Ngon (meaning: Delicious) Restaurant at 18 Phan Boi Chau is the only restaurant in Hanoi listed in the top five delicious and unique restaurants in Vietnam by The Reuters Life! Singapore published on 10/08/2010. Television stations from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong came to film at Ngon Restaurants when they produced shows introducing about Vietnamese culture. The Columnist had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Pham Bich Hanh, Founder, CEO of Phuc Hung Thinh Company, about her nine-year path to success and her dream of preserving and promoting the values of the Vietnamese.
The Columnist (TC): The brand Ngon Restaurant has existed and been loved by both local and foreign diners for nearly a decade. So which factors do you think have led to the current success of the brand?
Ms Pham Bich Hanh (PBH): Whatever you try to sell, the first thing is it has to have real value that is warmly received by customers. The restaurant must be loved by customers so much that they keep coming and queuing for over the past nine years and this is not just the initial effect.
The key factor for Ngon Restaurant’s current success and customer loyalty is its overall experience from the food and service to the restaurant atmosphere and the cultural factors it shows.
Firstly, it is about the food. It has to be delicious and accepted by customers. Customer service also must be good and together with all the other elements, the atmosphere, the people, they show the authentic Vietnamese culture.
What I want to always bring to customers is their experience using all the senses. They can experience the food by tasting and looking at it. Does the food look appethizing? Do diners feel appethized by watching the chefs cook on the spot? Are they satisfied with the service at the restaurant? Does the restaurant atmosphere give them an experience of authentic Vietnamese culture, which is so different from Western fastfood restaurants?
TC: What inspired you to design this multi-sensory experience?
PBH: When I first started, I did not really think about something big. It only came from my personal experience.
The inspiration came from my childhood experience living with grandparents. I am a Hanoian and Hanoi is well-known for its cuisine. My grandparents and mother used to be in the food business and my grandmother owned a famous stall selling Phở. When I was a child, my grandmother and my mother brought me to have streetfood at Dong Xuan Market, Ly Quoc Su, Ta Hien and it eventually became my habit that every day I will go to someplace to have these snacks.
When I was grown up, I saw a business opportunity as Vietnam in general and Hanoi in particular are all about streetfood. These kinds of food are not only available in the countryside. Many people mistook our concept for a countryside market, but it is not. The concept of Ngon Restaurant is a combination of traditional dishes from different regions in Vietnam.
So I thought “Why don’t we open a one-stop place where customers can find all kinds of Vietnam streetfood? Why don’t we help people to enjoy different dishes from different regions within a short period of time without having to travel? Why don’t we provide everything right here in Hanoi so people can enjoy the specialties of different regions instead of, for example, going to Da Nang to have Quang noodle, or to Saigon to savor the Vietnamese pancakes?”
My starting point for this multi-sensory concept was just simple like that.
TC: How has Ngon Restaurant’s brand experience evolved since its beginning?
PBH: Ngon Restaurant was first opened in 2005 at 18 Phan Boi Chau, Ha Noi. It succeeded right after the opening. I still remember that from the very first days customers already had to queue to be seated. To be honest, I did not have any critical strategy when deciding the location. The restaurant at 18 Phan Boi Chau was used to be a typical old villa in Hanoi and when I started this restaurant concept, I really did not expect such great response from the customers.
The villa at 18 Phan Boi Chau was such a mystery to Hanoians so everyone wanted to explore. The villa was previously owned by the well-known doctor, Mr. Phung Ngoc Tue, who used to run a clinic there. When he closed down the clinic, his children let foreigners rent the house for office purpose and since then the villa was not open for public and very few people went in there. Thus, people were curious and wanted to see what was inside the house.
This is the reason why right from the opening day, the restaurant was very packed. Everyone wanted to explore the villa.
In 2005, I can say that Ngon Restaurant was the largest dining area yet affordable and located within the beautiful villa.
Back then, I still remember many guests after dining there exclaimed, “My God, why is the food so affordable?” Even my best friend told me, “Hanh, are you able to pay the rent when you charge so low?”
Many people brought along even 10 million dongs while they actually spent just 600 thousand dongs. They brought a lot of money because they thought dining in such a luxurious villa must be very expensive. Everybody was really astonished.
