Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Interview with Vietcetera Cafe Owner Nguyen Bao Lam Bruce

I love coffeeshops, and I found Vietcetera while on my usual 3 to 6 mile daily walk in Saigon. The owner, Bruce Nguyen, was on-site, and ten seconds after meeting him, I knew I wanted to pick his brain. 
Bruce Nguyen
Q: How did you come up with the cafe's name? 

A: I didn't come up with the Vietcetera name. We're linked to an online magazine--they hate it when I call it a blog. They cover "new Vietnam," which could be anything from cooking, music, poetry, coffee, cocktails. We post about what's new

Q: Tell me about JAMLOS, which I see behind me on the wall. 

A: The cafe allows space for local brands. Their main location is a few blocks from here, and the owner makes accessories. Her most popular bag is a "pizza bag," a bag shaped like a pizza. We allow local businesses space and advertising. 
Q: You live in Seattle, Washington but own three cafes in Saigon. How did you manage to get to where you are today? 

A: We're now in the first cafe, our D3 [District 3] location. My wife and I moved here around two years ago, and she came six months before I did. 
Let me back up. I was born in California but moved to Seattle. I've been a sheet metal fabricator for 17 years. [Me, looking surprised.] Yeah, I'm a little older than I look. I'm 38 now, and after 17 years of experience, I'll call myself a master metal fabricator. My wife was working in corporate at Nordstrom's. We made a decision to move here a few years ago, and her younger brother actually moved to SE Asia 10 years ago. He moved first to Vietnam from Seattle, then to Singapore. When he heard we were coming to Saigon, he quit his well-paid corporate job in Singapore so we could work on projects together. He decided to open an Airbnb right above this cafe. 

Before we opened this cafe, we were learning about coffee in Seattle, the home of Starbucks. A lot of America's coffee knowledge came out of Seattle, so it's easier to learn the trade there. I got certified as a Barista Level 1 SCA [Specialty Coffee Association], but just because you have a certification, it doesn't mean you're good. At the same time, the certification helps create a consistent standard about what makes good coffee. 

I opened this cafe in 2016. This is my wife's grandfather's house, and this is where he used to hang out. My brother-in-law got the idea to use the bottom floor for a retail business. We had local connections in the construction business who already knew the governmental authorization process, so we were good on that side. 

Q: I studied law, so I always ask about permits and legal processes. In America, opening a small business can be difficult because of overlapping jurisdiction. For example, your office might be in Bellevue, but if it does business in Seattle, it might need two permits or more. It's very difficult for a layperson to figure out. It sounds like in Vietnam, the process might be easier--as long as you have local connections. 

A: In the U.S., it's so much harder to run a business than in Vietnam because of all the regulations and different permits. Here, it's easier but they have regulations, too. They do stuff like health inspections. For instance, on our bathroom, we had to install a mechanism to make sure the germs from the bathroom wouldn't reach the kitchen. I didn't think it was necessary, but it's good the government cares about health. 
Q: Is it fair to say it's easy to do business in Vietnam if you have local connections but not if you show up alone? 

A: You're outgoing, and if you were to start here right now, you would just go to social gatherings and popups and create a helpful network. I'm not technically local. They have a name for people like me: "Việt Kiều" which means foreign Vietnamese. I was born in Hayward, California. 

Q: Earlier, we were talking about how entrepreneurial Vietnamese culture is. 

A: The Vietnamese are heavily influenced by the Chinese. My mother always said, "Of course they're good at business--they're Chinese." My wife is Chinese-Vietnamese, and I'm full Vietnamese. Remember: China was here for 1,000 years, so almost all Vietnamese have some Chinese in them. A good portion of the Vietnamese language is Chinese, similar to the way English has Latin roots. 

Q :Do you use robusta or Arabica beans? 

A: We're trying to be local 20% Vietnamese, 20% Ethiopian, and 60% Honduran. As of right now, we won't serve 100% Vietnamese beans, because the Vietnamese are just not there in quality. There are some quality suppliers, but it's not stable. Speciality coffee is very new to Vietnam even though Vietnam has a humongous coffee culture. When Airbnb selected us to do a local experience, we chose to do coffee. On our tour, we show people different styles of coffeeshops, and we explain the different production methods. If you really want to know Vietnamese culture, you have to know the coffee here. Our tour goes to all kinds of coffee shops, everything from popups in alleys to white collar places. 

