Sam Chong arrived a few minutes after me for our meeting at his Malaysian chicken and rice restaurant Com Vien. When he arrived, wearing a smile and smart-casual attire, he immediately disarmed me with his frankness, explaining he had slept in.
Chong is a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of guy and this quality has seeped into his restaurant, a no-frills eatery that provides tasty, cheap comfort food, nothing more, nothing less. It’s a strategy that has paid off, as Com Vien has stuck around for seven years in a cut-throat industry and has recently opened a second branch.
Kuala Lumpur-born Chong didn’t start out in the restaurant business, having first moved to Vietnam 11 years ago while working for a Malaysian company. In fact, Com Vien wasn’t even Chong’s first venture in Hanoi, with his successful football pitch letting business scuppered by government land seizures.
Chong started both the football business and Com Vien for a simple reason; he saw a gap in the market and filled it. His pitch was one of the first to use the now ubiquitous artificial grass in the city and the cheap, homely Malaysian/Singaporean fare on offer at Com Vien filled a similar gap. As Chong put it in his matter of fact way “Nobody was doing it.”
Sam Chong is a businessman before a restaurateur and it’s perhaps this business acumen that explains why Com Vien operates differently from other foreign-owned eateries. Simply put; it’s cheap.
Two people can eat and drink in Com Vien for less than 200,000 VND, not something that can be said about many other foreign restaurants in Hanoi. When I asked him why his food was so affordable the answer seemed simple to Chong, “because it’s comforting food, just like a normal pho restaurant. It’s not like special cuisine or anything.”
Of course simply offering cheap food doesn’t guarantee success, it’s got to be tasty and worth a couple of dollars it’ll cost. Chong recognizes this, and the stripped down menu ensures his staff can cook everything to a high standard. Interestingly, Chong doubts Com Vien would be a success in his home country, with the small menu a key reason.
With his mind on his business and his business on his mind, Chong has built a successful restaurant that matches his personality; straightforward and does what it says on the tin, which is to make good food. And he knows it.
Chong reckons Com Vien has sold more than 100,000 plates of chicken rice so he has certainly achieved his goal of owning a restaurant “for the masses.” Perhaps what best sums up his and Com Vien’s no-frills approach is what he said when I asked was what the biggest challenge in opening a restaurant in Hanoi. After a long pause, he simply replied “No I don’t feel there were any challenges. It’s just whether people accept your food or not”.