Chi Minh City?
So far our customers have been expats, most are already educated about this trend back home and are looking for a healthy juice shop. Most customers are happy about our products and services, and we’d like to keep them so we keep prices affordable. Word of mouth is a big part in getting ourselves out there to our target customers. Our lowest price point is 50,000 for 330ml sizes, most are between 60,000 and 70,000.
What excites you about Vietnam? What keeps you in Vietnam?
The right opportunity came and I caught it before it passed. Sometimes you just have to be here to find opportunity, it’ll come across your table eventually. There’s a lot of potential for new business in Vietnam. What keeps me in Vietnam are the potential opportunities for business growth so I’m exploring the options here. Also, I want to build a business that has the potential to contribute to the community in a positive way.
There are many more risks to starting a business in America. I’d probably work for a bigger corporate company instead. But I’d like more control about what I’m doing. There’s more spirit in Vietnam. If I stay here, there’s more opportunity and I can do what I like.
What sort of restaurant or cafe concept would you like to see in Ho Chi Minh City? What’s missing here?
There are a lot of cool startup concepts in food and beverage at the moment. One of the most unique concepts I’ve seen is a healthy fast food chain started by Elon Musk’s brother.
Is a market like Vietnam ready for that? It depends on how fast the green movement is progressing in Vietnam. There has been a rising trend in healthy foods in Vietnam with the growth of vegetarian-focused small businesses like salad and juice bars. Though I think we first need to promote and educate consumers more about these healthy lifestyle trends. I’d love to see the emergence of this health trend taking shape in Vietnam, rather than keep the sad state of affairs in the unhealthy food and beverage industry in Vietnam.
Who should we speak with next?
Jessica Hilston from Women of Vietnam, Trang Nguyen from Chay, and Chau Nguyen from GreenS. They are my friends and partners who are all working on their own projects. We try to support each other, given that our projects have similar missions.