With a passion for food, CEO of KAfe Group, Dao Chi Anh is working to spread her brand across Vietnam with the rapid expansion of the chain.
Since she was a child, Dao Chi Anh has followed her family around the world due to the nature of her father’s work. Born in Russia, she spent her childhood years in Germany and Taiwan (China).
She then spent eight years as an adult working in Singapore. As a result, Chi Anh is fluent in four languages.
“For a child, changing school continuously is a nightmare. I had to learn new languages and make new friends every time we moved. It’s even harder to use that new language in one’s studies,” she says.
In Singapore, Chi Anh shared her cooking passion on her personal blog, Door to My Kitchen. Receiving support from readers, she collaborated with some magazines and became a familiar name amongst cookery fanatics.
One of her blog followers was Hoang Anh, who later on became the business and creative partner of her cooking studio and food media business, Kitchen Art. “At that time, Hoang Anh was living in Australia. Through our chats, we found we had several things in common, in particular a passion for food,” Chi Anh shares.
The girls co-authored two cook-books, Our Kitchen Stories, published locally by Nha Nam publisher, and Our Sweet Kitchen, published globally by Page One publishers.
Giving up a promising job in Panasonic Singapore, Chi Anh came back to Vietnam to realize her dream. Kitchen Art, which is not only a kitchenware shop but also a studio where cooking classes and food photography shoots take place, was the first step.
The decision to open Kitchen Art was bold, as at that time the home cooking industry in Vietnam was still in its infancy. Few people were searching for cooking recipes online and the price for imported kitchenware was too costly for most Vietnamese people.
After a difficult first few years, Kitchen Art finally started to catch people’s attention when Chi Anh and her team began investing in their brand’s image. They took time styling their food, and focused on setting the lighting and angle to achieve high quality food photos for the popular recipe section on the Kitchen Art website. It paid off, and their photos led the trend of food photography in Vietnam.
Chi Anh’s most successful project is The KAfe restaurant, serving a wide variety of dishes from East to West. Only two years since its doors first opened, Chi Anh now owns five food and beverage brands – The KAfe, The KAfe Village, The Kafe Box, The Burger Box and freshly pressed juice brand The KAfe Pressed, as well as an upcoming coffee brand, The KAfe Cup.
“At the beginning we faced many challenges, including shortage of capital, difficulty finding a suitable location, and staff training issues. In Vietnam, it’s really hard to find high quality staff, especially experienced cooks. Building a corporate governance and control that meets world standards was also very hard,” Chi Anh shares.
Despite the difficulties, the restaurant earned enough money to cover its operating costs after only a few months. Since then, The KAfe has increased in popularity, along with Chi Anh’s passion for food.
“Actually, financial failure is not as scary as failure in daring to dream. At the KAfe, we always try to give a refreshing touch to every dish, carefully choosing every single ingredient. Though there have been times when we experienced lower margin due to the high cost of ingredients, we still want to bring the best experience to our diners,” Chi Anh shares.
With a dream of bringing organic food to the table, The KAfe has cooperated with farms in Vietnam to directly grow organic produce under close supervision. “Supporting responsible local farms and feeding my customer healthy, clean and traceable fresh produce is something I feel very passionate about.
We are becoming an industrialized country and the quality of fresh produce seems to have dropped to make way for larger productivity, putting the health of communities at stake. We hope this can be the start of a long and fruitful journey between the KAfe Group and local farmers of Vietnam,” she says.
Recently, The KAfe has flooded Vietnamese social networks as a result of Cassia Investment’s decision to pour US$5.5 million into this business.”The process of calling for investment was not easy,” Chi Anh shares.
“I had to go to over 100 international investment funds in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK to present our work. Some of them sent lawyers and international auditors to Vietnam to test our restaurants’ efficiency. They interviewed our staff meticulously over a period of two-three months and some even acted like regular customers. At the end of it, they told me, “We are truly impressed,” Chi Anh shares.
Plans for growth
According to the young CEO, in the next three months, The KAfe will open 14 more branches, including ten in Ho Chi Minh City. The target customers will be the young generation and office workers.
The decision to head south is considered key to the upcoming success of The KAfe and Cassia Investment. However, this is not an easy market. Chi Anh tells us that despite Ho Chi Minh City holding promise due to its large number of youngsters and foreigners. The KAfe’s target customers, differences in taste and preference from Hanoi’s population could present challenges.
Chi Anh has dreams of The KAfe going global in the future. “We also plan to enter the international market over the coming years. I will introduce The KAfe brand to some regional countries first, hopefully in the next one-two years,” Chi Anh adds.