Making it as a Restaurant and Bar
We’ve been in conversation with Nam Tran, owner-operator of NAM, a Vietnamese street food restaurant, cocktail and audiophile bar based in Ancoats’ Cutting Room Square. Many people dream about opening their own restaurant, so we got chatting to Nam to find out exactly how he did it.
We hope you might feel inspired by this conversation to do the same!
How did you go about finding premises on Cutting Room Square?
I was looking everywhere and anywhere for premises 2-3 years before we opened.
The first place I looked at was where Elnecot now currently is. We were in negotiation stages with the landlord, but it didn’t work out. A couple of my siblings had cold feet and that resulted in the venue falling through.
I was looking online and asking anyone in the industry if they knew of anywhere that was available. The search slowed down a little. There wasn’t much that I could find.
Then I saw the spot where Fress now is on Oldham Street, and again, I got to the negotiation stage and it didn’t work out. We could have taken it, but the landlord was asking for a little bit too much.
The same thing happened with the bagel shop on Oldham Street – we started the negotiations, but it got taken from under our noses.
But everything happens for a reason – on that same day when we found out that the bagel shop had moved in, 33 Blossom Street came back up available. I got in contact with the developers, and everything flowed from there.
We had to pitch a proposal of what we were going to do. They liked the sound of our business more than the others who wanted the space. So securing premises came from believing in what you do, mixed in with a little bit of luck.
Did you ever feel disheartened during this very early stage?
It does get annoying when these hurdles come up and things don’t go your way. But there were no thoughts about giving up.
Once you secured the premises, how long did it take you to actually open the doors?
Negotiations on the lease started in May 2017, but we didn’t sign the contract or get the keys until January 2018.
I was still working in finance during that time whilst deciding a deal between ourselves and the landlord. We were deciding the rents, the rent-free period, the length of the lease, the terms, the break clauses, things like that.
Did you have any experience with these contracts for commercial properties?
No, but I had a good friend who I went to university with, who is a commercial properties solicitor. He was extremely helpful and guided me a lot. He introduced me to a property surveyor who could negotiate on our behalf, as well as helping with the legal paperwork. I am very lucky to have people close to me with all that experience. I could have never have done it on my own.
What else did you have to sort out before opening?
Because this was my first venture, I was quite new to all the things we needed to do to start. One of the first jobs I needed to sort out was our alcohol license. I had to put that application into the council, again using a specialist licensing solicitor, who put together a plan of action for when the business opened. For example, opening hours, alcohol serving hours, risk assessments, how we approach different situations, how we prevent underage people from being served alcohol. Just to show that we know what we are doing.
That was quite stressful. The council ultimately have the power to decide yes or no. And you don’t have as much to say about their decision as you’d like.
Looking back, I was overly worried. Only because I was inexperienced and unaware of how likely it would be to get a license. Everything was granted, I was happy with the terms, they were happy with our approach as operators. Looking back, if I was to open a second venue, I wouldn’t be as worried as I was then.
How did you go about naming your business NAM and creating the branding for the restaurant?
Very reluctantly! I posted very little to do with the business on my personal social media page. Which is quite bad! I should be promoting my business, but I’m not the type of person to be flashy or showy on social media.
Again, I had a great friend who works in branding and marketing. She helped lots with going through names and decor ideas. It was about throwing ideas around with her and other friends in creative industries.
I was trying to come up with names that were different and cool. But everything I came up with was thrown back at me! A friend just said I think you should call it ‘NAM’ – it’s memorable, relevant, short and sweet.
But that’s my name! I mentioned it to my siblings – and they said it was good.
So, I had to detach myself from my own name! Anyways, anyone that sees the name NAM would just think it was short for Vietnam.
Having the right people around you with the right expertise seems like a really important part of starting a big venture like opening a restaurant. How did you go about finding the right staff?
It was difficult, especially for finding kitchen staff that can do traditional Vietnamese cuisine. There are not many Vietnamese chefs out there and many British Vietnamese people have not chosen cheffing as a career.
