Duc Nguyen and his partner Hong Dao run several restaurants in Berlin, Münster, and Oldenburg, including Royals & Rice, Maison Han, Quà Phê, Sons Of Mana, Jabe Restaurant, and Yuzu Ramen.
Duc took some time to talk to us about how to optimize menus to re-open a restaurant. His pivot plan during 2020 allowed him to reopen at 50% of capacity, but in order to do so, he had to adapt his menu and mindset to the latest changes in the restaurant industry. Here are the highlights of our conversation with Duc.
How can restaurants optimize their menus for the re-opening?
I would say it’s very different for every restaurant. Some are in the city center, some are outside. Some are running very well, some are a little bit slower. There are different regulations between towns as well. So some are already open, some are still waiting.
Restaurants in Berlin are also very different. The new ones are a bit weaker, or much weaker. The ones that already have two or three years on the market are not really affected that much. And restaurants that have always had takeaways are stronger, but those with inside seating are a little more difficult. Some people are still a little bit afraid. So there is no average, but takeaway places are still easier.
What do you do to optimize your menu and be able to stay open at 50% of capacity during these challenging times?
We optimize the range, make the menus a little smaller. Also, the dishes we choose for the lunches are dishes that are easier to take away. For example, everything crispy is not crispy anymore when you’re transporting it. But cold dishes or salads are very easy to transport and still taste good after you take it home or get it delivered.
We also create new dishes, show them to customers, and remind the people that we exist. During Corona, people are very into pizza and pasta, and so on, not the healthy stuff that much. Now they can go to restaurants again they are back to eating fresh food.
Could you tell us more about your beloved menu item, the "Com Bo" bowl?
I grew up with it! The funny thing is that when we are hungry at home, we use all the ingredients from the fridge. We use pickles – Asian pickles like kimchi or other pickles like cucumber – then rice and fresh ingredients like avocado and beef. We mix it together and it feels like home. It doesn’t look that fancy, but it’s what we have been eating at home since I was a kid, and it’s awesome. The beef we use is very thin. We use the part with less fat, so when you cut it at the right angle you can make it very tasty. And the beef we use is not super expensive, so the value for people is still very high.
They get a dish that is not pricey, they don’t pay over 10 euros for a beef dish and it feels very fair. In the end, when someone spends the money they want it to be fair. If you pay a lot and you’re still hungry, you feel like it’s not worth it. You can put a little bit more on the dishes, like avocado and beef, but you don’t need to use the super expensive part. So your margins are good. It’s about focusing on the value for money while also offering a great dish.
What other dishes does your menu propose now?
We choose dishes that are flexible so you can change the assembly of the products within the dish. With pickles, for example, you can use almost every ingredient. You can make pickles or kimchi with cucumber, radish, or carrots, and this process gives a nice umami flavor. Then you can make different varieties, or swap the avocado with sweet potatoes to give people other highlights they might like.
Do you have any tips for restaurants for creating higher margin bowls?
We are working very closely with our vegetable supplier. There’s always a list of seasonal vegetables. And then we can focus on a few ingredients and work with them together. And if you see it’s running well you can make the order bigger, make a little bit more space in your storage, then pickle ingredients and use them the whole week.
Every time your supplier delivers you vegetables it costs him money, so you can talk with him and ask to get a bigger order once a week. I have space and we focus on a few dishes, a few ingredients, and he can offer a better price. It’s less pollution for everyone and it keeps him happy.
How do you keep track of which ingredients to order?
We involve the entire team when creating the menu. So we speak with the team to figure out the key ingredients we can use, which ingredients make sense. For us, it’s always a mix of something fancy (the highlights) and something to make the people feel full. It’s not just about having one or two pieces of nice ingredients, it’s about making sure the people are feeling healthy and good.
Of course, we have many restaurants, so we also share with each other. For example, if one restaurant prepares just the cucumber kimchi and shares it with the others, we can talk to the supplier to find out when is the right time to buy enough cucumber and deliver it at the best price.
About 2020: what changes have you noticed in regards to customers behavior?
It hasn’t changed much, but it does make it clearer what kind of customers we have. Outside the tourist areas, we have restaurants where we know the people very well, we have a lot of our neighbors as customers. But for restaurants in tourist areas we can see that without the tourists and without the office workers, they are weaker.
But now the people are going back to the office, they are starting to get back to their routine and we have visitors. Overall, we can see very clearly what kind of guests we have. It’s proven again which guests we need to focus on, how our communication works and how our marketing works.
Did you change anything around the communication of your restaurants?
Now the businesses are reopening we have the opportunity to focus on certain channels as we did in the past. I can remember when we opened the first restaurant we went on Foursquare or TripAdvisor and added our names. But hundreds of different kinds of restaurants use those platforms.
Now, when we open restaurants we just focus on Instagram or Facebook, maybe TripAdvisor and a few more, but really not really doing what we did in the past. We focus more on understanding who the guests are and what the channels are to reach them.
How can chefs and owners change their restaurant business?
It’s not really the restaurants that change. It’s more how the authorities work with rent and so on. Who gets help and who doesn’t get help. We are all really affected by the coronavirus and it’s really hard for the staff and owners.
Small restaurants have really struggled and we are getting some help, but it’s not fantastic. In the end, you have a lot of responsibility to your staff and to the team and you need to use your business thinking to create something to keep it all alive. For example, in gastronomy we need clothes, we need disinfectant, so we ordered some and we sell them to other restaurants and to hotels. We’re also supplying some restaurants with the masks, but most of this is going to the Bundeswehr (Armed Forces) and other places.
It’s still working, and it’s still a business that we promote. It’s very interesting and also very different from what I did in the past. When a customer comes into the restaurant, they want to buy something. And now I’m in a situation where I need to go beyond just food, to ask people "hey, do you need anything else? How can we help you?"