Vietnamese couple’s banh mi shop wows Tokyo

By Hai Hien   August 24, 2023 | 08:30 pm PT
Nguyen Huy Phuoc and his wife had to eat all the leftover banh mi (mini-baguettes) they couldn’t sell when they first launched their food cart five years ago.

Now they sell up to 1,000 sandwiches a day.

Customers queuing in front of Phuoc and Giang’s banh mi cart in June 2023. Photo courtesy of Phuoc

Customers queuing in front of Phuoc and Giang’s banh mi cart in June 2023. Photo courtesy of Phuoc

"It may sound easy," says the 35-year-old man from the coastal city of Da Nang. "But it is a journey full of exhaustion and solitude."

Phuoc first arrived in Japan in 2007 as an overseas student. He remained in the country and worked as a mentor for overseas students post-graduation.

When the company he worked for started struggling in 2017, Phuoc decided to launch a business of his own.

A business idea came to him while wandering the street one day. He saw a Turkish kebab cart serving crowds of customers. He asked himself: "What stops Vietnamese banh mi from being sold when similar dishes from other countries are widely available?"

So, he and his wife Hoang Giang decided to learn from the business model: they agreed to establish a mobile food cart that sells Vietnamese banh mi with grilled meat.

The couple knew they could learn a lot from Giang’s mother, who had a banh mi store in the northern city of Hai Phong, Giang’s hometown. And they also knew that just like kebab, banh mi was a convenient takeaway dish.

The food cart’s first advantage was cost, as the couple didn’t have enough money to rent an eatery of their own.

Next was mobility.

"I saw food stalls like that at the festivals I had been to," Giang said. "They can help owners reach more customers at more places."

They invested 1 million yen (around $7,000) renovating an old van into a food cart. They also spent several months looking for a location to place their cart and applying for permits from authorities.

Their food cart officially opened in late-2017 in the suburban area Ome of Tokyo.

Guaranteeing the authentic flavor of Vietnamese banh mi in Japan was not easy. Phuoc and Giang had to import spices from Vietnam to Japan to use in their dish, and it took them a long time to find a bakery that could supply Vietnamese-style banh mi in Japan as well.

"Japanese people are used to bread that has a hard crust and soft, fluffy crumb with almost no holes, unlike Vietnamese banh mi," Phuoc explained.

"I had to try so hard to convince a Tokyo-based bread manufacturing factory to customize their products to my order. They initially agreed to make only 50 Vietnamese-style banh mi a day."

Phuoc started off placing his banh mi cart near schools with many Vietnamese students. Things did not go smoothly right away as he had around 20 orders a day only. One problem was that the cost was relatively higher than that of banh mi sold in Vietnam.

He failed to attract local people too, as Japan’s relatively elderly population living in the neighborhoods were not familiar with Vietnamese banh mi enough to spend money on it.

Phuoc realized that if his business were to succeed, he’d have to manage to approach local people. So he started traveling as many as 100 kilometers from his house to reach office buildings and supermarkets in Tokyo, despite the fact that it could take him up to 5 hours a day merely commuting.

But the orders still went up only slightly, to 20-30 per day, since Japanese office workers often prepare their lunch boxes at home and bring them to work. And those who did go out buy lunch on their breaks doubted the simple banh mi could fill them up.

Phuoc and Giang changed their approach and started applying for permits to sell from their van at festivals in Tokyo. The first festival their banh mi cart attended was a Sakura festival in Tokyo in 2018.

Phuoc and his wife, Hoang Giang, escorting their banh mi cart to a Tokyo festival in early-2023. Photo courtesy of Phuoc

Phuoc and his wife, Hoang Giang, escorting their banh mi cart to a Tokyo festival in early-2023. Photo courtesy of Phuoc

Expecting the high number of guests attending the festival would save their business, the couple had another rough experience realizing that the majority of visitors brought their own meals with them.

"We brought home all of the ingredients we prepared for the festival," Phuoc said. "We had an argument after that and wondered if we were on the right track."

Despite their not-so-pleasant encounters, Phuoc never thought of quitting. He patiently observed his customers to figure out Japanese taste preferences and adapted the cart’s menu accordingly.

"I saw Japanese people preferring sweet and light dishes," Phuoc said. "So, I made changes to our menu based on that observation."

He also allowed eaters to customize their orders with either more meat or more vegetables added to the standard portions on the menu. He spent his time talking to his customers to better understand them and leave them with a good impression of his cart. He wanted to prove to Japan two things: the deliciousness of Vietnamese food, and the hospitality of Vietnamese people.

The subsequent changes Phuoc made raised the cart’s number of orders to 50-60, and even 100 at special festivals. The cart eventually started making profits about seven months after its opening.

Phuoc started to have "loyal" customers. He was told by many Japanese eaters who had visited Vietnam that his banh mi tasted nothing different from those they tried in the country.

"I feel glad and motivated hearing those praises," Phuoc said.

As their business started to bloom, Phuoc and Giang moved to Tokyo in 2019. They invested in another stall in the same year, and Giang quit her job to focus on managing this second cart.

They then had their third cart by 2021. They started to hire assistants as their business continued to expand.

The couple’s carts serve customers from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day now, selling as many as 1,000 orders to eaters visiting them. They added rice and side dishes to the menu. Their carts were also given permits to operate in eight other provinces and municipalities across Japan.

Phuoc said he and Giang would try their best to maintain their dishes’ quality, in order to preserve the image of Vietnamese banh mi in Japanese customers’ eyes.

And they still have their eyes set on further expansion.

"We are researching franchising," Phuoc said.

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