Dan Dockery — Highway 4
Congratulations on opening Highway 4 in Ho Chi Minh City this year. We hear you’re also about to land in Hoi An. How did it all happen?
When we first opened Highway 4 [in 2000], the concept was very simple and we weren’t sure if it would take off. We tried to take something traditional, something popular, like the old tavern idea, the quan, and Son Tinh (Vietnamese rice spirits) and maintain it. There was a slowly developing middle class at that time. So we thought there was an opportunity for a higher-level restaurant that wasn’t top-end, not a five star, but a popular culture kind of restaurant.
It worked very well. It was steady at the beginning and by 2003 we opened the second restaurant, which was very popular. In late 2005, we really saw the opportunity to develop Highway 4 beyond the scope of two small restaurants in Hanoi. I wrote a franchising plan for 2006 to 2010 — we should have about 37 restaurants by now according to that plan! Then earlier this year, when we sat down with our restaurant management team, I said ‘ok this is the mission: we’re going to take Highway 4 and locate it in every urban centre in Vietnam within five years’. We finally opened in Saigon and now they’ve seen the plan for Hoi An. When I ask them [if they’re in on the mission], it’s not quite a yes, but they can see the direction we’re going in. It’s important that we’ve got the feeling within — people are starting to realise they’re part of something much bigger.
From next year, we’ll start advertising the franchise package. I think it’s a good franchise model and can be very successful within Vietnam, and also overseas.
So you’re looking at regional expansion too?
Our initial goal is to become a nationwide brand. We have received applications for franchises in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, England, Portugal, America, and four different applications from Egypt. It’s not our primary goal, but it doesn’t mean that we're not open to interest.
So when you started this restaurant did you ever imagine you would be getting franchise applications from Egypt?
No, I was desperate to get out of restaurants! My parents were in restaurants and hotels when I was a kid and I learned that it destroys your life. It takes up all your time. It upsets family relationships and friendships. Yeah, it’s complete hell, so I was desperate to get away… But I enjoyed Vietnamese food and drink, and it was a very underdeveloped culinary culture here at the time … If you enjoy it, you get a lot out of it.
Vietnam has a reputation of being a difficult place for franchises to develop. Do you find this to be true? If so, why?
The legislation related to franchising is phenomenal — absolutely perfect. The franchise law is very detailed. The protection of copyright and intellectual property rights is very clear. The implementation is undeveloped. So that’s where it destroys a lot of confidence in terms of foreign brands coming into Vietnam. There’s also such a big copycat culture here. People are very good at following. But it’s not a lack of creativity — people here are quite creative but they just see what works and are happy to jump on the back of that. They’re not so accustomed to trying something untested. Which is one reason why I think the franchise concept could be popular here. The mentality here is ‘Ok it works then let’s get involved’. — Interview by David Stout
Jimmy Pham — KOTO Vietnam
“You know, when I had the first trainees at the new centre in Saigon I started breaking down a little bit,” says Jimmy Pham, the Vietnamese-Australian founder of not-for-profit restaurant and vocational training program, KOTO Vietnam (Know One Teach One).
“It was a very emotional time because we’ve gone full circle — when I first came to Vietnam, my first encounter with street kids was in Saigon. Then about five years ago, when I went back to the same street, one kid, who could no longer grow because of a severe heart condition, took me on a tour of the area. He told me that some of the kids I had met before were now dead or single parents. It was a heart-breaking journey for me and made me want to start [KOTO] in the south.”
The social business opened its second restaurant amid the bright lights of Ho Chi Minh City in October 2011. The two-story restaurant in District 3, like that on Hanoi’s Van Mieu Street, has an open kitchen and bricks in the wall labeled with names of supporting organisations. While the food served in Hanoi is traditional and international, the dishes being crafted in the south are ‘a lot more fusion’, says Jimmy, who also sees the difference in clientele: KOTO Hanoi mainly caters for tourists, but the main support in Ho Chi Minh City is currently coming from the foreign residents.
“Feedback has been really positive so far,” says Jimmy. “We never rely on ‘please come and support us because we’re a charity’, I think we’re relying on our own credit; good food, great service… while giving the restaurant in Saigon the flexibility to find its own identity.”
The 24-month hospitality and English language training programme has so far seen 325 students graduate nationwide — many of whom have gone from living a disadvantaged life to working in top flight domestic and international hospitality industries. It began with Jimmy in 1996, when he opened a small sandwich shop in Hanoi to give employment to street children he had been sponsoring.
“I was working as a tour guide travelling around Vietnam for four years, looking after kids out of my own income — through accommodation and schooling. When they said they appreciate my help but really needed a job, that’s how the concept of KOTO Hanoi began.”
According to Jimmy, it grew organically in the capital, first with nine students, then 20 and then 30. But in Ho Chi Minh City, the first intake of students was 25 and development has been quicker — already over 150 students have been trained in 18 months since the school opened. Now that the restaurant is ready, KOTO’s Ho Chi Minh City students are busy applying their training to the real world. — Interview by Ian Paynton