I still remember the feeling of having to wear slippers instead of high heels to quickly serve the guests. I was exhausted as there were so many customers that we could not even collect enough money from them. In the early days, there were days when we missed to collect 10 million dongs from the guests and back in 2005, 10 million dongs was a really big amount. This was the memorable moments from the beginning. The restaurant quickly received much love from customers. The more people come, the more curious the public are about the restaurant, which then attracts more to visit it.
The experience at Ngon Restaurant 18 Phan Boi Chau is an experience in a mysterious mansion right in the heart of the city with friendly atmosphere, surrounded by the orchid plants and sapodila which were there when I rented the house. I just added bamboo and banana trees to make the place more familiar to locals. The decoration and the food created a very authentic atmosphere of Hanoi, expressing the culture and history of the city.
Before the opening of Ngon restaurant, many people did not pay attention to restaurant atmosphere and decoration. People simply thought that restaurant is only about serving food. As for me, right from the start I wanted customers to experience also the culture; hence, I paid much attention to decoration and the atmosphere of the restaurant and it was such a difference that made the restaurant immediately warmly received because everybody is able to relate to it.
A 54-year-old Vietnamese from overseas commented that when she ate the sweet lotus dessert at Ngon Restaurant 18 Phan Boi Chau, she felt like traveling back to her childhood when there was still an old lady selling sweet lotus dessert right in the corner of Phan Boi Chau street.
Students who studied in the US said everytime they were back to Hanoi, they had to visit Ngon Restaurant for shrimp cakes (“banh tom”), pillow cake (“banh goi”) because the taste was very similar what their grandmothers used to make for them.
There were some 70,80-year-old guests were touched and even cried after they finished eating ‘banh duc’ because they did not think they could experience the authentic taste of the past again.
Those Vietnamese who lived oversea and from Hue said they feel like in their hometown everytime they come here.
People who live far from their hometown can really experience it here.
No matter how old they are, diners can always find themselves related to both the food and restaurant space.
That is for the Vietnamese. While for foreigners, dining at Ngon Restaurant is a chance to explore the authentic Vietnamese culture, finding out what the locals eat and how they live through the space, the food and people.
The Vietnamese are known for their hospitality, which is shown in the way our staffs always smile while serving guests. Many foreign guests were very surprised to find out that while Ngon Restaurant is reasonably priced, its staffs wearing gloves carefully peel shrimp and prepare the food, which can only be seen at premium restaurants.
When dining at Ngon Restaurant, foreign diners can feel the hustle of a market fair but with professional service, that’s what impressed them and make them feel the hospitality of Vietnamese culture.
The second branch at Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh brings to customers a different experience of Ngon Restaurant.
That new urban area is an area full of only buildings without any green space. This area lacks of a typical Vietnam market fair or street life, making it look like Bangkok or any other modern city.
When I decided to open a branch there, I noticed the lack of the traditional cultural features in urban planning so I wanted to bring the charm of Hanoi into Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh. I realized there were only pizza shops or MyWay Restaurant, a Western-style restaurant but no authentic Vietnamese food. When I was on the field trip in that area, I discovered that the small stalls there must always have a sign saying that “old-styled noodle”, “old-styled vermicelli”. This motivated me to bring the typical features of Hanoi’s Old Quarters into this new urban area dedicated to the Vietnamese.
The space at Ngon Restaurant Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh was designed based on the old Hanoi architecture style, from wood doorframe, the house, the old roof. With the slogan “Bring the charm of Hanoi to new urban areas”, my restaurant concept was immediately well received. In the early days, when I conducted site recce, I was quite nervous because there were not many diners and I was afraid that people in this neighborhood were not willing to pay as much money as those in the center of the city (laughed). Therefore, when the restaurant was opened here, in the first days, I lost over a hundred guests because there were not enough seats and they gave up waiting to be seated for so long. Now many people looking to buy apartments here only consider a property if it is near Ngon Restaurant (laughed).
I think the reason why my second branch was also a success is because I was able to bring to customers the great experience, helping them experience the Old Quarters without having to travel.
Unlike Phan Boi Chau with the experience of the intimacy and friendliness, and Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh with the experience of Hanoi’s Old Quarters in new urban area, the third Ngon Restaurant in Phan Dinh Phung brings to customers the experience of Indochina, more classy and quiet.
