At 8:30 am on a recent Saturday, my cousin calls, excitedly, to make a reservation for brunch at the buzzy Nếp Café in Fountain Valley, CA. We’re not the only ones with this idea: there are 26 others in line before us. When we pull up to a strip mall of restaurants a few hours later, there are a few parties already waiting to be seated. All three establishments here — Nếp, The Alley, and a franchise location of Dave’s Hot Chicken — are owned by Kei Concepts, a sprawling Vietnamese-led restaurant group in Orange County, CA. It’s a fitting home base: the city is home to over 200,000 Vietnamese people — one of the largest diasporic concentrations in the United States.
Nếp’s cavernous ceilings made the cacophony of a full house seem distant. Brunch itself was delightful. My cousins shared a selection of small plates, including the Xôi Mặn, a classic take on savory Vietnamese sticky rice topped with quail egg, pâté, chả lụa, lạp xưởng, and pork floss and the “Dào,” a seemingly less-traditional potato espuma with a sous vide egg and truffle oil. At the end of our meal, I met Diana Nguyen, Nếp’s floor manager, who revealed that the Dào is actually a cultural riff on “the traditional breakfast eggs and potatoes.” Her calmness and generosity of spirit epitomize Kei’s vision of good hospitality.
In September, I met with Kei’s CEO and Executive Chef Viet Nguyen and Co-CEO Ivy Ha over Zoom, where they shared the story behind the founding of their restaurant group and the risks they’ve taken to support their friends and employees and grow Kei sustainably.
Viet moved to the US from Saigon in 2002 and attended Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, CA. After consulting for over 15 restaurants, including three venues owned by Gordon Ramsey, Viet was struck by a question: Why isn’t there a Vietnamese-owned hospitality group that’s grown to the scale of the biggest American-owned companies?
With local mom-and-pop establishments struggling against the unspoken $8 price ceiling for a bowl of phở, Viet wondered if the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon would pay $15 a bowl for carefully made, delicious phở and excellent service. To make these offerings sustainable for a business and pay employees high wages, prices needed to keep up with inflation. So when he founded Súp Noodle Bar in 2014, Viet wasn’t surprised when “everyone freaked out. ‘Fifteen dollars a bowl? That’s insane.’” Ivy was one of the first customers.
“But then we started to find our own voice,” Viet added. He and his partners experimented with different price models and eventually, people came back not just for the phở, but for the quality of service. Ivy, then Viet’s girlfriend, got her first experience in restaurant work, learning the ropes of both front- and back-of-house tasks. Beyond the physical labor of food service, she also began applying her finance background and taught herself Quickbooks to take over the accounting and bookkeeping of Súp.
“We learn everything by ourselves, even today in terms of company management and structure,” Ivy shared. After Súp’s success, the duo founded The Vox Kitchen and Gem Dining, a restaurant that celebrates Vietnamese cuisine’s influences from throughout Southeast Asia. Centuries of colonialism and its resulting migrations have all contributed to characteristically Vietnamese rich flavor profiles.
“Vietnamese cà ri is actually inspired by Thai curry. Shrimp salt is actually Cambodian; in the south, we're also influenced by the French; not to mention, influences from Indonesia and Malaysia. Saigon has always been known as the greatest port of Southeast Asia besides Singapore,” Viet explained.
In 2018, the now-married couple founded Kei, named after their daughter Keira. Ivy leads the company’s headquarters while Viet oversees on-the-ground operations. While their rapid expansion and palpable popularity first sparked my curiosity for this story, Kei has also had to make tough decisions and surmount a number of small failures over the years. Viet and Ivy have never been driven by a desire to expand for expansion’s sake. Instead, they’ve continually assessed the needs of their community and tried to figure out how to contribute. As Viet put it, “All of our concepts were started to help other people or do something meaningful. Now that we have people we need to help, what can we do to help?”
As with much of the food and beverage industry, the Covid-19 pandemic had them shutting down their restaurants multiple times. They had more employees than they could put to work. Viet and Ivy had some tense discussions about the future of Kei. But they remembered their daughter Keira and Kei’s original intention to create a sturdier future for her and Little Saigon. Shutting down would’ve been the safer choice to minimize losses. Instead, Viet and Ivy decided to take on more loans. In July 2020, they opened Nếp. In October 2021, they opened Kin Craft Ramen, to offer their own interpretation of a culinary tradition they had less experience with.
Beyond looking out for their own employees, Viet has also worked to support his friends in the industry. A friend of Viet’s had been struggling with the bar she owned in Huntington Beach. When the pandemic made the situation even worse, Viet made the case to Ivy and his partners to help out his friend and save the bar. They agreed on a pop-up with a simple concept—hand rolls. “ROL was born out of necessity,” Viet says.
Not only was Kei able to help Viet’s friend, they’ve also been able to offer their employees steady paychecks as the pandemic has continued. Ivy recalled the effort she put in to accommodate her employees’ concerns about safety, work schedules, and payment schedules. It’s a culture that translates to the restaurant floor. Diana at Nếp describes her colleagues as “very driven, focused, and goal-oriented. We share the same open mindset and the spirit of comradeship.” With over 500 people currently on payroll, Viet projects Kei’s payroll to reach 1000 in 2022.
At the heart of this collective motivation is an ethic of care — a food philosophy central to Vietnamese culture. It’s a principle Viet has felt from his family.
“My mom was an okay cook. But to me, she was the best cook in the world because she cared about me. She knows I like pork belly more. When I go back to Vietnam, she makes pork belly even though she doesn’t eat fat, but she knows I like it,” he recalled. During our interview, Viet tells me, Ivy is making thìt kho for Keira.
In an email, Corporate R&D Chef Vu Tran described the culture of Kei as “intense, in a good way. We work hard to bring languages together, that of native tongue and the language of food. At our tables, we’re bringing the tradition and blending it with a modern philosophy.” The care that Viet and Ivy show for each other and their daughter extends to not only their employees but also the restaurant’s extended family of customers in Orange County’s Little Saigon.
Some dishes have found their way onto Kei Concepts’ menus after simply speaking with customers to find out what they want to see. Personal requests have turned into specially-made plates and eventually, mainstay menu items. Kei Concepts’ adaptability not only keeps their eclectic set of restaurants fresh but contributes to the evolution of Vietnamese diasporic cuisine as multifaceted and dynamic, rather than static. After all, why are only white chefs recognized as culinary auteurs in the US? Why should Vietnamese chefs and restaurateurs be limited by the false notion that because our food has a deep history, it must be sold “cheap?”
Bridging tradition with playful innovation, Kei has paved the way for more first- and second-generation entrepreneurs to challenge the status quo. “I want people to know what I'm doing and see that, ‘You can do this too, right here in Little Saigon. This is your home,’” Viet says.