Popularity for anything American is back on the rise after President Obama’s visit and the soon-to-be-passed Trans Pacific Partnership. But can we say the same for American food culture? Starbucks, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut are what have defined the American brand in Vietnam for the last decade.
Are those brands starting to lose steam with Vietnamese consumers?
Is there a next step for the American cultural resurgence in Vietnam? What will it take to get the American cultural revolution back to its original groove?
We sit down with Albin Deforges, co-founder of Quan Ut Ut and BiaCraft, to understand how he and his co-founders Tim Scott and Mark Gustafson want to bring back the flair of American culture to Vietnam.
As you may have guessed, it starts with barbecue and beer.
Why did your team start Quan Ut Ut and BiaCraft?
We wanted to introduce new Western style food to Vietnam. American food has always been around, but not in the form of American-style BBQ. We have the McDonald’s, Subways, Pizza Huts, but it’s hard to find the good, true American food.
Our approach is to stay as close as possible to the authentic style but put a small twist on it to fit the Vietnamese palate and style. Biacraft came following the reaction we had at the opening of Quan Ut Ut when we started to release small batches of homebrewed beer. We realized there was a niche to go for. At the time, neither Pasteur Street Brewery or Platinum had been released yet. We were trying to put our hands on anything that was not commercial beers. We realized nothing was really available at that time, apart from expensive European beer.
Our aim is to push the idea of offering craft beer to Vietnamese customers. We started with District 2 because it’s a safer bet as a test run for the market, but now our opening in District 3 is where we can offer craft beer to the true, local Vietnamese market.
We’ll offer 30 beers on draught all made in Vietnam and more than 40 in bottles, mostly imported.
What kind of people go to Ut Ut and Biacraft?
Quan Ut Ut is 80% Vietnamese customers at both of our current locations. Biacraft at the moment is the opposite, 20% Vietnamese and 80% foreigners. But with the District 3 location finally opening up, we plan to have similar numbers as Quan Ut Ut.
What sets your two brands apart from the competition?
Between the three owners, we have 50+ years of experience in restaurants and hospitality. Quán Ụt Ụt has always been a fun challenge to drop the script and throw the formulas out the window.
Although we take our business very seriously, most of our ideas come from a sense of curiosity and humour. If we get a kick out of an idea, we hope others will too. We are not afraid to take risks or put ourselves out in unchartered territory with items like Bacon Ice Cream or Maroulette. So in our relentless pursuit of quality and innovation, we set a challenging standard for ourselves in which Quán Ụt Ụt is able to be three steps ahead at all times.
BiaCraft Artisan Ales is a concept that was borne out of a crazy idea that a craft beer scene could work in Vietnam. When we first opened Quán Ụt Ụt, we made extremely small batches of beer, and being some of the first craft beer in Vietnam we became a hub for beer geeks.
We are very strict about keeping out the big commercial players and we exist to provide an equal platform for the little guys. We consider all the brewers that supply us as partners of BiaCraft, with their beer just as important to our bar as our own beer is. We encourage the craft brewers to grow and expand as much as they can into other outlets, but we keep our own BiaCraft beers just for sale in BiaCraft and Quán Ụt Ụt. So BiaCraft has a unique advantage of being able to support the entire craft beer scene from within, and create the ultimate platform for the craft brewers to introduce their product to market.
What are your greatest challenges for growing Quan Ut UT?
When we first opened it was challenging enough to serve 100 people a day. We refused to let our quality go down, and quickly had to figure out how to cope with the growing line. Aside from the technical challenges of cooking such enormous amounts of BBQ (we designed and built our own giant smoker), we had to reconfigure how our restaurants operated (we stopped taking reservations in favour of handling the huge amount of walk-in traffic).
The last thing we ever want to hear is “they were good when they opened, but the quality went down as they expanded”. We are fortunate to have the most amazing suppliers in Vietnam that love our vision and help us to deliver the best quality product on the market at the best price possible.
What about BiaCraft?
The challenge at BiaCraft is entirely different. Craft beer exists as an alternative to the mass-produced and mass-marketed beers. The big hurdle is to break people’s long-held perceptions that beer is about the marketing. Craft beer is about community. It’s about drinking locally, supporting your local brewers and finding something you like because it shares your values or taste.
Overall, with four restaurants in play right now, it’s a challenge to stay on top of everything from operations to accounting to HR. We grew very quickly and have plans to keep going as far as we can. Doing this in Vietnam means the rule book is not always black and white. It brings different surprises every day.
Thanks for the insights about business building in Vietnam!
Moving onto a lighter subject, what are your favorite travel destinations? Where do you want to go next? It seems like you’ve been traveling quite a bit. Why settle in Vietnam?
I love Japan, I have been already five times and will continue to go. I was in Seoul last year, and was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming Korean people were. It was an amazing culinary experience. Even though I have been living in Vietnam for 12 years, I still need to discover more hidden areas of this amazing country. I’m here because of the endless energy and opportunity, but now I also have a family here.
What are some fun facts about you?
Despite being French, I don’t smoke, I don’t like soccer, and I don’t drink coffee. But I guess I complain enough.
I arrived in Vietnam for a one year contract with a wine importer company, I was living in Montreal at the time. Despite my attempts to leave Vietnam two or three times, I’m still here.