In our search for Vietnamese millennial and Generation Z relevant stories, the founder of The KAfe Dao Chi Anh has come up more than once. Recently, we discovered that she and her team had made a renewed effort to bring back the culture and vibe that the cafe concept, The KAfe, had become so well known for delivering in her hometown of Hanoi. As a pioneer in the food and beverage space, we asked Dao Chi Anh to share her initiative to #bringthekafeback through her team’s crowdfunding effort to deliver a socially conscious space for Vietnam’s growing millennial and Generation Z community.
Why are you starting an effort to build a new home for The KAfe lovers? How would you describe your typical The KAfe lover?
For the past 3 years, I have been waiting for something like The KAfe to open in the Hanoi market, so that me and the so called “KAfe lovers” can find a place to go to again, to enjoy wholesome meals of creative culinary styles in an upbeat atmosphere, surrounded by like-minded people, without breaking a hole in our pockets (“thủng ví” – a common saying in Vietnamese to indicate a “rip-off” price). But nothing like that ever did open. Instead, we just see more and more of the same concepts opening: Thai hot pot, Korean bbq, Hong Kong style hot pot, Japanese bbq, then came the bubble tea craze, then more hot pot, all the while international cuisines somehow started taking a backseat in the food and beverage scene of Hanoi and many other growing Vietnamese cities.
Despite me having vowed to not return to food and beverage, my team and I often ask in disappointment: why is nobody trying to do something new anymore? Why has the industry in Vietnam become so profit driven? So safe? So formulaic? So uninspiring? While the very few restaurants that do things in a new and different way will most likely be out of reach for the majority of the young Vietnamese population. The high price points are only affordable for expats, socialites or businessmen.
Over the years, I also receive many messages over social media from the young generation that grew up with KAfe, the so-called “KAfe lovers.” They were once highschool, university students or young professionals, and now three or four years later, they are more mature and they pursuing their new adulthood. They told me how much KAfe meant to them in those younger years; how KAfe always made them feel at home; how they created fond memories and friendships at KAfe; and of course, how much they miss the signature KAfe dishes such as the bread pudding, ragu pasta, the red wine sauce waffles and flavorful drinks that always made them feel fuzzy and happy inside. At KAfe, there was a unique connection between the space, the so-called “KAfe vibe” and the food that bonded these “KAfe lovers” together and also gave us a place where we felt we truly belong. If you search the hashtag #thekafe, you will know what I mean. It’s more than just a cafe. It was a place they identified themselves with. And now without KAfe’s existence, they frequently feel like something from their past is lost forever. Some even tell me they go back to the old KAfe locations at Dien Bien Phu and Ha Hoi streets just to reminisce the old times. As for me? I feel the same way, only I don’t dare to revisit these old locations, as it brings back too many memories, both happy and sad.
Lately I decided to open up and ask my followers on social media to share their “KAfe stories and memories” with me, so we could all walk down the memory lane together. And the stories came in pouring. I read and saved each and every one of them, feeling honored and touched for being a part of such precious memories in these young people’s past. Some met their long lost friend in KAfe, some found a common place to eat and spend time with their parents at KAfe where both generations could feel good and comfortable, while many others simply just miss the flavors of the KAfe dishes that could never be found again. Many also wrote to ask me for some of the KAfe recipes, because they miss it too much. It’s almost like how we miss a comfy homemade soup made by our mother or grandmother – that we spend our entire lives just trying to recreate or savor when we do get a chance to eat it again. And then there were those who felt inspired by KAfe to go and start their own ventures or anything creative. They tell me how being at KAfe made them realize that they could one day put out their creations to the world too.
All those stories inspired me to explore the idea of “bringing KAfe back.” But not as a business or cafe chain, because I still maintain my opinion that I no longer want to grow a chain with all of its commercial burden and compromises. Rather, I’d like to recreate that “homebase” for the young Vietnamese to find whatever they were looking for, to be whoever they want to be, to explore new flavors of the world, and to be treated with all the love and respect they deserve. They can eat, drink, work, talk, share, spend time alone with a book, or do whatever else they want when they are here at this cafe. They should feel welcome and safe to do and be whoever they want to be, while knowing that they are supported and loved.
What are young, modern, outward looking Vietnamese looking for in today’s food and beverage scene? What does it say about how Vietnamese look toward the future in today’s society overall?
