Good morning everybody, this is Hao Tran, your host for the Vietnam Innovators podcast. This morning, we’re super excited to welcome Asif Mehrudeen. He is the CEO of AHM Lifestyle-- best known for its current concept, Chickita. But there’s much more to it and we’re gonna have Asif share that with us today. He's known as one of the Godfathers of modern F&B in Vietnam, so we’re super excited to have him over today. We’re going to be discussing what innovation in F&B in Vietnam is like today and learn about the challenges and opportunities in the industries. So, welcome to the show, Asif! Thank you for coming over to our studios.
Before you even introduce yourself, a highly-requested question we want to ask you is: Is the F&B industry in Vietnam an easy or challenging industry?
I think a lot of people see that it is easy, but honestly, it’s one of the most challenging industries. My vision and perspective on F&B is that you need passion. If you’re going to go into the business treating it like business, I think you should already take a step back. So that’s what I have learned in my last 11 years in Vietnam. Look at the missing gaps and opportunities because Vietnam is so large and there’s still a lot happening.
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Can you introduce yourself a little?
Sure! So next year’s April will be my 12th year in Vietnam. I didn’t anticipate to stay here for so long but it has been a great journey. I came here into Park Hyatt Saigon as the Executive Chef in 2009. That's been five and a half years. Back in those days, it was all about five star hotels. I was looking at a new journey. I was fortunate to meet some partners. At the time, I was thinking about my family too: do we move out of Vietnam or stay here? My wife basically said, hey there are great opportunities in Vietnam today. So when I was approached by a couple of partners, and was given an opportunity, two empty spaces in AB Tower, I left Park Hyatt and said to my partners: “Guys! I’d love to come and do something on one condition, you let me create and drive my own concepts.”
And they trusted me. One of my partners is from Singapore, a very well established and a local partner here. I was given the ground floor of AB Tower to create a Chinese concept, and on the 24th floor-- a Japanese restaurant.
We opened our first concept on the same day as San Fou Lou and Sorae, that was my first creation. I was given full freedom and it was very exciting… lots of studying and research to fill the missing gaps in the market. But we went for it.
What are you doing now? Tell me about Chickita.
Chickita is a flame-grilled chicken concept, very simple. I saw a missing gap for a healthier, livestock food. This was my dream project, it is something that I’ve always wanted to do. Two and a half years ago, I almost moved back to Bali to do this. I was very fortunate to have met some amazing partners like CP Group, which are quite strong in agriculture.
CP is a food company based in Thailand. But the mother company for our group is CP Vietnam. So I'm very fortunate to have met them. We spoke about Chickita and they said we all agreed that we don’t have normal chicken. We wanted a more “farm-to-table” story. My partners asked me, what kind of chicken would you like. So we started playing around with different farm-fed chickens, and in the end, brown rice fed chicken came to the table.
We’re the first ever in Vietnam to have this special chicken. It all started in CP Thailand where a “Benja” chicken was created three to four years ago. We set the standard in Vietnam, to own our own farm, which is in Binh Phuoc province. It is as organic as possible minus the certificate.
As a chef, it’s probably some of the cleanest poultry I’ve ever handled. Even our Vietnamese customers, they know the difference between normal chicken and this chicken.
Have you had to educate consumers in Vietnam about the values of this chicken? What have you guys done to communicate the values and the progress you’ve made with this kind of product?
In the beginning, when Vietnamese customers started coming in, they thought it was wild chicken when they heard “free-range.” But it isn't. Our chickens are cage-free, brown rice fed, and drink natural water. It has taken a little bit of time, but one year later, people are starting to appreciate it. They know it's good.
You’ve got three, four locations now, what is the vision in terms of expansion for this concept? Is there a big enough market to support the many more stores can you guys open?
Pre-Covid, we had plans to open six to eight outlets, but unfortunately, things have slowed down and we’re just re-evaluating the business. I absolutely would like to be all throughout Vietnam in the next five to ten years.
We’re pretty excited. Vietnam is our experimental ground. I’m blessed to have international partners, where if it does work here in Vietnam, we can open into other countries. Since Chickita opened, we’ve had a number of opportunities and requests overseas. Ideally, my dream would be to bring a made-in-Vietnam concept globally.
How much is delivery a share of your business now and do you plan on doing it even after COVID-19?
Pre-Covid, we never spoke about delivery. Chickita in Thao Dien was our first location last year and it was to come in, dine-in. But as soon as Covid happened, within two weeks, the team and I were at a shock. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
I’ll tell you a funny story, we spoke to one of our friends, Luan from Speed POS, about strategies during Covid. He ordered lunch from Chickita, and when it came, as a consumer sitting in his office, I wasn’t too excited about our delivery standards. It came out wet, all the juices came, and it wasn’t hot. Straight away, I went back to the office and said, guys, obviously now is the opportunity to really up our game. So within two weeks, we really looked at how to keep the chicken warm, we're pretty much eco-friendly now except for our sources which we’re still working on...
We came up with a very nice, clean style of packaging. Today, in Thao Dien especially, 40% of our sales come from delivery.
