Tuesday , July 16 2024

Vietnamese couple makes popular desserts in Tokyo


Tokyo’s Narita Airport security was surprised when a Vietnamese couple, Mac Duc Manh and his wife, entered Japan with suitcases packed with glutinous rice, beans, and coconut milk, essentials for their startup business.

Manh, 34, from the northern province of Hai Duong, came to Japan to study in 2013. And it was there that he met and fell in love with a girl from his hometown, Nguyen Ngan Nhi. The couple returned to Hai Duong for their wedding two years later.

When they traveled around visiting relatives to hand out wedding invites, Manh noticed that one of his family members had an extremely popular stall selling Vietnamese sweet soup desserts made of simple ingredients such as beans, coconut milk, dried bananas and papaya, and syrup.

He thought his new home in Tokyo could be a potential market for this treat as there were few Vietnamese eateries in Japan, and the rare ones that did exist were able to sell their dishes for premium prices: a serving of bun cha (Vietnamese vermicelli with grilled pork) was selling for the equivalent of an average hour’s salary.

He figured that if he could find success at such a thing, his family would have the stable source of income they needed.

Manh discussed the idea with his wife and the newlyweds decided to first learn the recipes for three types of sweet soup desserts: sweet soup with mixed toppings, yogurt served with sticky rice, and sweet soup with jackfruit.

They researched the recipe on the Internet and went through a lot of “trial and error” sessions in their 20-square-meter apartment during the summer of 2015. It turned out that making the dish was not as easy as they thought. Nearly all ten of their first batches were failures and had to be thrown away.

When they finally figured out the recipes, Manh took photos of the dishes and posted them to Vietnamese communities in Japan. His first post garnered nearly 4,000 interactions, and his phone kept ringing with continuous orders coming.

Mac Duc Manh delivers Vietnamese sweet treats to regular customers near the Shinokubo station in Tokyo May, 2015. Photo courtesy of Manh

Mac Duc Manh delivers Vietnamese sweet treats to regular customers near the Shinokubo station in Tokyo May, 2015. Photo courtesy of Manh

As Nhi was pregnant at the time, Manh was responsible for most of the tasks, including preparing the treats and deliveries. He often commuted with the couple’s only bicycle or public transportation for further distances. He also often arranged meetings with customers at the crowded Shinobuko station to do the “trades.”

Manh’s schedule was tight during the first days of business: everyday he would catch the earliest train, which took three hours to arrive at his school. He would return home at 2 p.m., then delivered between 10-15 orders to his customers. He started preparing servings for the next day, normally between 50-100, at 11 p.m., leaving him with only four hours of sleep every night.

Though the business brought good incomes, a problem began to arise. It was impossible for Manh to guarantee that he, or the customers, would be on time using public transport, which could cause subsequent delays in delivering the other orders, making it time-consuming.

Manh then switched to storing the treats in large containers and bringing them to the Shinokubo station to sell. He often chose to stand near the smoking area, as it was the place where people gathered and stayed the longest.

Japanese customers gradually recognized the Vietnamese couple’s treats after some time. However, they demanded more attention to detail and quality. There were times when Manh had to discard the whole batch just because he slightly overcooked the food or did not stir them well.

“Thinking about the money wasted made me heartbroken,” he said. “But [I knew] a small issue with the taste or quality would be enough for them to never come back.”

The commitment to quality helped Manh raise his sales to 200-250 servings per weekday and up to 300 servings per weekend day. He then decided to return to Hanoi and learn to make xoi xeo (sticky rice with mung beans and fried onions), aiming to expand his business.

Servings of Vietnamese sweet soup desserts and xoi xeo for sale at Manh’s restaurant in Dec. 2023. Photo courtesy of Manh

Servings of Vietnamese sweet soup desserts and xoi xeo for sale at Manh’s restaurant in Dec. 2023. Photo courtesy of Manh

The couple managed to save VND600 million (US$24,610) by 2017. They borrowed another VND1 billion from their relatives to establish their first restaurant in Tokyo.

Manh went through food safety training and completed various procedures to obtain the necessary permits. However, finding a location was the most challenging part. According to Manh, Japan applied a priority ranking when renting out premises, with native residents being most prioritized, followed by permanent residents, then employees of companies, and foreign students like him and Nhi being in the group of least favored renters.

It took Manh two months to complete the application process to rent a property for their business. He had to obtain proof of sponsorship from a Japanese citizen and submit a collection of his own personal financial statements. There were times when he and Nhi felt like giving up, but recalling the days Manh delivered the orders with their mutually-shared bicycle made Nhi encourage her husband to keep up his attempts.

They eventually secured a 10-month lease contract for a 25-square-meter space near the Shinokubo station, where 4 million people pass by every day.

They named their eatery “Soc Con” (Little Squirrel) after the nickname they called their first child. With limited capital, they did everything themselves. Nhi now recalls listing nearly 200-300 different tasks that they had regularly needed to complete at the time.

“From signing contracts and documents to preparing toothpicks and chopsticks for our customers,” she said. “We did everything together.”

Their eatery immediately became a gathering hotspot for Vietnamese in Japan, and they served 150-200 customers a day on average. The couple then expanded their menu to include various dishes like bun cha, pho, banh mi and hot pot, causing the restaurant to become always crowded, even fully booked sometimes.

“It’s not just about the food,” Manh said. “[The more important thing is] Vietnamese people need a space where they can gather together.”

The success of their first location allowed the couple to later launch their second and third branches in 2020, and then even a fourth branch in 2022. They now have Vietnamese staff serving customers at all these branches in Japan.

Manh and Nhi during the opening day of their eatery’s third branch in Tokyo in 2020. Photo courtesy of Manh and Nhi

Manh and Nhi during the opening day of their eatery’s third branch in Tokyo in 2020. Photo courtesy of Manh and Nhi

Manh and Nhi also decided to preserve their original Vietnamese flavors instead of catering to the Japanese palate.

“I want people to hold authentic Vietnamese banh mi in their hands, as my way to spread the cuisine of my homeland,” Manh said.

Their Japanese customers gradually became convinced that the authentic Vietnamese banh mi was the best, and their eateries started attracting customers from Australia, South Korea, and China as well. The couple’s restaurant even got featured on renowned Japanese TV network NHK during a program about the best Vietnamese food in Japan.

Despite their success, Manh and Nhi’s journey hasn’t been without challenges.

Manh and Nhi faced a new challenge last year when their customer numbers began declining. They had to sit down together to find the causes. Manh then decided that he had been too greedy by expanding the menu to almost 100 dishes, which made it hard to control each dish’s quality.

“A chef can’t master cooking many dishes at the same time,” Manh said. “Serving many dishes at the restaurant provides more choices for customers, but if the food isn’t good, it’s all a failure.”

He started narrowing down the menu again to only their highest-quality dishes: sticky rice, sweet desserts, and banh mi made the cut at the top of the list.

More recently, their business has faced another obstacle as Manh says their restaurants are now facing a challenging time again due to the economic downturn, resulting in a 50% decrease in customers while ingredient costs are rising. So their budget is razor thin again, and they’re both involved in carrying out several different roles at their restaurants.

But still, Manh believes that he and Nhi will not give up.

“The journey we’ve been through has made us stronger,” he said.

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