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Meals On Wheels. How Saigon Delivers When The Chips Are Down

Meals On Wheels. How Saigon Delivers When The Chips Are Down

For now, restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City remain closed due to the government’s response to COVID-19.

They are, however, permitted to offer pick-up and delivery.

But how are they faring?

For some restaurant owners like Robin Deepu of Baba’s Kitchen, adapting to the forced closures hasn’t meant too many changes for his business because it already had a strong delivery base before the virus outbreak.

“The most important thing is our customers,” he says, “they are our strength, they’re helping us a lot at this time and we’re very thankful for that.”

Meanwhile, he cites the time it takes for orders from door-to-door, the quality of his food and the behaviour of his delivery staff towards his customers as his biggest concerns when it comes to delivery service.

“We ask for customer feedback about our food and delivery and if we make a mistake, we always try to fix it,” he says.

Mekong Merchant has been bringing healthy food to the community for 16 years and was the first restaurant of its kind in District 2’s Thao Dien neighbourhood.

Yet, in all that time, Jay Taylor hasn’t seen anything like what’s transpiring now.

“I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted the damage this horrible virus could have on communities and the hospitality industry as a whole,” he says.

Mekong Merchant was one of the first restaurants in Saigon to make the difficult decision to close for dining, but with their established team, they were able to scale up their delivery service quickly.

“Delivering food in the best condition is always harder as it needs to travel to the guest,” Jay explains. “We pack the hollandaise for our eggs Benedict options separately, and lets say we’re now happy with the condition of most roads in D2.”

For the crew at Bep Me In, switching to full delivery service hasn’t thrown up too many curveballs for the experienced team.

A recent win for Albin Deforges during a difficult time was an order for a group that had just flown in from France.

“We delivered meals to a hotel where the entire crew of an Air France flight was staying, then two days later, the next crew ordered,” he says.

Still, the bulk of Bep Me In’s orders are naturally now local, whereas pre-COVID-19, 90% of its custom came from tourists.

Another outlet with a French connection that’s had its agility tested is Cafe Tartine.

The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge Jerome Buzenet and his team have had to face over the past few weeks.

“Making sour bread dough takes 14 to 24 hours,” he explains. “We can’t just stop it in the middle.”

An aspect of Cafe Tartine’s business that has changed since people have been required to isolate is that demand for smaller sized breads has increased.

He also says there are still customers who like to pick up their orders as part of their daily walk.

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MORNING: morning deliveries are ready, already on their way or even delivered yet. We deliver throughout the day, every day: -> bread and other goodies: -> tartines, salads, drinks and deserts: and Order in advance to avoid disappointment. Pick up or delivery as usual. Be safe, stay strong, eat well. ———————————————- Café Tartine Saïgon – real sourdough bread, quality coffee & more 🕑 Open every day 7:30am-10pm, baking twice a day 👉 ORDER SOURDOUGH AND OTHER GOODIES HERE: 📍 27 Tran Quang Long, Binh Thanh district, HCMC (near the City Garden building) ☎ +84903838945 (for urgent assistance) or 🍞 Better order bread in advance to avoid disappointment #artisan #bakery with a focus on #naturally #leavened bread (#sourdough) that also serves good #coffee, #juices and #healthy #vegan and non-vegan tartines, sandwiches and other #snacks. Run by #passionate artisan #bakers (including @artisanbreadsaigon) keen to bring #realbread to #sunny #saigon . . . . . #tartine #wine #fermentation #craft #bbga

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At recently opened The OX Not Only OX, Harold Ngo has had to adapt on the fly.

It’s been a challenge for the award-winning chef whose menu was designed mostly for dining in, now it’s 100% pick-up or delivery.

But the affable Harold accepts that it can’t be any other way for now: “We needed to make some adjustments to adapt to the situation.”

Some things haven’t changed, however, like the need to ensure customer satisfaction, which Harold says he’s tried to preserve by offering simpler dishes with shorter delivery times.

“We want to try and control things as much as possible to minimise the risks of damaging our reputation,” he says.

Back across the Saigon Bridge in District 2, Camilla Bailey of popular European resto MAD House has been struck by the increase and volume of delivery orders.

“The orders are now family-size with drinks, whereas they used to be typically for one person,” she says.

MAD House has been able to absorb the impact of a sudden change to 100% pick-up and delivery because normally around 30% of their business is delivery anyway.

“We didn’t have to change much except to add more new items, like our brunch delivery that has more wine options and better value combos that are affordable,” she says.

Camilla says the team’s biggest learning from COVID-19 is that they have become smarter in controlling costs, with any unnecessary spending, cut.

“Hygiene is a massive factor for us,” she explains. “I can’t imagine not keeping up the same standards after COVID-19 is over.”

If anyone in the time of a global pandemic was ever going to flourish, it would be the innovator Peter Cuong Franklin of ănăn.

Known for his reimagining of traditional Vietnamese food, Peter and his team have come up with ănăn express – their express home delivery service.

“Now that we have some more time, we can add some nice touches, such as the lotus root fries that we didn’t do before,” he says.

Always concerned with the minutiae of every dish or item, it’s exemplified when he talks of the transportability of young coconuts: “It’s not easy because they’re heavy and we have to carefully make a small hole for the straw so it doesn’t spill during delivery.”