Do you have a background with delivery in the past? You said it was never part of the game plan but have you had experience with delivery before?
Not much. I did a lot of studying with world-class brands, and realized grilled chicken is not easy to deliver. We did a lot of research, development, testing out products with our own team like people taking it home and seeing what would happen in an hour. It was a lot of in house testing and we are still working towards improving.
We also added a few personal touches. Since Covid, people staying at home are not happy with the unknown and the uncertainty. So we hand-write a card to them to make them smile. The one important factor was safety for the deliveries. We seal the bags (a lot of delivery people leave the bags open and who knows what people can do to the bags). We So that was our strength at that time.
I would love to hear about the branding. You know, Chickita, the name, which I believe in Spanish means ‘beautiful lady.’ And t’s so colorful, is that something designed to represent where we are in Vietnam? Tell us about how that started, the brand, and your vision.
Most of the concepts I've created (five now) are colorful. Before in the Vietnam restaurant industry, the colors were very flat. A lot of Vietnamese restaurants had that green, brown, and old earthy color. When I created Dì Mai, people thought I was mad and that the colors were too much. But why not? Vietnam is alive. For Chickita, my dream was to create the most colorful logo in the world. I wanted the word ‘Chickita’ to be cool and fun and sexy like when someone says “Hey let’s meet at Chickita!” It rings a bell.
I met a Brazilian designer 11 years ago in Vietnam, Maurizio from Gema Design. I said, Maurizio, I'm giving you the most colorful logo in the world, you need to bring all those colors into our location. Maurizio has designed four Chickitas till this day. A lot of people thought we were a Mexican or Brazilian restaurant. We are actually an Asian-inspired flame-grilled chicken restaurant with a colorful soul. That’s the little story about the logo and the colors. And for the facade, before people enter our restaurant, we want them to feel connected to the Asian culture.
I’d love to hear about your scope about the market. Is it able to support more concepts like Chickita that want to push the envelope for standards, quality, and branding? Are there enough consumers who are ready for those concepts? What would you say to those entrepreneurs that are thinking about opening something as ambitious as Chickita in Vietnam?
I think there’s a huge opportunity in Vietnam because there are still so many missing gaps. For entrepreneurs: study what the market is lacking. I think it’s all about lifestyle. Vietnamese people are very healthy-eating customers. Recently I saw a study about consumption of vegetables in Southeast Asia. Vietnam actually consumes the most. That tells us that unique concepts are important. Have a clear vision. At the end of the day, what we have learnt in our success is if the locals are satisfied, and you can adapt to their flavors, you can win.
Through my personal observation, Vietnamese are only healthier at home. When you look at Vietnamese dishes in general, they're all very healthy and fresh. Not as many fried foods as other Asian cuisines. But if you go out to the markets in Saigon, people are talking about fried chicken, boba, milk tea and all these sugary foods. Why is there an imbalance when it comes to that home-dining compared to the outside? Is there an opportunity for healthy foods to be out of home dining now? Do you see that continuing as a trend?
What our vision is, other than having a fried meal twice a month, you can go to Chickita and eat them two to three times a week. You’ll feel different. Do Vietnamese really want to eat unhealthy food everyday? Not really. I think culturally, it’s very different.
Let’s talk about your second concept, Greyhound.
Greyhound is an interesting brand that has over 17 locations across Thailand, Hong Kong, China, London, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Why did we bring Greyhound to Vietnam? The Vietnamese know Thai food. The ingredients are familiar. There are many cafes in Vietnam but not many people are looking at Asian-inspired flavors. Hence, we thought, let’s bring in Greyhound. It’s Thai food with a twist. It’s a cafe lifestyle where today, we believe is the future of Vietnam. Whether we’re here early or not, we believe the market is ready now. They are looking at different options. And why not international brands in Vietnam. Rather than going to Bangkok, we brought it here.
It sounds like you've covered almost all Asian cuisines. You have done Sorae which is Japanese. San Fou Lou which is Chinese, now Thai. Is it a trend in that the Vietnamese are wanting more Asian cuisines, as opposed to Western cuisines, what’s your comment on that?
In my opinion, I think Vietnamese still enjoy familiar flavors. That’s why I’ve taken the route of Asian-inspired concepts. At the end of the day, what I’ve noticed is that comfort food wins their hearts for the Vietnamese. And now, how do you raise that comfort food to another level? By giving a cool designed restaurant, cool music, cool collateral, bringing that experience out. Back to Chickita, from day one it was all about sharing. In the middle, chopsticks on the table, cutlery and everything. Make them feel comfortable in their own space. So that’s where we’ve won their hearts.
Thank you for sharing your extensive experience in the market. We’re excited to see Chickita expand. For those that don’t know, Chickita, just started a year ago but is becoming a bit of a household name for those loving healthy food and something new. And I myself have ordered a few times, so we’re excited to keep tracking your progress and your team’s progress. For those who are listening to the show today, thank you for logging on to another episode of Vietnam Innovators from Vietcetera’s radio room, here at Centec Tower, in Ho Chi Minh City. Again thank you Asif for your time this morning. Super excited to hear what’s next for you.