Pho company

“Let’s start a Vietnamese restaurant.” Kind of a strange idea for three entrepreneurs with no hospitality experience. Okay, so we have many hours of experience as consumers. But running a restaurant? This is our story on how we put together a prototype of a concept for a Vietnamese restaurant in half a year.

Pho

You can buy it on every street corner in Vietnam. It’s lunch for some and a snack for others. It is a nutritious and healthy dish with fresh noodles and a flavoursome broth as basis ingredients.

The dish dates back to the 1920s and was brought to the public by street vendors with mobile kitchens. It was a cheap, healthy and easily prepared dish.

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More than 100 years later, we have seen for ourselves that pho is still very popular in Asia. Especially in countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Of course, we tried it and found it delicious, really delicious.

And what does that have to do with you?

During a visit to London, sometime in early 2013, Stefan walked past a restaurant called Pho café. Could it be… yes! A restaurant (chain) specialised in that delicious dish from Vietnam. Back at his laptop, were the results on Google trends.

Search on keyword ‘Pho’ in Google trends

Search on keyword ‘Pho’ in Google trends

There were also several similar restaurants located in California. Reason enough to add this as idea 181 to our ideas list. A list that now has around 300 business ideas.

For some reason, the idea stuck in our heads. We found it delicious, fun and a serious business model could be linked to it based on the people, planet, profit and purpose-philosophy in which we believe. And no, we don’t have any experience in running a restaurant, but we also didn’t have any in running a travel agency. And who says we have to do it all ourselves?

Let’s ask the expert

We were convinced and decided to take the idea a step further. I rang my three years younger brother Dennis. He is a chef and has cooked in various (star) restaurants. If anyone could help us, it was him.

We asked him if he would cook pho for about 20 people. Always up for a challenge, he immediately said ‘yes’ and two weeks later we tasted our first homemade pho in Paterswolde. The cost of this experiment? 36 euro.

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All Concept7 colleagues who attended tasted the soup. We asked them for their opinions as sort of a mini market survey. The reactions were positive. It tasted healthy (and it was!) and delicious and smelled good. This was consistent with our own findings. People were especially taken with the idea that something so good could be made from scratch with two basic ingredients. We ended up with a broth base of vegetable (vegetarian), meat or fish and, of course, fresh noodles. It’s then adjusted according to the creativity and taste of the guest.

Finally, we asked people separately what they would be willing to pay for a bowl of pho, intended as a meal replacement. This ranged from six to eight euro. Our prototype experiment was a success.

Off to Londen

We were enthusiastic. On a notepad, we estimated that a bowl of soup, including a cup of fresh tea, would cost us approximately € 2.15.
Interesting, but what now? We decided to give the idea a rest for a few weeks.

But the idea kept coming back and one evening and after apping back and forth we decided to book tickets to London. We wanted to taste firsthand the pho from the specialised restaurants and maybe look at some other ‘healthy-food’ restaurant concepts. As thanks for the experiment, we took Dennis along and flew to London on a Friday morning. We immersed ourselves for two days in the world of healthy eating, took loads of notes and photographs and sampled as much different pho as possible. Inspired, we flew back to Amsterdam on Saturday night.

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Pho lunch for 150 people

The global concept of ‘start-up weekend’ is also organised every year in Groningen. We know the organisation well and took the plunge. What if we provided the Saturday lunch this year for all participants, mentors and the organisation? Goal: to validate the concept and product with a large group of people, 150 in this case!

Inspired by those heroes from Innocent drinks, we decided to ask everyone one question. Do you think we should open a (temporary) pho restaurant in Groningen? If yes, throw your empty plate in the ‘yes’ bin and if no, in the ‘no’ bin. We registered the domain name phocompany.nl, asked a friend to design a logo and printed a banner and five aprons.

Oh yeah, we asked Dennis if he would join us in serving pho for 150 people ;-)

Feeding 150 people was cool and very instructive. We explained the concept, served the pho and asked for as much feedback as possible. At around half past three, it was time to see the results. Around two thirds of the people had thrown their plates in the ‘yes’ bin. Amazing.

Next stop: pop-up store

Now it gets serious. We think the next step is opening a pop-up store. Serve pho for a week or a month to guests who actually pay for their food.

We have already learned a lot and have a pretty clear vision of the concept. Naturally, we’re still experimenting, but if we would open a pop-up today, we would do it as follows:

  • Positioning as a healthy alternative to fast food. It is quick, healthy, fresh and really convenient as a take-away.
  • Experimenting with buy-one, give-one concept. Guests can purchase an extra meal that they give to people who cannot afford it.
  • For now, there is only pho (specialisation) and fresh tea available. Various types of broth as a base and then (like Subway) further self-assembly.
  • You must be able to sit at long tables so people can have contact with each other. It’s not just standing food.
  • Meals should cost around € 8 (incl. drink) and it is therefore an alternative to fast food. With approximately 150 guests per day, you should be able to earn a living.

Help wanted

The above assumptions are of course hypotheses that have to be tested in practice. We think it would be great to open a pop-up for a month, but we simply lack the time now. We are working hard on growing Concept7 and srprs.me and that now requires virtually all our attention. But wouldn’t it be a shame to just leave this? Maybe there is a young entrepreneur who we can give a boost with this idea and who wants to continue learning with us?

In any case, it has become clear once again how great it is to bring an idea to fruition. You learn a lot from it and it cost us less than € 800 altogether. This makes our entrepreneurial heart beat faster!