At Ngon Restaurant @ Phan Dinh Phung, there is still an experience of Vietnamese culture, with Vietnamese cuisine but we offer a more peaceful feeling, in order to cater to those who came with their high-profile guests, such as diplomatic delegations. The Embassy of the US in Hanoi is one of our most frequent customers. Whenever there are high-profile officials coming, they will invite them to Ngon Restaurant @ Phan Dinh Phung for dinner. Recently, there was an US general dined at the restaurant, I saw bodyguards everywhere but I did not serve personally because we do not have policy to discriminate customers. He called the manager of the restaurant, friendly patting his shoulders and said “thank you for the nice food.”
In the fourth branch at Royal City Mega Mall, the decoration had to be tailored to fit in the overall commercial space. Here, we create a quiet space like the Vietnamese with wooden tables, chairs, trees and familiar food yet modern.
At Royal City, I’m glad that the concept of traditional Vietnamese dishes is still well received in the commercial space, while fast food becomes the trend. At Royal City Mega Mall, there are more than 200 restaurants of all kinds, and I am proud that Ngon Restaurant serves the healthiest food, and warmly loved by customers. At this newly opened shopping center, more than 60% of restaurants have been closed, but the number of customers at Ngon Restaurant here has doubled the number at Ngon Restaurant Phan Boi Chau.
That’s because during weekdays, there are fewer visitors, yet Ngon Restaurant is crowded with mostly tenants, residents and office people, as well as salespeople in the mall. They came for everyday dishes at reasonable price with plenty of options, from budget to premium items.
Looking back the nine-year journey, Ngon Restaurant has tried its best to bring to customers the different experiences with the same brand. Compared to all fast food chains where the design is all the same, we want to bring that same restaurant with Vietnamese culture but different dining experiences.
TC: What is your plan for the future?
PBH: In the past, I worked in many different areas but I decided to drop out to focus on restaurant business because I think this is the source of wealth. Wealth is not only about money because of the fact that many other types of investment can make much more money faster. But what I like most about working in this business is it has brought me enriching experiences, not only about working experience but also exploring new things.
In the near future, we will open another branch in Da Nang with a total space of 2500m2. The space will be designed to look like a city gate. The motto of the restaurant is still being a place with nice food, but we will try to leverage on the local culture as the menu will have all authentic local dishes to target firstly the residents here.
TC: Vietnamese cuisine is a treasure. How do you take advantage of this treasure in your business strategy for Ngon Restaurant?
PBH: A special feature of Vietnam is diversity. I’m not either a cuisine expert or a cook so I have to learn everyday about local food from different regions.
To constantly leverage on the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine, from early 2014, we have been asking thousands of our employees to introduce about specialties from their homeland, encouraging their pride when they introduce about their homeland and those specialties; after that, the chef will decide the dish of the month to introduce to the customers.
In reality, at Ngon Restaurant, there are so many guests coming very often, sometimes they have all three meals at Ngon Restaurant on the same day. What should we do to make sure they will not get bored because the menu of the whole system can not be changed?
Based on that practical need, we launched a new program. Until now, the program is still extremely well received. Each month, we will tell a different story and introduce a new region’s specialty. For example, February is the month after Lunar New Year and we’ll introduce the “bun thang”, a traditional dish of Hanoi. It is the dish our great grandparents have in the “lễ hóa vàng” (a day when people burn clothes, money and other things made of paper for their loved ones who passed away). It is a light and fresh dish. The dish for March is “bánh trôi” (stuffed glutinous rice balls), “bánh chay” (glutinous rice balls) and “cơm lam” (vietnamese rice cooked in bamboo tubes). Or most recently, to represent August, we have introduced the Southern dishes, using the leaves of the South. September is of course about dishes related to the “cốm” (young rice). For October, we will tell stories about “chim ngói” (turtle doves) and the harvest season.
TC: As a representative brand with rich tradition, do you have any plan to “export” the brand Ngon Restaurant overseas? What is your vision for Ngon Restaurant in the global market?
PBH: There are many foreign companies from the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, and even Brazil, Brunei, China, who request to franchise our brand. Even the landlord of Pacific Palace also asked me to open at Vivo City, Singapore with a space of 500m2.
Of course, I want to expand overseas for great potential benefits but I’m still not ready to do it yet. To do this, we must understand where we are now. Have we successfully applied the professional standards and management systems yet? We have to consider all these things before making any decision because I don’t want to get stuck in the situation in which I would open too many branches without being able to manage them and thereafter couldn’t help selling them off.
This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.