Lily Hoa Nguyen is the owner and executive chef of Vietnamese Foodies, a restaurant she bootstrapped in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers last year, which has already broken even. She has since launched a second branch in Downtown Dubai and is now planning her third. Born and raised in Vietnam, Ms Hoa Nguyen, 37, started cooking at five to help with family chores. After a career in Ho Chi Minh City, Paris and Istanbul, where she ran private cooking classes, she moved to Dubai in 2016 where she spotted a gap in the market for authentic Vietnamese food. She used savings from her classes and from her day job as a brand manager at multinational companies to fund the venture. Ms Hoa Nguyen lives in Dubai with her husband and her two boys, ages 3 and 5.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I was born in post-war Vietnam to a family with four daughters. We were not exactly poor but like so many other families in Vietnam during that time, we struggled for financial security. My mum held down three jobs at the same time and my dad was often away from home, working as a merchant vessel captain in the South East Asian Sea. So, my sisters and I took turns with household chores, and I learned the value of money early, and how hard it was to earn. I relate most to the 'Winter is Coming' philosophy of Ned Stark, King in the North in Games of Thrones: it does not matter if the going is good or bad, we should always have a fallback option.
What is your fallback option?
One example was when we were launching Vietnamese Foodies. Before we found the place in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, we liked another location nearby. But after three months chasing approvals and paperwork, it still hadn’t been finalised, so we began looking around. Rather than wait for the deal to crash, we scoped out a few options and one of those became our launch venue. It’s a be-prepared mentality – if you’ve got a back-up, a setback won’t affect you as much.
How much were you paid for your first job?
When I was in 11th grade, I was invited to work as an interpreter and promoter for a commercial exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. I earned $200 (Dh734) per day, which was quite high compared to other part-time jobs I held later. There are many exhibitions per year in Ho Chi Minh City and my good English won me many similar jobs in my university years.
How did you save enough to finance your own restaurant?
I’ve been saving money since my first job as a marketing executive with Unilever in 2004. By 2007, I bought my first apartment on instalments and paid for it until 2011 when I swapped it for a piece of land. The land had appreciated by 2017 when I sold it to get my seed money for the restaurant. So, dong by Vietnamese dong, in 14 years or so I saved half a million dirhams.
So, you’re a saver, not a spender?
I am something of both. I won’t hesitate to spend on something that I can see the value of. At the same time, I try to make sure a substantial portion of my income goes to either my savings or an investment.
Do you still save so aggressively?
Vietnamese Foodies is in its fastest growth phase right now, with two branches. My target is to open another by 2020 so, currently, all my earnings go to our expansion fund. It is my husband’s salary that keeps my children and me clothed and fed and it will be a long time before we can put away money from my restaurant business because my priority is to make Vietnamese Foodies available to as many people as possible.
What has been your best investment so far?
From a business perspective, our team. It costs much more to bring in a team of chefs from Vietnam than to recruit from Dubai but I wanted to ensure authenticity. It has turned out to be my best decision yet: not only do they produce the most delicious food but they’re the most tight-knit and resilient team I have ever seen.
Personally, I don’t have many financial investments now – all my savings went to property and we sold that to open the first restaurant. But it was worth it. We’re seeing the returns already.
What is your most cherished purchase?
Time spent with my loved ones is most precious to me; I don’t mind spending a good amount of money to have a good time with family and my friends.
What’s the next big-ticket item you’re looking at?
A family holiday home. We have just bought a piece of land in the Black Sea mountains in Turkey, the site of our dream house, and a place where our children can spend their summers amidst nature.
So, you plan for the future then?
Yes, I am a born planner and organiser. I know what I am doing this week, this month, this year, next year and the year after. Maybe that’s why my hair has started going white. But I know that destiny has a say in everything. So, I work hard to achieve my goals but, when things go wrong, I go to one of my back-up plans.
Have you ever had a month where you feared you could not pay the bills?
That would be one of those summer months when almost everyone fled the city for somewhere cooler. Business was slow and the Dewa bills were sky-high.
What strategies helped you break even at your JLT branch?
It’s important to develop a unique, hard-to-copy product, then research and do all you can to make sure your product is superior to that of your competitors in product quality and value. Finally, have at least two back-up options for anything important, especially finance and construction.
What has been your most rewarding moment financially?
It was when I completed all my payments to the contractors and partners involved in the Downtown Dubai branch and the restaurant was fully operational. It was amazing because I never imagined I would one day own something as spectacular as a restaurant right in front of the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Opera House.
What luxuries are important to you?
I am very fond of good sweets such as Patchi chocolates and Bateel dates. And in Dubai summers, Vietnamese silk dresses.
How much do you have in your wallet right now?
What car do you drive?
A 2014-model Toyota Prado. I don’t care what people think about the car I drive or the shoes I wear. Instead of buying a better car, I’d rather invest that money in my business.
What financial advice would you offer your younger self?
Value opportunities to learn and grow in a good environment rather than high pay. Valuable skills and knowledge are a lot more important. You can always earn money later.
Do you have any financial regrets?
Not really – unless you count my Salik fines.