Let me tell you about First to Third Wave. Third Wave is the newest trend in coffee, and First Wave is the older coffee-making method. In America, First Wave is like 7-11, or percolated coffee. Second Wave is more like Starbucks, and Third Wave is the cutting edge of coffee where every detail from seed to cup is emphasized. 

Let's say I want to introduce a customer to one of my pour overs. I don't expect them to say, "I taste chocolate and floral notes," but the very first thing I hope to hear as they drink my coffee is, "Wow, that's not bitter at all." We're trying to bring the best flavors out of the coffee. We do it through education, starting from the farmers, making sure they're using only the ripest cherries and the best methods. Third Wave is QA through a collaborative process. You don't have to like specialty coffee. I don't drink wine, but I appreciate a good sommelier. Coffee is the same thing. QA matters. 

You know, Vietnam is number one in exporting bad coffee. A lot of people in the world like cheap coffee, which tends to be bitter, but that's okay--Vietnam is fulfilling a need. Most of your instant coffee has Vietnamese beans. If it sounds like I'm talking trash, I'm really not. Vietnam supplies the world with what they want. 

Q: Do you serve cascara coffee here?

A: Yes. Cascara is the skin of the coffee cherry. Outside the coffee bean is a legitimate cherry. I consider cascara more of a tea than a coffee. 

Q: You now own three cafes in Saigon. It must have been more complex opening a cafe without grandpa's house to ease into, right? 

A: Actually, it got easier. People approached us and wanted to collaborate. I want to be sure I don't take credit for everything. I have a great management team: me, my brother-in-law, my wife, and our general manager, Tuong Nguyen. Our D1 location is also called Vietcetera, but we're sharing space inside Le Saigonais Concept Store. What happened was a clothing designer opened a store and wanted a cafe inside her place. We liked her style, and when we came in, it was a lot of fun. We demolished a lot of stuff [to create the perfect space]. The cafe is in D1 behind Ben Thanh market. 

Q: One of the things entrepreneurs tell me is that it's very difficult working with your spouse and your family, especially because of the risks involved. How have you managed that process? 

A: I'll say this first. I think it's certain type of people [who have problems]. Me and my wife never really argue with each other. We might bicker but we never fully argue. I love working with my wife. Does it mean I like working with her every second? No, and she'll say the same about me. I think there's a sensibility all three of us have, which is try not to let too many emotions get involved in business. Can you cut out emotions fully? No, but we do our best to respect each other. We try to speak calmly to each other. I take this approach with everything in my life. 

Q: What was easier or harder about opening your third cafe? 

A: It got easier for us, because at first, we weren't used to working with local construction guys. We have connections with local contractors, and I have a background in construction, so I know the standards [but the issue is that] Vietnamese and Americans have different mentalities. I think it's Communism in Vietnam back in the day, when the mentality was, "Get it done quickly and move on to the next one." In America, we have more pride in ownership, whether it's something you're building or fixing. In Vietnam, they just don't have the right experience, and I have yet to meet a construction contractor who's good at what he does. I was [also] a foreman back in Seattle. I'm used to hiring people and delegating work. Here, I'll draw out what I want, and they still can't get it right. 

Q: And you speak Vietnamese. 

A: I speak Vietnamese, but I don't speak Vietnamese construction. I can have a conversation but my skill isn't at a level where I am able to get into exact terms in Vietnamese. And Vietnamese is spoken differently here than in America. 

Q: What do you think about Saigon's future? 

A: Every single time I look at Forbes' and The Economist's lists of economies booming in the next 10 to 15 years, they've got Saigon in the top ten. From the mid-1990s, Vietnam got out of the Communist approach and opened up to foreign capital. 

I was in Hong Kong two months ago, and it's like the NYC of Asia. I've wanted to see Hong Kong since I was a kid because I grew up watching Hong Kong movies, and I loved it. I thought to myself, "How can Saigon compete with this metropolis?" But I meet foreigners all the time and they love Saigon. Hong Kong is pretty damn modern, but when you're walking around Saigon, you're standing in a cross-section of time. You'll see people wearing old rice farmer hats outside modern Michelin-star restaurants. In Saigon, you're standing in a moment of time between the modern and the ancient. 

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