The first Western restaurant chain in Vietnam, this year the Al Fresco’s Group turns 20. Emily Petsko speaks to the chain’s founder, Jacko, to hear their story
If you find yourself at the original Al Fresco’s restaurant on Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung, and you suddenly forget what country you’re in, don’t panic. That’s the intended effect.
The tables are dressed in white cloths, air conditioners pump cold air into the room, and Heinz ketchup and house-made hot sauce are stationed where the pickled garlic would normally be. A wide-screen television suspended from the ceiling plays Al Fresco’s advertisements on loop.
“Is everything okay with your meal?” my waitress, Nhung, asks me several bites into my chicken fajitas. The reason I know her name is because she told me to call her if needed, and just as a reminder, a nametag is pinned to her shirt.
No “em oi” necessary.
While the dining experience is quintessentially Western, I’m surrounded by Vietnamese customers — young couples sharing a bowl of pasta, middle-aged men drinking beer, and office colleagues gabbing more than eating.
It wasn’t always this way. When it opened 20 years ago, the overwhelming majority of customers were Western expats. Now, about 70% of diners are Vietnamese, and Al Fresco’s Group restaurants — including other chains like Jaspas and Pepperonis — number 52 in Vietnam.
The road to become the first Western restaurant chain in Vietnam was a bumpy one, pockmarked with many potholes along the way. There were language barriers, a lack of freezers (staff stored meat in their homes), and even a failed poisoning attempt by a disgruntled chicken supplier.
The odds were stacked, but then again, so were the heaping plates of BBQ ribs that kept customers coming back.
Down Under Roots
Craig “Jacko” Jackson, an Aussie with an extensive background in hotel and restaurant management, moved from Hong Kong to Hanoi in 1996 to open Al Fresco’s.
He had known his business partner, Wayne Parfit, since he was 10 years old, and a Vietnamese woman they knew agreed to serve as the legal restaurant owner.
As for why they chose to start a business in Hanoi — where anti-foreign sentiment was still present two decades after the American War had ended — Jacko says it was all about the connections.
“We had a good Vietnamese partner,” he explains. “That’s always the tricky thing in Asia because the laws were that foreigners couldn’t own businesses, so we needed to have a very trustworthy and honourable person, which is not that easy to find. So wherever you find that person, that’s where you should probably set up.”
The idea was to create a “Western comfort food” restaurant with Australian hospitality and a menu boasting pizza, pasta, tacos, steaks and ribs.
“That was very popular when we first opened because everyone was sick of rice and noodles,” says Jacko.
At the time, only two restaurants in Hanoi served Western cuisine, and both were focused on top-end clientele. Jacko, however, had other ideas. He wanted to make Al Fresco’s more affordable. Yet getting things going wasn’t easy.
Without adequate storage space, staff had to store imported steaks and salmon fillets in their own freezers, and bicycles were the only mode of transport. Poor English among waiting staff was another issue, especially as Jacko’s policy was to slash the tabs of entire parties if just one order was wrong.
As it turns out, spaghetti vongole sounds a lot like spaghetti bolognese.
“There’d be three or four meals and one would be a mistake,” he recalls. “I’d free the whole table because that was the standard that I was aspiring to.”
Business picked up steadily, but he didn’t take a salary for the first year of operations. Yet more troubling were the attacks. Everyone was struggling to get by in those days, and competition was fierce.
“I had rat poison put in chicken breasts,” says Jacko, “and I had broken glass put in things, like crushed-up glass put in food items from the market because I stopped buying from [one supplier] and bought from another one instead.”
Another supplier tipped him off about the poison, and other locals he had befriended offered their help along the way.
“If I didn’t have Vietnamese protecting me, I wouldn’t have been able to stay open. The only way was to have local help.”
At some point along the way, Al Fresco’s gained local trust and won over Vietnamese taste buds in a big way.
Pepperonis restaurant, which opened in Hanoi in 1997, started offering an all-you-can-eat buffet for only VND20,000. It was the first buffet in Hanoi outside of the five-star hotels, and locals had eyes bigger than their stomachs.
“They’d bring in plastic bags and start sweeping the food off the buffet into the bags to take home,” says Jacko. “It was a very tough learning experience.”
Yet, for most Hanoians, pizza wasn’t love at first bite. In Vietnamese it was called a “cake” and people would say: “You only need one slice and you’re full.” Cheese turned out to be an acquired taste.
But after serving up tasty pizzas with ample toppings for several years, locals started to change their minds. The group ran a survey before opening the first Al Fresco’s restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003 and asked Vietnamese to rate how much they liked pizza. In Hanoi, pizza polled between 8 and 10, with 10 being the highest.
In Saigon, the highest rating was 4, and most Vietnamese ranked it a 2 or 3. Jacko attributed this to the fact that Vietnamese in Saigon had only eaten “crazy bad pizzas” with knock-off ingredients like Happy Cow cheese.
“We came to Saigon thinking that we were gonna kill it because everyone’s going to be so Western-oriented,” he says. “But actually, Saigon was a whole new experience because [people] had been served quite sub-standard food here for a long time.”
By that time, Al Fresco’s Group was already operating a handful of successful restaurants in Hanoi, and they wanted to try their luck down south. It paid off. They continued to win over both expats and local customers, and the number of pizza lovers seemed to grow by the day. They later opened more restaurants in Saigon and one in Danang.
Two Decades Later
For their 20th anniversary this autumn, Al Fresco’s will host special promotions and giveaways. They plan to display their original menu to prove how little their prices have fluctuated over the years. Some prices have even come down. A large pepperoni pizza that originally cost US$10.50 (VND236,000) is now priced at just under US$10.
Despite facing heavy competition from other Western restaurants, Jacko says Al Fresco’s hasn’t taken much of a hit. In fact, it seems just as popular as ever.
“Vietnamese can’t believe that a foreigner has survived in Vietnam,” he explains. “Any Vietnamese will just say ‘There’s no way that a foreigner can do this’, but we have.”
He adds: “We’ve been lucky. We’ve had a good Vietnamese partner and my staff swung over to help me and support me while they were getting a lot of pressure to not help the foreigner. I was very lucky that my staff stood by me.”
To see all the stories in this collection, please click on the following links:
Confessions of a Wine Supplier
The Al Fresco's Story
The Pho Restaurant that Harboured an Uprising
The Tofu Widow