Thursday, February 08, 2007

Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood

A common query from family and friends must be answered: the food so far is good, but nothing has bowled us over. The last time I was impressed by a meal was in Napa, three plus years ago, so my definition of being impressed is a bit different. For the most part, I would welcome eating at the establishments we've been to so far.

Unfortunately for ya'll, we're not the type to eat and snap pics. We're trying to not look like overwhelmed tourists here.

So far we haven't eaten in any street side plastic stool joints. If you dodge the moto fumes, the food at these places smell pretty tempting. But we're waiting for our bodies (read: stomaches) to adjust to this hemisphere before diving in. Therefore we've been limited to restaurants that cater to the local middle class.

For example, I had breakfast this morning near the office at an almost empty tablecloth restaurant. Simple order of eggs, bread (banh mi style loaf), butter (which one has to order) and the de rigeur ca fe sua nong (no ice for me, as of yet). 20k VND or $1.25 - nice!

One place that deserves a mini-review is KOTO (biết một, dạy một - Know One, Teach One). It is across the street from the Temple of Literature. The whole good samaritan aspect of this restaurant is better detailed elsewhere (like on Our Man In Hanoi).

The food itself is pretty good, and geared a bit towards the foreign crowd, who dominated the dining room on our lunch time visit. Prices were more reasonable than I expected - I thought there would be a good conscience tax, but there wasn't really (50k VND for the bun thit nuong). Service is better than the typical Hanoi joint with full sized chairs, but maybe a bit too ever present for a local; a bit of tweaking and they would be unimpeachable.

I wonder how much money KOTO makes, and whether the training costs eats into margins quite a bit. F&B is a growth industry here and an establishment that can deliver good, consistent and reasonable fare should be able to expand and take some market share.

There is nothing in the front of the house that would prevent them from opening up new locations, imho. What is stopping them from being a mini-Highlands Coffee? Having a foreign clientele base is nice, having a local burgher class clientele is better.


ourman said...

I'm glad your eating experiences were positive at KOTO.

To answer some of your queries and thoughts....

The KOTO you visited is our new restaurant following its move from its next door site which was half the size and rather dilapidated.

The new place has been officially open for little more than a month so it is still settling in. However, the initial reaction from tourists has been phenomenal. A greatly increased revenue should mean less pressure on fundraising.

But then again this is the busy tourist period - so we have to wait and see how it fairs in the heat of summer.

However the new restaurant is also designed to fit in both tourists and locals/expats. Hence the large dining areas suitable for tour groups and the rather cosy bar area that hopefully will bring in evening expat trade (the old place didn't open in the evenings).

I am, of course, no longer working with KOTO as my stint is finished. However I know they haven't even begun to market the expat areas. Those people currently finding their way there are doing so as a result of guide books and tour groups.

Once we start pushing through the expat media we should open up a whole new clientèle. Only then will we know how our finances will bear out.

So...we don't really know how much revenue this will generate yet. Except that our eventual aim is sustainability and for the restaurant (and its associated cooking classes, outside catering etc) to be profitable enough for us to cut external fundraising.

The exceptions to this will be the sponsorship plan detailed on the website and also our annual bike ride which is very much part of the social calendar here in Hanoi.

As for other outlets. Yes, that is a must. However, it's probably more likely that they will, initially at least, be in other cities. There has long been talk of a KOTO Saigon or Siem Reap.

Now Hanoi is working so well that is a distinct possibility.

Whatever happens all profits will continue to be put back into the organisation for the housing, training and care of local street and disadvantaged youth.

There are no catches to KOTO. What you see is what you get and it is an incredible organisation. After two and a half years there, which haven't always been easy, I can say that I remain as as fully behind the concept and the implementation of it, as I ever was.

It is certainly worthy of the the tremendous support it receives from so many good people.

D. said...

Thanks for the further thoughts.

It was less expensive than I expected, which was a good thing.

The folks who ate nearby us were definitely tourists - one table went out front to take a picture of KOTO, or as much of it's glory as can be captured by a 10MP DSLR. The other table had a Frommer's laid out next to the noodle dish they ordered.

I just wonder if limiting the marketing to the tourist and expat crowd is doing KOTO a disservice. There are ample locals who would pay for the food KOTO serves, imho. No need to forget targeting them.

There is a reason that Highlands does not serve burgers, to the consternation of expats.

HanoiMark said...

In my experience the street food is the best food in Hanoi hands down. Occasionally the high-end fancy places are able to match the humble street joints at some of the classics in the Vietnamese canon, but they cost many times the price. Usually though they are just about ambiance (like Quan An Ngon, which is very mediocre) and can't even touch the street food. Some great mid-range places though like Highway 4, Com Viet? (on Le Van Huu), Phuong Nguyen (up on West Lake past Nghi Tam), etc. Anyway, my 2 cents: forget about your stomachs - they will have to adjust no matter what you are eating - just dive in to the real stuff, kindergarten chair, moto exhaust and all! There is no substitute.