I speak to quite a few young, modern Vietnamese on a day to day basis through my social media, my vlog, my blog and my team at work who represent the exact same audience. In today’s food and beverage scene, they all look for change: for newness, for excitement, for cultural experiences, for inclusivity, and for relevance with whatever life and stages they are going through both socially and personally. Food has never been just about food. Food is so much more than just fuel and nutrients. It’s also our identity, our culture, our views on the world, our stories about ourselves, our family and friends, and most of all, it communicates about what is important to us, be it our choice in a particular food group, cooking style, or whether the place we go for lunch is a responsible player in today’s food chain sustainability. All these things matter to the young, modern, outward looking Vietnamese of today. And all these things are not found at 80% of the ever-growing cloned chains in Vietnam. This has led to a general sense of fatigue with the scene, and the daily question of “where should we eat?” no longer stirs excitement.
What does all this say about how Vietnamese look toward the future in today’s society? I can only say one thing. They want change, they want individuality, they want diversity, they want responsibility in business, and they want to feel like their choices in consumption matter to the overall betterment of the society.
Why are more young Vietnamese people developing an interest in becoming socially conscious?
I think the young Vietnamese people of today want more control over what is happening around them. It could be the environment, climate change, pollution, their sexual orientation, basic things such as food safety and hygiene, or the choices (or even lack thereof) they have over their future. More than ever, people want to help and collaborate with others, because of the lack of help and support they receive from their families or other mentor figures. More than ever, people want to express their thoughts and creativity, as social media has given them a platform to do so. More than ever, it is harder to upset the young Vietnamese and then just sweep it under the rug, because they are a very loud bunch. This is why more and more corporations are paying attention to feedback on social media. I’m sure there are many other authority figures who listen too. That is why, we, the young Vietnamese people of today, have become more socially conscious, because we think, and we feel, that our voices and actions can be heard, and we want to use it towards something good and positive to improve the country we live in.
Why have no concepts in Hanoi been able to replace what The KAfe was able to do?
I think simply because there has been no single team such as our team in the scene in Hanoi: a mix of cultures, a mix of backgrounds, all millennials, trying to do something cool for fellow millennials in Vietnam. And most of all, we are just passionate foodies who always aspire to create new flavors and dining experiences for everyone, not just the cool and rich. That is why we did what we did with KAfe and always maintained its accessibility, despite the high costs and efforts to run such a concept. That in itself, I think, is unattractive to most food and beverage owners: high cost, high effort, but low return and challenging to scale up, which is why they go for safer, more lucrative concepts, such as hot pots, that can replicate each other easily.
What does your new home for KAfe lovers look like?
I envision the new home for KAfe lovers to look warm, welcoming and authentic. It does not need to follow any hip interior design trend to capture everyone’s attention or to give them a feeling of “status” like many other establishments aspire to do. It should feel like a home for them. Cozy, bright and comfortable, where they can enjoy their fresh, colorful meals that carry flavors from both the east and west, have their fun social gatherings no matter their background, have meaningful conversations and interactions to feel like we all belong together here. It should also have a communal space for educational workshops, talks, art galleries, book clubs and whatever they fancy to showcase, share or talk about that can bring more value to others.
What are your top 3 lessons that young Vietnamese can learn from your experience building The KAfe?
You can make an impact simply by putting out to the world what you genuinely believe in, even if nobody has attempted it before. As long as you stay true to your authenticity, people will appreciate it. KAfe was and will always be unique and one of its kind, simply because me and my team refused to do anything that would not reflect our core values and passions. The moment I started compromising them for other goals with the interference of other stakeholders, it started crumbling down. That is the most important lesson for both myself and anyone out there who wants to build something of their own.
Don’t try to copy others. This can be especially tempting in the restaurant world to copy a formula that you see working so well with others. Of course, innovation happens with inspirations coming from everything you see, but always go back to your core beliefs and ask yourself why you want to serve your audience, before you want to try something new. Be very focused on the particular group of customers you are serving (your tribe) and bring them the most value, rather than just trying to do every other “cool” brand is doing.
Know when to quit. This I feel is the most important takeaway I have after KAfe. Knowing when to quit when you no longer feel aligned to your own business, is as important as starting it. This market is so competitive, and there is no space for an unhappy CEO trying to get through the days burning him or herself down with a ship that he or she can no longer function properly. Quit, so you can start again. Quit, so you can make a positive change again. Quit, so you can do it better next time. Quit, because you still have so much time. Never forget that. It’s ok to quit, and it’s ok to fail. Just don’t stop trying.