A Hot Bowl of Pho

by AFP, Jan 16, 2006 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

HO CHI MINH CITY, Jan 15, 2006 - Round the clock for over a century, millions of Vietnamese have enjoyed nothing better than a hot bowl of pho, a traditional soup which blends minced meat, rice noodles, herbs and spices.

On this simple but legendary staple dish, one family is trying to build a culinary empire in the same way Americans turned the humble hamburger into the world's most common fast food.

Launched in June 2003, the Pho24 chain already has 20 restaurants in Vietnam and one in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Each one cooks between 400 and 500 bowls of pho every day.

The concept is simple. "Modern restaurants but which keep a Vietnamese authenticity, with a traditional, delicious and healthy dish," says Ly Qui Trung, general manager and a shareholder in the chain with his mother and four brothers and sisters.

An elegant and amiable native of the former Saigon with an infectious smile, the 39-year-old Trung typifies a new generation of Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

Like them, Trung left Vietnam to study abroad where he learned the workings of the modern market economy before returning home to use this knowledge and, as Trung stresses, "do something for the success of (the) country".

Trung is never very far from the nationalist pride dormant in almost every Vietnamese. "I would like Vietnamese people to be proud of Pho24 and that young people say: 'oh, that guy begun as a waiter and a receptionist, now he manages a chain with a presence abroad'," he says enthusiastically.

The success of his operation is, he says, also a question of culture, in the face of competition from the large American fast-food chains. In the southern commercial centre of Ho Chi Minh City, KFC is already doing well, further fuelling Trung's ambition to succeed. "Otherwise, one day, all the young people will go to KFC or McDonald's," he says, although the golden arches of the burger chain have yet to be seen in Vietnam.

The idea of Pho24 came to him on a plane journey in 2002 when his neighboring passenger, an Australian, told him he was searching for good pho restaurants in Asia.

Four years later, his ambition is to become a tycoon of this traditional soup which is a real calling card for the local cuisine along with spring rolls and green papaya salad.

He is even hoping to put the soup business on the stock market within five years. "I dream of turning Pho24 into a big Asian group," he says. A second restaurant is opening in Jakarta and the group hopes to expand into Australia, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines this year. "After Asia, the second stage would be the United States."

Sweet irony

In Vietnam, an efficient businessman needs some kind of political acquaintances. Trung knows it. Pho24 is on a list of the 20 brands which will benefit from state aid for training and promotion abroad, via magazines and exhibitions.

Receiving help from a communist government is a pretty irony for this son of Ly Qui Chung, who was information minister for the last government of South Vietnam for three days in April 1975. At the end of the war, with the whole country having fallen under the iron rule of the northern Communists, Trung's family had to start again from scratch. His mother opened a street canteen with some tables and plastic chairs and his father started working again as a sports journalist.

Fifteen years later, a customer of the hotel in which Trung was working as a receptionist helped him leave to study in an Australian university, later completing his course in the United States. After working as general manager of a hotel on his return, Trung then joined Nam An, the business his family had set up in the meantime. The group today has eight restaurants, cafes and ice-cream parlours in Vietnam and an establishment in Bangkok, to which are added "Pho24", their latest creation.

"We looked for a name easy to remember. Pho24 reflects the 24 ingredients used in this dish and the 24 hours needed to prepare it," explains Trung, who also plans eventually to keep his restaurants open around the clock.

It was necessary to work out a recipe which was acceptable to southern and northern Vietnamese as well as foreigners. "We wanted a completely new pho, less sweet and with less fat than the southern one, and less salty than the northern one. Every morning, during one year, we did tests," says Trung.

As for the decor of the restaurants, Trung says, "It keeps traditional elements as we want customers to feel they are still in a pho store." Simple decor, a modest space and a standardised cuisine: these are the three pillars of the Pho24 business model.

Of the 20 establishments, half are franchises - a concept on which Trung has just published a book - but with a 30 percent stake from the head office which ensures they follow to the letter the principles of the chain.

At the end of 2008, Pho24 hopes to have 97 restaurants in Vietnam, including 70 percent in franchises. "We want to become one of the main players of quick service restaurants in the country," said Trung.

The entrepreneur is already teeming with other ideas. A chain of Springrolls24 dedicated to spring rolls? BunCha24, devoted to the traditional dish of noodles and meatballs? He can't stop himself from smiling as he lists the names. He has already registered them as trademarks.

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