Iconic soup lands Slovakian Vietnamese on a Forbes map

By Viet Anh   June 18, 2020 | 09:00 pm GMT+7

Vietnam’s iconic rice noodles soup, pho, has landed a 27-year-old Slovakian Vietnamese woman in a Forbes 30 under 30 listing.

Lucia Thao Huong Simekova is all smiles on the cover of the Forbes magazine’s April issue.

A spokesperson of the magazine has confirmed that she is the first person of Vietnamese descent to be on the Slovakia 30 under 30 listing.

She is there because in just two years, her restaurant chain, Pho, has raked in turnover of over 3 million euros ($3.4 million).

"I’m very grateful to be chosen to be on Forbes’s list. It gives me greater motivation, because my restaurant is still very young," Huong told VnExpress.

Lucia Thao Huong Simekova (left) and other young entrepreneurs are featured on the cover of Forbes magazine in Slovakia. Photo courtesty of Forbes Slovakia.

Lucia Thao Huong Simekova (L, 2nd) and other young entrepreneurs on the cover of the Slovakian edition of the Forbes magazine. Photo courtesy of Forbes Slovakia.

Early business schooling

Born in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, Huong grew up in the Ivanka pri Dunaji village, about 15 kilometers west of the Slovakian capital. Her father is from Hanoi and her mother a native of the northern province of Nam Dinh. The two met in the Polish capital of Warsaw after completing their studies in Europe.

The eldest of four siblings, Huong started to help her parents organize the clothing inventory for their business while she was in elementary school. When she was a high school student, Huong went with her father to Poland to find new clothing items and kept a record of sales at different exhibitions they participated in across Slovakia.

As the only people of Vietnamese ethnicity, Huong and her siblings were often the subject of mockery at school and on the streets in their village. The fence surrounding their home was frequently defaced with images deriding their heritage.

"The discrimination made me determined to do well in school, to prove Vietnamese people are equal to any task," Huong said.

As a student, she competed in many middle-school math contests and won prizes. Later, she also won a €35,000 scholarship ($39,388) from the British International School Bratislava which could have led her to a seat in an Ivy League institution like Harvard or Oxford University. However, she chose to study at a branch of the Seattle University in Bratislava.

After her education, Huong found gainful employment. She was working for Heitman, one of Slovakia’s foreign investment funds, when she moved to England to do her masters in real estate and finances at the University of Reading. After graduating from there, she started to work for Sharow Capital, a property management and real estate investment company specializing in Central and Eastern Europe.

Between different fulltime jobs, Huong never gave up on her dream of opening a Vietnamese restaurant, recreating traditional meals with food her mother made at home.

The impetus for doing so came in August 2017 when Huong and her cousin, Thang Tran, sold Vietnamese dishes in a booth at the Grape music festival in Piešťany in western Slovakia.

They worked tirelessly for two days, serving delicacies from Vietnam to what seemed like an "endless" line of people. The two bestsellers were pho bo, the flat rice noodle soup with beef and bun bo nam bo, the southern Vietnamese rice vermicelli soup served with beef that is thicker and fatter than the pho version.

The huge interest in Vietnamese food at the festival pushed Huong to open her own restaurant. After discussing it with her husband Jozef, who’d known about Huong’s dream since they’d started dating, she called her cousin Thang and invited him to be the head chef.

Thang, also hailing from Nam Dinh Province, where pho bo had originated, had already worked for several restaurants in Slovakia and Germany.

"We opened the first restaurant at the Bory Shopping Center in Bratislava in late 2017, three months after the music festival experiment," Huong said.

Huongs husband Jozef (left) stand with her and her cousin Thang Tran in front of one of the restaurant branches in Slovakia. Photo courtesy of Lucia Thao Huong Simekova

Huong's husband Jozef (left) with her and her cousin Thang Tran in front of one of the Pho restaurant’s branches in Slovakia. Photo courtesy of Lucia Thao Huong Simekova.

The restaurant, named after the iconic Vietnamese soup, was an immediate hit. Huong said the secret was the aromatic and rich broth that is cooked for 10 hours. By February 2019, Huong had opened the second and third restaurant in two other shopping centers – Avion Shopping Park and Eurovea Gallery, both in Bratislava.

Celebrating the difference

With the opening of her third restaurant, Huong quit her job at Sharow Capital to invest her energies completely into her new venture.

While cousin Thang is in charge of creating the menus for the restaurant chain, Huong oversees its business operations. Her knowledge of commercial real estate has helped her go against the grain and prove the restaurants can do well in shopping centers.

Once pushed to succeed because she was mocked for being different, Huong is proud of the difference today.

"Every day I smile. I no longer wonder about the fact that I’m different. That difference has brought us success."

A bowl of pho at Huongs restaurant. Photo courtesy of Lucia Thao Huong Simekova

A bowl of pho at Huong's restaurant. Photo courtesy of Lucia Thao Huong Simekova

Growing the chain helped Huong realize she has inherited from her parents the values of diligence and commitment to one’s family. She feels blessed that she and all her siblings live close to one another in Bratislava and reunite for family gatherings every Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival.

The family values also deepened Huong’s connection with her homeland, Vietnam.

She had felt the same heartwarming family affection when she first visited her family in Vietnam when she was 10, which left a long-lasting impression in her. After the visit, she wrote letters to her relatives in Vietnamese.

Last year, Huong and her husband brought their 10-month-old baby boy to visit Vietnam.

While Huong is fluent in Slovak, French and English, her Vietnamese is rusty and she needs "a few days" to brush up, she said.

Vietnamese touch is key

Like many other businesses in the food and beverage sector, Huong’s restaurant chain has also been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

When Europe became the world’s coronavirus hotspot, Slovakia and many other countries imposed national lockdowns. The chain’s sales plummeted, and profits fell a whopping 80 percent.

She decided to employ a number of measures to save the business, including registering her business on food applications, partnering with online sales companies, reducing certain costs, halting new investment and reviewing operations on a weekly basis.

She asked her staff to temporarily stop taking public transport and going to public entertainment venues. A few of her employees returned to Vietnam and agreed to a pay cut.

When Slovakia eased lockdown restrictions, Huong opened one of the branches located in an area with high traffic and increased takeaway orders while also expanding her delivery zone.

Her husband, a real estate professional and Vietnamese food enthusiast, is impressed by her devotion to the business even when she was pregnant with their son.

"Despite the fact she is successfully running business of 50 people, she is the most caring mother, she still knows how to go crazy and funny," he said, adding that he will support her ventures wholeheartedly.

Jozef said he cannot forget the first time they met at a party at a bar in 2012. He quickly fell for the shy and beautiful 19-year-old woman. Once he spoke to her, he knew that he would be seeing a lot more of her. It was only later that Jozef found that Huong had won the Miss Vietnamese title in Slovakia.

The pandemic has not dented Huong’s entrepreneurial zeal. She plans to open another restaurant at a strategic location after the pandemic crisis passes. She wants to secure jobs for her 50 employees, two-thirds of whom are Vietnamese. For her, Vietnamese people are key to maintaining consistency in the food’s taste and quality as also its health benefits. They are also key to her larger ambition.

"I want Pho to not only become the biggest chain, but also the most trusted one in the restaurant scene in Central Europe."

 
 
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