Moveable Feast

With relish, Saigon embraces the food truck trend

The food truck concept has been around since 1866 when Charles Goodnight wheeled out his Texas Panhandle Food Wagon, but it has taken over a century and a half for this mobile catering model to transcend its roachcoach classification to become the rich and vibrant gourmet food truck trend that has been taking over the US by storm since 2008. According to Foodbeast, there are about three million food trucks operating in America in 2012 alone and, supported by a similarly eye-brow raising number of food truck rallies and parks, this number has only grown since then. Suffice it to say, the food truck business is a fever that doesn’t look like it will cool down any time soon.

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This month, the fever comes to Saigon in the first-ever gourmet food cart rally in a single space. While the idea of mobile food has been around for decades in Vietnam, the organizers behind Street Food at Weekends wants to give it a fresh makeover along with the aim of assisting young startups in the food and beverage business. It’s a weekly two-day event that will debut April 2nd and 3rd at the Youth Cultural House (4 Pham Ngoc Thach, D1).

“We have three main goals,” says Nho Hoang, a manager at the city Youth Cultural House. “One, create a startup environment that encourages young and small businesses. Two, create a new hotspot for urban culture, a place where young people can go to enjoy some good, clean fun. Three, create a new attraction for visiting tourists.”

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To this end, the event is organized with policies and rules that are fairly inviting and open to most people. Just about anyone, expats included, can apply for a truck space in the event so long as they have a good food truck concept and design. A VND1.5 million fee is required to take care of overhead costs such as space, water, electricity, security, sanitation and entertainment programs attached with the event.

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According to Hoang, there will be 19 food carts serving 60 different dishes and drinks at the event. “We have a variety of things, from milk tea to soda cocktails, from shaken fries to sushi and Korean barbecue,” he says. “Food truck… or in the case of Vietnam, food carts, because truck movements in the city are limited due to traffic laws. Most of the dishes we have seen are fairly simple in style and concept. We look forward to nurturing the food cart culture until we can sample some truly gourmet dishes like our friends in America.”

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Meet the Carters

The Ne’Mer Drinks,the beverage brand and beverage cart, was founded by Nguyen Chi Hoang Nam three years ago. This year, with financial backing, they were able to start traversing the streets selling drinks such as their signature Thai tea and peach tea with homemade all-natural toppings. Nam says his business concept revolves around clean, high quality ingredients and is aware that food hygiene and safety is a big concern right now in Vietnam.

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“The beauty of a food cart is in its mobility and low cost setup,” he says while pointing at all the brick and mortar restaurants on Huynh Thuc Khang. “This is a gold level location. A tiny shop here costs at least USD2,000 to USD3,000 of rent per month but since we don’t actually have a fixed location, we don’t have to pay a dime in rent… and yet we still get to enjoy the benefits of a first-class location.”

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Instead of opening up a second café Nam opted to set up a drink cart, citing cost as his key motivator. “A café, even on a shoestring budget costs at least VND300 to VND400 million in investment, and about VND20 to VND40 million for monthly upkeep. With that kind of number, I don’t know if I’m able to recoup that in less than five years. But a cart costs a tenth of that amount and I can see some money back in a matter of months.”

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Specializing in flavored fries (cheese, beef, spicy prawns and roasted chicken), Lapi Shakin’ Flavor Fries started out with one cart two years ago and now owns a small fleet of 23 that roams various Saigon districts and adjacent towns such as Hoc Mon. Founded by Le Minh Tuan, his first cart cost VND7 million to make and credits his success to the wheel. “Mobility leads to visibility. I realize that very early on. If chain stores have great brand visibility because of their number, then food cart has even greater visibility because they move around from street to street, district to district. That’s why I thought this model was perfect for franchising,” he explains. “I recouped my initial investment in under two months. From that point on, it’s just profit and uncontested growth.”

Tuan says his next step, aside from continuing to increase his fleet, is to add more flavors to the menu. “I’m thinking German sausages and something else a little more on the gourmet side. Some people may think it’s just fries, but I think, with time and effort, fries can be gourmet too.”

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