Struggling restaurateur exports first fish porridge to US

July 22, 2023 | 09:21 pm PT
Struggling restaurateur exports first fish porridge to US
Ca Men’s founder Nguyen Duc Nhat Thuan. Photo courtesy of Ca Men
Thuan, who in 2018 had hugged his wife and cried inconsolably, because he was broke after three years of running restaurants, recently signed a US$5-million export deal.

Nguyen Duc Nhat Thuan, 32, said the contract, valid until 2026, would enable him to export millions of packs of the porridge to the fastidious market every year.

"Snakehead fish porridge is the first dish in Quang Tri to be packaged and exported to the U.S.," he said, revealing that it took him eight years to get that contract.

He had left Quang Tri, his hometown, in 2009 to study at the Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City. After graduating, he worked for a monthly salary of US$1,000.

In 2015, he quit his job to open a small restaurant named Ca Men in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Phu district, and then moved it to Phu Nhuan District. His restaurant was famous for wet cakes, snakehead fish rice porridge, duck porridge, chicken cooked with laksa leaves, and fried eel vermicelli.

He got the ingredients and spices from Quang Tri by air. In the early stages his main customers were Quang Tri folk, who supported him with word-of-mouth marketing.

By 2018 Thuan had opened three restaurants.But he had trouble managing the chain. He said: "Due to poor management, at the end of 2018, after paying salaries and bonuses to employees, my wife and I had only VND500,000 ($21) left. We hugged each other and cried."

A business partner texted him asking him to repay a debt of VND5 million. His wife had to pawn her laptop to pay the money. "It is the most unforgettable moment of my life."

During the Lunar New Year festival that year, Thuan switched off his phone, shut himself at home for three days and reviewed the problems his business faced.

He decided to close two of his restaurants and restructure, especially human resources and finance. After six months the restaurant started to make good profits. "The crisis had been caused by bad management, but customers still loved my restaurant. After the restructure they supported it more than ever, causing sales to soar."

When things had stabilized, Thuan got an idea for a new product. In June 2022 the restaurant launched snakehead fish rice porridge in packs.

Each 230-gram pack of porridge included snakehead fish fillet, rice powder soup, condensed sauce, satay, and freeze-dried scallions.

Ca Men’s founder Nguyen Duc Nhat Thuan looks at the first batch of snakehead fish rice porridge bound for the U.S. last month. Photo courtesy of Ca Men

Ca Men’s founder Nguyen Duc Nhat Thuan looks at the first batch of snakehead fish rice porridge bound for the U.S. last month. Photo courtesy of Ca Men

It just needed to be quickly warmed up before being ready to eat.In less than a year Thuan had signed up 10 agents in Vietnam and introduced the product in the U.S.

"I remember one time at 2 a.m. an 80-year-old woman, who had been living in the U.S. for three decades, called me and cried. She said my porridge evoked the taste of the porridge her mother used to cook."

Within a year Ca Men had sold a total of 200,000 packs of snakehead fish rice porridge at home and abroad. On June 13, Ca Men signed with LNS, which distributes Vietnamese agricultural products and foodstuff to U.S. supermarkets and stores, a contract for exporting the porridge.

Nguyen Thi Kim Huyen, chairwoman and founder of LNS, said: "The demand for specialty products from Vietnamese people living in the U.S. is very high.

They are willing to spend good money to buy food from their hometown for their families."Last month the first container of the porridge was shipped to the U.S. by sea after it was certified as meeting that country’s stringent safety and other requirements.

Thuan said the contract meant Ca Men could invest in food processing equipment.

Ca Men’s plant churns out 200,000-300,000 products a month. It plans to build a second one in Quang Tri.

Thuan said he is negotiating to sell the product to some supermarket chains, and set up a distribution network in Germany. Ca Men also plans to diversify by making eel vermicelli and hot-pot sauce.

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