Dubai-based Vietnamese chef Lily Hoa Nguyen talks about how a cooking class turned her into an entrepreneur Video Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

She began with cooking classes in Istanbul for over six students in 2012.

It’s 2023 and today, her brand Vietnamese Foodies has over five branches in Dubai.

As 40-year-old Chef Lily Hoa Nguyen, a mother of two sons aged nine and seven, sips her strongly brewed Vietnamese tea in her restaurant, she recalls her journey to becoming a successful food entrepreneur. It has been punctuated by numerous difficulties, ups and downs, including a pandemic that almost shut down one of her outlets. Yet Nguyen steered through those rough waters. The love for food, along with a strong community has seen her through.

Born in the north of Vietnam and raised in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen grew up in the post-war Vietnam of the 1980s and 1990s, where everyone she knew was struggling to make ends meet. Her own father, a sailor was away at sea for most of the year, and her mother was taking up different jobs to support Nguyen and her three sisters. One of the jobs her mother was busy with, was being a supervisor at a war factory. “She was supervising machines when it was fixing clothes, jackets and sweaters. She would wake up early in the morning and prepare sticky rice for us,” explains Nguyen.

My father was a sailor, away at sea for most of the year and my mother took up different jobs to support us. I started cooking at the age of five. I was good at it. I helped my sister clean the vegetables and cooked rice in the electric cooker. By the time I was 13, I made all the meals in the house...

- Lily Hoa Nguyen, owner of the brand Vietnamese Foodies
Chef Lily Nguyen
Chef Nguyen talks about the needs to focus on your brand and treat it as a promise of quality to people Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

In the afternoon, her mother would return and look after the small grocery store they ran at home, which sold necessities to people in the neighbourhood. As her mother was working hard to support them, Nguyen and her sisters took on the responsibility of household chores. “I started cooking. I enjoyed it, because I was good at it. My first dish was making omlettes for breakfast,” she says. Nguyen helped her sister clean the vegetables and cooking rice in the electric cooker. “As I grew up, I helped more and more. I would go to the market to get fresh food and prepare for the family,” she adds. By the time she was 13, all the meals in the family were made by her.

In 2012, Nguyen got married and shifted to Istanbul with her husband, who got a job offer in the city. To show Vietnamese cuisine food to expats, she started cooking classes in a showroom at the Good Asian Restaurant in the city with a friend. She didn’t anticipate the popularity of the classes. “We started together with a friend. At first the classes ran twice a month, and then once a week, and then became twice a week. People would come to the cooking class as they said it had authentic Vietnamese food, tasty and healthy,” she adds.

By 2016, she relocated to Dubai with her husband after he received a job offer in the city. She was determined to not give up on her cooking classes. “It made me feel rewarded and fulfilled,” says Nguyen. These classes of six students took place at her home for two years. Her students parked themselves at different cooking stations in her kitchen and brought their own chopping boards. There was a pervasive sense of community that food can bring out in people. “They really liked the classes, as it was interactive,” says Nguyen.

The dishes they cooked, sound mouthwatering, ranging from Vietnamese chicken salads, with the popular dish Pho, pronounced “fuh”, from the country. Pho is dear to Nguyen’s heart just like every other Vietnamese citizen; a soup dish with bone broth, rice, noodles and meat. The response to the classes were overwhelming, and it was her students who planted the seed of an idea in her mind.

“They told me that I should start a restaurant,” she says. She decided to take the next step and bring a taste of Vietnam to Dubai.

Starting with family savings

The first few years as an entrepreneur are difficult, says Nguyen.

In order to kickstart the business, she and her husband began with family savings. “When we first started, it was a small location. So, we put half a million dirhams into the restaurant, which was enough at the time,” she said. The couple directed the earnings of the restaurant into investments for the business itself. “We focused on essential aspects of restaurant experience. We didn’t have the budget to do anything else,” she says, adding that they cut down on extravagant and unnecessary expenses. It was also helpful that her husband was still working, which could sustain the two of them.

Overwhelming beginning and the first tough week

Their first restaurant was a small café in JLT Dubai, with a lean team of six chefs. The first day itself was a resounding success, as 150 people showed up at the restaurant. “We didn’t expect the restaurant to become so full,” she says with pride. The second day was just the same. The same number of people filled the restaurant. Nguyen was ‘everywhere’ as she says, cooking, serving food as well as managing the café.