Along with Vietnamese comfort food staples like banh mi, pho and chicken salad, ănăn express includes romantic tasting menus for couples or groups.

“I think exciting new dishes and new ideas will come out of this COVID-19 challenge,” he says.

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Another innovator, Calvin Bui of El Camino, feels that “innovation is the process of listening to what customers want and finding a way to create using your own style of cooking.”

He says that people are more willing to buy a dish that comes from the heart than something they saw someone make on TV once.

“David Chang in a recent New York Times interview caught my attention when he said his biggest interest right now is how technology is going to play a hand in the future of the food delivery business,” says Calvin. “He says, ‘With delivery, you have two completely different worlds – the tech world and the restaurant world. The tech world is about scaling and throwing money at something, but you can’t fully automate cooking.’ I think it’s bang on.”

Meanwhile, an unexpected surprise the COVID-19 outbreak has served him up, is the amount of love and support his customers have shown him and other chefs and restaurateurs around the city.

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Can’t figure out who to call for delivery tonight??? ° El Camino Taqueria now offers FREE DELIVERY TO THAO DIEN!!! ° Our online order platform is up and running • ° Or call our hotline to speak with a live person @ ° We love your support. If you like what we’re cooking, tell a friend about us, that’s the best compliment ever =) ____ Feeding you goodness EVERYDAY!!! ° Sunday – Thursday [5:00pm • 10:30pm] ° Friday – Saturday [5:00pm • 11:00pm] ____ El Camino Taqueria :: Tacos • Burritos • Craft Beer ° “Carrying only the best American Craft Beer Goodness” ° 🌮 88 Xuan Thuy | District.2 🌯 08.5464.7878 🌮 🌯 ° #ElCaminoTaqueria #BurritosWillNeverBeTheSame #BeervanaVN

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Eddies New York Deli & Diner was one of the first restaurants to close in-house dining to focus on their delivery service.

According to the owners, their team appreciated how closing Eddie’s early protected them and their loved ones but at the same time enabled them to continue serving the community.

“They’ve done a tremendous job in difficult times,” says Eddie’s spokesperson. “Without this amazing team, we couldn’t function at the level we do.”

Eddie’s has offered a successful delivery service for the past 18 months, making the transition to pick-up and delivery only, quite smooth.

“We’re seeing a lot of customers preferring to order with restaurants directly instead of through portals to help support those restaurants,” says the spokesperson.

And what of the positives to come out of all this, if any?

“If there is a culinary silver lining to this crisis,” they posit, “it’s that people have been able to get top quality food delivered to their homes at a reasonable price.”

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At Godmother Bake & Brunch, they believe it’s important to show their customers how much love and care they put into their food, including right down to the packaging, according to Will Knight.

“Using environmentally sensitive packaging is also important and an ongoing challenge and commitment,” he says. “The costs are significant but we don’t pass those on – it’s the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, Godmother has adjusted its staffing to deliver the best service possible, including using additional delivery services at peak times.

“Our kitchen team’s been brilliant, working flat out and making sure we’re communicating quickly if there are any delays or issues,” says Will.

Yet, he cautions, there will undoubtedly be some devastation industry-wide in Saigon by the time the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

“Sadly, we’ll lose some of our most-loved restaurants and I don’t know if we’ll get them back,” he says. “But I think as a community, the F&B crowd have really come together and are working behind the scenes to support one another.”

George Bloomfield of Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar says the team implemented stringent protocols for staff and customers for everybody’s safety as soon as the reality of life with COVID-19 became apparent.

“I had to go straight into a 14-day self-quarantine even before the travel ban was put in place,” says the Australian chef.

George says the transition to 100% delivery has been tough, but now that restaurants are at full closure, Stoker has been able to focus on the delivery side of the business.

“We’ve opted to focus on beverage delivery, specifically cocktails and build-your-own G&T packs,” he says. “However, we’re about to roll out a new food delivery option.”

And his predictions for Saigon’s F&B industry once this is all over?

“I think you’ll see a trend leaning more and more towards sustainability and product awareness. You’re going to see a lot more operators out there being more mindful of how they run day-to-day operations. Thriftiness while adding consumer value will be the key, I think.”

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For many restaurants, COVID-19 has meant they’ve had to offer delivery for the first time, Quince Saigon is one of those restaurants.

“From the day we decided to close the restaurant, it took us three to four days to get our delivery service Staples by Quince up and running,” says Julien Perraudin. “It was and still is a work in progress, and like many other restaurants in the city, we hadn’t done deliveries before.”

The Quince team wanted to approach the situation as a new business or a new concept, so they revisited all of their existing offerings to see if they were fit for delivery.

“We knew that we couldn’t replicate the Quince experience in a takeaway setting,” says Julien. “We had to go back to the drawing board many times.”

And once everything returns to normal, will Quince continue to offer a delivery service?

“Staples by Quince has given us the opportunity to test the market, albeit in certainly unique circumstances, and if our customers love our delivery, we’d certainly like to keep giving them the love,” reveals Julien.

Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon

Special thanks to all the outlets who took the time to respond to our questions. Thank you for your support.

Feature photo by Hiep Duong on Unsplash

For more on the impact of COVID-19 on Saigon’s hospitality industry, listen to Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam editor-at-large, Chris Thompson, on our podcast:

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