Ask A Senior: Calvin Bui Shares His Insights Of Opening Restaurants In Saigon
With Saigon growing more rapidly into its destined reputation as one of Asia’s most exciting food hubs, more business owners are daring themselves to take risks by betting on the city’s growth and attraction. Among them is Calvin Bui, a Vietnamese-American chef who kickstarted his career at chef Charles Phan’s Slanted Door in San Francisco. He now has many venues of his own within the heart of Saigon. El Camino, a much loved Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant that is finding a new home from its original location, is one of Calvin’s most successful entrepreneurial projects. He’s now focused on getting his new projects, Dos Amigos Taqueria and Easy Tiger • Gin Bar, on their feet.
Let’s hear from Calvin himself about his best tips on how to take on and prepare for the opportunities and challenges in Saigon’s food and beverage business.
Calvin Bui, founder of El Camino.
Who guided or mentored you in the starting days? What concepts have you opened in Vietnam?
I didn’t really have a mentor during my early days in Saigon, and perhaps that’s why all my businesses failed. Concept-wise, I’ve tried to open everything I could think of in this city. I first stayed safe with just opening a fried chicken and rice spot in the early 2010 days. Then I became more experimental, such as street-styling pasta with a cart and some plastic stools on De Tham street, to selling moules mariniere and garlic bread as a delivery model before there was even such a concept. I even had a 6-month pop-up test kitchen at Winking Seal in 2017.
“Concept-wise, I’ve tried to open everything I could think of in this city.”
In terms of food, I diversified myself a lot. From loaded french fries and Korean chicken wings in 2014 to Baja-style Mexican food in 2016. In my usual unconventional tendencies, I asked myself based on these two experiences: why not combine them together? So in 2018, I opened El Camino and started selling Korean tacos. And now in 2019, I opened Dos Amigos Taqueria and Easy Tiger • Gin Bar as well.
What are the stand-out features of the dishes you create?
I try to think of dishes that a customer would want to show off to his or her friends back home. Something that is familiar to the customer yet done in a way that is unusual. What we do is always special to Saigon. We may not serve Vietnamese food per se but most of our ingredients come from the local markets and farmers.
“I try to think of dishes that a customer would want to show off to his or her friends back home. Something that is familiar to the customer yet done in a way that is unusual.”
Why is delivery becoming the go-to for so many new restaurant owners?
My belief is that we live in the moment in which everyone is busier (or at least perceived as) with their personal lives. In the eye of the consumer, they can now eat any cuisine they would like to without having to wait in line for it. And it doesn’t cost the consumer a single dong. I think the art of dining out is slowly starting to fade with the new generation. Not to say that restaurants won’t be in existence. It’s that we are starting to see more people are cooking at home, cooking with friends, or having food delivered to their doorstep. It’s the evolution of the consumer.
“My belief is that we live in the moment in which everyone is busier (or at least perceived as) with their personal lives.”
What tips should restaurant owners know in order to optimize their menus for the delivery experience?
Not everything can be delivered well. Test and be choosey with what your delivery menu would look like. If food has to sit around 45-60 minutes in traffic, be mindful that the food does have a shelf life. My biggest tip to restaurants who utilize the delivery model is to put out a really good product and raise the bar for food delivery. Don’t just throw food together and try to make a buck. It’s someone’s hard earned money you are receiving. Be honest, be better.
Why are none of your venues not listed with any of the food delivery companies?
I’m trying my best to keep our brand, Dos Amigos Taqueria, off of the delivery sites and create a more home-grown grass roots level vibe. We built our own online ordering system. We also provide 1-on-1 customer service via our online fanpages. By doing this, it simplifies the ordering process since you always have a human being on the other side of the text. We can say that we know who our customers are. We want to be able to understand what our consumers like and what they dislike. By keeping ourselves off of the predominant ordering sites that plague our industry, we can keep our prices low and pass the savings onto the customers like we’ve always done.
“We can say that we know who our customers are. We want to be able to understand what our consumers like and what they dislike.”
Please share with Vietcetera readers some tips to get a great experience when visiting your venues.
To all the readers out there, we are just like you. We want to go have a fun experience when we dine out. We want interesting and affordable food and drinks. We want to see the human side in the business and support local small businesses. This is what we always have in mind at all of our restaurants and bars. We’re built on people. The people are always first.