Most Vietnamese restaurants that have opened are family owned. The chefs would not be trained, they would be part of the family business. I just had to reach out to other friends in the industry. Fortunately, I was introduced to Marylin who is our main chef now.
I had a friend who had worked in a kitchen before and I asked if she would come on board. So it was just the two of them, plus my family helping.
Marylin would introduce me to someone looking for a job. And once we were open, people would come in and hand in their CVs.
With regards to bar staff, I found our main bartender David on a Facebook group called Manchester Bars – which is for anyone who works in the food and drink industry. There are about 10-12 thousand people in the group.
David was cocktail trained and invested from day one. I found our other bar staff through friends. Once interviewed, I got them on board.
I was in a predicament when hiring staff because I wasn’t exactly sure when we’d be open. United Utilities had to dig up the road and plumb the water into the building as we didn’t have any running water. They had planned on doing the work two weeks before we were planning to open. But for some reason, the council denied their permit and said they could only do the work at the weekend.
That really annoyed me. On the weekend, the square would be busy with people. We could have had the work done mid-week with no-one on the square. And the only weekend available for the contractor to do the work was six weekends after.
So although the restaurant was ready and the pipes were in place, the water still hadn’t been connected. We had to wait around until this could be completed, which made it difficult to recruit staff. I wasn’t sure exactly when NAM was going to be open. I couldn’t expect people to wait around. The recruitment process ended up being quite a rushed one. I had to find and train people within a week.
We had a great team to start with, but hospitality has a high turnover. And most of the bar staff that started out are no longer with us. That is just part and parcel of the industry.
What was the first month of opening like?
We opened doing next to no marketing. A bit of Facebook, a bit of Instagram and word of mouth. We did a soft launch when I invited five DJs down to play. We opened to the public afterward.
It was hectic, but we got through it. We closed for a week and went through everything we needed to improve on.
Luckily we are situated in a square which is very busy when it’s warm. People noticed we’d open and they’d come in and check it out. I think if we’d opened in another location, we would have struggled in the first month. But because of where we are, we got customers organically, which was very beneficial to us.
Taking things slowly was much better than getting masses and masses of people in and not being able to cope.
What are your customers like?
Our menu is quite small, and the majority of our customers have already experienced Vietnamese cuisine. They know what to expect. We have had 99% positive feedback about our food.
Part of our job is also to introduce people to true Vietnamese cuisine. It is a growing cuisine and getting more and more popular. But it is nowhere near the commercial status of Thai or Chinese food. We are trying to bring Vietnamese food to the same kind of level of recognition.
What is your favourite part of your job, and the worst part?
My favourite part is that I am challenged every single day. It is not monotonous. But in the same vein, the worse thing I miss is structure within my life.
I’m starting to get to grips with everything, and being able to have a plan of action in place on the different days of the week.
At the beginning, we didn’t have systems in place. We didn’t even have a butcher that could deliver until one month into opening the restaurant. So I was going out every day to do the stock runs. So I lost that 9-5 structure.
I was waking up and getting straight to work. I lost time when I would usually sit down and eat breakfast. My diet has taken a turn for a worse! It’s finding the time to eat your three meals a day. I found I’ve lost a fair bit of weight from just not eating enough and running around a bit too much.
How would you describe a typical day?
Lots of alarms! When we first opened, I’d always be the one to open up and set up. I’d always be the first person in.
I’d be serving people for a good amount of time too. I did the shifts, so I could really understand all the ins and outs of everything.
As an owner-operator, I needed to know everything. Like making cocktails, being in the kitchen, how the payment terminals work… just in case I was let down by a member of staff. I would need to be able to cover.
I spent a lot of time getting to grips with the day to day operations of how to serve people. This was good to start with. But in the end, I was losing precious time not seeing the bigger picture. I’ve delegated those jobs over now, but I still try to do the occasional shift to be amongst the staff.
What piece of advice would you’d give to someone thinking of starting their own food business?
Be positive. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. It can be a very lonely process starting your own business. So make sure you give time to yourself to be able to do the things you enjoy doing, like spending time with your friends. Give yourself time. You will spend so much time worrying and working on the business. Don’t forget to give yourself downtime.