They had to charter choppy seas on their third and fourth day. The response had been overwhelming, but perhaps a little overwhelming for the small team. “The computer was not running, and I didn’t know how to fix that. Food was not being served on time. We ran out of supplies on the fourth day, and we had unhappy customers. There were even instances of wrong servings at the wrong table,” says Nguyen. A bit deflated, they closed the restaurant on the fourth day, and decided to re-evaluate. “We realised that this was not how we wanted to run the restaurant. I want everyone to leave happily,” she says.

With the help of an immensely supportive and determined team, they steered through the difficulties and fixed the operational systems and the computer, and planned ahead. On the fifth day, they were back on track, and customers returned in full swing.

And, one-and-a-half years later, they opened the second branch in Downtown Dubai by 2019.

Powering through the pandemic

Just as things were taking off, COVID-19 hit. The pandemic was tough on the homegrown business. Yet, Nguyen found a way to not let it throw a spanner in the works.

It wasn’t easy. The walk-in business dropped by 70 per cent, as the restaurant was only open for takeaway service during the first few weeks of the pandemic. The Downtown branch had to be shut down, owing to the lack of footfall.

Yet, the team stayed together. Nguyen was firm about not letting anyone go, or cutting salaries, which was something that was happening across the world in different professions. Restaurants were allowed to open, but most people were still hesitant to return to restaurants. So the team directed their efforts into their delivery service.

As gloom had taken hold of the world, Nguyen and her team looked for ways to spread a little cheer and hope, for themselves and for others. “Food connects people, from those who make it, to those who serve it,” she says. And so, she and her team left handwritten notes for people ordering delivery service. “The restaurant is a place to connect, and when we are disconnected, I want them to know that we’re all in this together. We will pull through and see a better time in the future.” She says. The notes also expressed gratitude for people as they were ordering from a homegrown business.

Vietnamese foodies
A glimpse from the kitchen of Nguyen's restaurant. "Food connects people, from those who make it, to those who serve it," she says. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

The customers were rather moved and appreciated such personal touches. They treasured the small gesture, says Nguyen. The customers took photos of the notes and told her that she and her team’s positivity and wholesomeness meant a lot during the pandemic.

These little things were immensely motivating to Nguyen; which strengthened her resolve to continue working with her team for a unified purpose. “Soon, we were getting more customers for delivery service. What got me through this time was that I knew that I always wanted to support my employees. They are also breadwinners and trying to support their families,” she says.

And gradually, the delivery service began to flourish during the pandemic. Within a year, the Downtown branch reopened.

Possible international expansion of Vietnamese Foodies

When she first began the venture, Nguyen was practically doing everything, from cooking to management. The team has expanded exponentially, with five branches across Dubai, including Nakheel Mall and Dubai Hills. “In the last two years, we now have a director of operations, personal managers, financial team, which had been earlier outsourced. The management is the most important, as it’s the people you should trust. It’s about who are you going to trust, and coach, so that they can do tasks even better than you do,” says Nguyen. She ensures she’s a hands-on entrepreneur and doesn’t mind travelling ‘a lot’ as she says. She divides her time well between all five locations in Dubai as she says; she makes sure to visit at least two locations in a day.

While Abu Dhabi is also on the list for a possible outlet, Nguyen is far from done, however. Apart from opening two more outlets in Dubai, she wants to spread the message of Vietnamese cuisine across borders too. “All operations will take place in Dubai. For other countries, we are looking for partners and investors. We have thought about where we should go next. We will be looking into Qatar, Bahrain, Turkey and after that, there will be many other countries,” she says.

Message for food entrepreneurs

Chef Lily Hoa Nguyen
Chef Nguyen is happy that she was able to increase recognition of Vietnamese cuisine in the UAE Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai is a fertile ground for opportunities owing to its rich diversity, according to Nguyen. Anyone who would like to start their food business here, they must think about what they can do that’s better than anyone else. Yet, it isn’t a cakewalk.

“There are many different niche markets. There is the fine-dining restaurant, quick service, food court or the delivery only type. Find the position in the market that you think can help your cuisine, then you should invest in your brand well,” adds Nguyen. “You must think, I am going to give you the best value for money, for this experience. You should spend a lot of time researching and finding the right answer, before you launch or invest in it,” she says.

Bringing Vietnam to Dubai

Nguyen feels proud that Vietnamese Foodies has helped many Dubai residents know about local food from her country. “I feel we show an example that Vietnamese food can be a part of the international market. I think that after we opened so many branches, many felt courageous in opening their own branches and opened in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I hope there will be more in the future,” she says.

(NOTE: This article was first published on June 5, 2023)