A young Vietnamese air hostess clasps a bun in her carefully manicured hands and bites into it. “It’s good,” she says. “Very healthy.” Not a typical response to fast food perhaps, but then this is no typical burger.
Rather, it is a Vietnamese response to rising demand for fast food in a country that takes all its food seriously.
The VietMac Burger has taken Vietnam by storm. Made from two rice patties carefully squished over your choice of meat and salad, the meal is touted by company founder Ngo Trong Thanh as 100 per cent additive free and a healthy alternative to its bread-bun rival.
Just one year after the first shop opened, there are now 12 outlets nationwide. And it is going global, with a franchise opening in Germany this summer.
Thanh’s target market is typical of fast food chains. He offers meals priced between $US1-$US1.50 ($A0.97-$A1.46) in shopping malls and business districts, aimed at teenagers, single professionals and young families. But he insists he is offering something different.
“Young people already like fast food,” the 43-year-old says. “The burger is the symbol of fast food in the world. But I am giving them something that tastes like home. Vietnam is a country of rice cultivation. It was built on rice.”
Thanh, who once worked as a marketing consultant to foreign firms in the country, says he was inspired to make the rice-patty bun while musing on his childhood diet.
“When I was a child 40 years ago my family was very poor. We only had two bowls of rice a day with some vegetables my mother collected from around the house. My mother used to knead rice for me to take to school,” he says. “Many people my age have a similar experience.”
The meal is served with a small bowl of soup, or canh. This is important to keep a good balance in the meal, the businessman says.
“According to this philosophy everything in the world has to balance. One side is ying and the other is yang, like night and day,” he says. “Vietnamese food is like that.”
Bui Tang from the University of Hawaii says the VietMac appeals to traditional palates with a modern twist, combining popular Vietnamese ingredients with new recipes and new eating habits.
“Food reflects culture. Culture evolves. VietMac fits well the trend and need for an emerging economy where people have less time to eat. Food should reflect the new generation,” he says.
Fast food has been slower to come to Vietnam than to neighbouring countries like Thailand, and some big names have until recently been notably absent from the malls. Burger King opened its first restaurant at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City in November. McDonald’s has yet to make its debut, but Carl’s Junior and Popeye’s have arrived.
“Brands don’t just enter markets, they do a lot of research first whether it’s economical or political,” said Tony Cricenti, who runs the franchise. “But because you are dealing with food, the infrastructure has to be available to ensure the high standards of quality.
“Vietnam is on the radar for a lot of brands now because they feel the timing is right to enter the market.”
With McDonald’s still absent, Thanh was able to register the VietMac trademark, and does not expect any copyright problems in the country.
Global expansion could pose more of a problem for the name, he acknowledges – but that’s why he registered Vietburger too, as a backup.
“In Malaysia, McDonald’s tried to sue Mc for copyright but lost because it stands for Malaysia Chicken,” Thanh says. “For me, when it comes to selling VietMac abroad, the word “Viet” is the most important.”
The most popular meals are the chicken and seafood burgers. Thanh says that is because of the influence of the company’s main rivals: Kentucky Fried Chicken and Japan-based Lotteria, pioneer of the prawn burger.
Having won over Vietnamese consumers, the company has its sights set on overseas markets, and has signed a franchise agreement to sell the brand in Germany, with a first 50-seat restaurant in Berlin.
As he negotiates another franchise in London, Thanh is confident his rice burger will stay popular.
“I want people all over the world to enjoy VietMac,” he says. “If you can develop something traditional to beat modern life then you will have achieved a great success.”