A Fork in the Road

An in­side look at the in­gre­di­ents to suc­cess

Oi Vietnam - - Troi Oi! - Text by Tasso Dat­ten­berg-Doyle Image by Ngoc Tran

AS A RESTAU­RA­TEUR, TONY FOX has worked his way from the bot­tom to the top of the food chain. His hum­ble be­gin­nings in the busi­ness, he re­calls, were in the kitchen peel­ing car­rots. From there he grad­u­ated to big­ger and bet­ter things: potatoes, and he didn’t stop there. He con­tin­ued to work, mov­ing around the world (at one point even work­ing for Peter Stringfel­low in New York) and now it cer­tainly seems to have paid off. Tony is the owner of five of Saigon’s best-known es­tab­lish­ments: Ciao Bella, Portofino, Saf­fron, Twen­ty21one and Blu, the Thao Dien River­side Ser­viced Apart­ments restau­rant we’re con­vers­ing in.

Food and hos­pi­tal­ity are in his blood. The car­rot-peel­ing job that got his foot in the door of the busi­ness was the prod­uct of nepo­tism. His fam­ily has, for gen­er­a­tions, worked in the hos­pi­tal­ity busi­ness in his na­tive Eng­land and it was there that he cut his teeth, as well as a num­ber of un­for­tu­nate veg­eta­bles.

So how does some­one with such roots move to Saigon and set up a string of suc­cess­ful restau­rants? Tony con­sid­ers his an­swer slowly be­fore fi­nally find­ing the right an­swer: “You need a Man Fri­day.” In Tony’s case this right-hand per­son is ac­tu­ally a Wo­man Fri­day, an in­valu­able aid with lo­cal knowl­edge and the savoir-faire to get the job done in sit­u­a­tions where oth­ers might be com­pletely lost. As Tony goes on to ex­plain, there are still a few nig­gles and un­fore­seen dif­fi­cul­ties that one has to contend with as a busi­ness owner in Ho Chi Minh City. This ranges from the reg­u­lar prob­lems in the food busi­ness of get­ting the right in­gre­di­ents fresh, to util­i­ties is­sues with elec­tric­ity and wa­ter. Ev­ery one of these is­sues would be a night­mare to nav­i­gate with­out know­ing the ex­act chan­nels and pro­ce­dures to fix such is­sues, not to men­tion a healthy knowl­edge of Viet­namese. With his trusted Wo­man

Fri­day then, Tony is equipped to fo­cus on what mat­ters most to him, the ac­tual run of the restau­rants.

Be­ing a restau­ra­teur is not as dandy as it sounds how­ever. In a busi­ness where re­port­edly 99 per­cent of busi­nesses close their doors be­fore the first year is out, it is no sur­prise that one has to stay on one’s toes. Tony vis­its each one of his es­tab­lish­ments (spread across the city) at least once a day. He’s up bright and early and makes his first stop at 6am, en­sur­ing that all is in its proper place and pro­vid­ing guid­ance where it may be re­quired. As Tony ex­plains, the fact that he started from the bot­tom was the best sort of train­ing. Now he knows ev­ery de­tail of ev­ery po­si­tion un­der­neath his own. If some­one is be­ing waste­ful with the peel­ing, some­thing which may seem in­nocu­ous, then he can cor­rect these er­rors. This is the small­est de­tail, so you can be sure the man­ager has his eye on the work­ings of the more se­nior po­si­tions as well, and that over five restau­rants, at least five times a day.

It seems an ex­haust­ing busi­ness, mov­ing hither and thither and keep­ing a watch­ful eye on all pro­ceed­ings but Tony en­joys it tremen­dously. He en­joys man­ag­ing but also cook­ing and choos­ing the menus for his restau­rants. As a chef him­self, he is con­fi­dent when as­sess­ing the qual­ity of the food his staff serve and they can trust in his judg­ment too. It is not a purely man­age­rial po­si­tion he oc­cu­pies then be­cause he has risen through the po­si­tions he now em­ploys.

Be­yond his work as a boss, Tony also serves as some­thing of a fa­ther fig­ure to many of his em­ploy­ees. He likes to stick with peo­ple he has worked with be­fore, some of them for nearly 15 years, and he likes to hire their fam­ily mem­bers as well. As he sees it, there’s a bond of trust and that gives not only se­cu­rity but a sense of fam­ily to his busi­nesses.

His ad­vice to restau­ra­teurs is straight­for­ward: “Your first con­sid­er­a­tion has to be lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion.” A lo­ca­tion can make all the dif­fer­ence in the life and death of a restau­rant. Sit­ting by the river with a cool breeze waft­ing over us, it’s easy to see why lo­ca­tion and the as­so­ci­ated am­biance have to be your first con­sid­er­a­tion, af­ter all that’s where your first im­pres­sions are drawn from. Af­ter that you need to choose a good menu, some­thing that’s miss­ing from the lo­cal restau­rant scene. With his ros­ter of es­tab­lish­ments, Tony was one of the first to bring Asian tapas and New York-style Ital­ian cui­sine to Ho Chi Minh City and can at­tribute much of the suc­cess of his restau­rants on this timely move. As a man­ager his thoughts have to be busi­ness—as well as food-ori­en­tated and a de­gree of busi­ness savvy is nec­es­sary to even get started as a restau­ra­teur. Of course, with a lo­cal help­ing as sec­ondin-com­mand, this busi­ness is mer­ci­fully fa­cil­i­tated. With­out their aid he in­sists he could never have got­ten any­thing off the ground.

Tony has been a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure on Saigon’s cui­sine scene for over a decade and in that time he has heard un­told num­bers dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of open­ing up a restau­rant or bar in Saigon. The thought process seems to be that these es­tab­lish­ments are straight­for­ward and rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive to run but that is sim­ply un­true. Even with a bit of help from your friends, own­ing and run­ning a bar is hard work and re­quires ev­ery bit as much at­ten­tion, knowl­edge and el­bow grease as any other busi­ness. For Tony the days of peel­ing car­rots and potatoes are firmly in the past but like any good man­ager this has not gone to his head. His feet firmly planted on the ground, he can be found ev­ery day walk­ing through his restau­rants, dot­ing on pa­trons and staff alike.

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