The tuckshop lady
27.11.14 | Posted in People I Love
Clever fast food and smart branding have fast-tracked Nahji Chu’s success. Emma Isaacs meets the entrepreneur on a roll.
Nahji Chu, 44, has been described as being “mad as a cut snake”. She drops the F-word like Gordon Ramsay and has a reputation as an acid-tongued, straight-shooting entrepreneur.
But she also has a reputation for making the best rice-paper rolls in Australia, according to Longrain’s Sam Christie (and, as our taste buds will testify, the Business Chicks office). Her takeaway tuckshops have a cult foodie following and they’re now expanding all over the world.
When Nahji was five, she and her family fled the harsh communist regime in Laos. They were crossing the Mekong River in the dead of the night, painted in mud, when they were caught, jailed and sent to a Thai refugee camp for three-and-a-half years. It was here, Nahji says, in a depraved environment, that she honed her natural entrepreneurial streak, bartering for prized possessions. Thirty-seven years on, she’s built a business that has an annual turnover of $25 million and employs 320 staff. Her journey is one of struggle, success and philanthropy.
Calling Australia home
Nahji and her family were one of the first refugees in Australia, settling in Richmond, Melbourne. “Everything about Australia was foreign,” she says. “The toilets had buttons; we had a tap with running water; the white goods glistened. As I grew older I tapped into the urban ecosystem: creativity, serendipity, innovation and business. But as a kid the very fabric of the urban environment was deeply alienating.”
The other major difference between Australia then and now, she says, was the almost total absence of an Asian community. “You could feel it on the streets. We stood out.
“We had no idea about fashion or television-driven trends. One day all us Chu kids were taken to the Salvation Army to select clothes for free. Many were brand new and still in their packets. I chose a flannelette suit with a duck print on them – none of my siblings batted a lid at my choice. I wore it proudly around the neighbourhood. The immediate mockery from local kids helped me quickly learn the word ‘pyjamas’. This world was opaque to us and we usually learnt by making mistakes.”
Food has always been in Nahji’s blood. Her mum would dish up rice-paper rolls to neighbours when they first moved to Australia (“They’d never seen anything like it,” she says). She got her first taste of the hospitality industry as a teenager when her aunt Yen set up a renowned pho shop; a ‘noodle speakeasy’ that had people queuing down the street.
After finishing school, she “tried to go to university and get a proper job”, but dabbled in catering jobs instead, selling her now-famous rolls and dumplings. She began her own catering business, Wok Off, before she accepted an offer from businessman James Orloff to start BITE, modelled on UK food chain Pret A Manger. While this ultimately failed, she says it was a “major stepping stone to understanding the business model I wanted – it taught me an enormous amount”. Disenchanted with the food industry, she nabbed a desk job – and it was then she had her lightbulb moment. “I worked in a Sydney city office for four years. I was tied to a desk and looking for a quick bite to eat each day. I struggled to find something affordable, nutritious and fast. There were people crying out for healthy, fresh fast food and no one could find it.” And so misschu was born.
You ling, we bling
Nahji Chu started her business with an order for 30 rice-paper rolls, and was taking orders for 17,000 rolls within three months. In 2009, she opened her first tuckshop in Darlinghurst, followed by one at the Sydney Opera House. She says she’s grateful for the government support she received (the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme – NEIS) that helped her launch misschu.
But she knew from day one her business would be a hit. “Once the idea crystallised the process of making misschu successful was rapid,” she says. She had the recipe for success: fresh, fast, hawker-style Vietnamese food in a beautiful space, and clever marketing. Humour has been at the core of the misschu brand – something, she says, she’s used as a coping mechanism all her life. “All those who suffer great hardships develop a sense of humour – it usually relates to an underlying miserable memory or genuine complaint. Our ‘you ling, we bling’ slogan is a humorous jab at the difficulty many Vietnamese people have with speaking English properly – an issue I confronted for many years after we migrated here.” Another ingredient integral to the misschu formula? The décor of her tuckshops. Ambient touches such as rice-bowl lampshades, bamboo shutters, fairylights in badminton shuttlecocks and wooden counters have become synonymous with the misschu brand.
The meteoric rise of misschu has come with a few hiccups. “One of the biggest business lessons I’ve learnt: get your contracts right. Contracts are what we go back to when things go wrong. It’s what you wave in people’s faces when they fail to honour their part of the bargain. If you don’t have a contract it’s very difficult to substantiate a claim of wrongdoing or to defend yourself against one. My lawyers are now my guardian angels in this regard.”
Relinquishing control has also been a challenge. “I have had to engage people who essentially micro-manage aspects of the company on my behalf – this has been a huge deal for me. Learning to do this is about trust and I had a childhood that taught me not to trust anyone. I had to overcome that and ensure all my staff feel they are trusted to execute and innovate, no matter how senior or junior the role.”
Dumplings, not detention
The misschu takeaway packaging, which features photos of the Chu family’s refugee visas, is more than just a quirky touch. It’s a clear indicator there’s more behind the brand than mouth-tingling dumplings and bamboo shutters. Nahji has long championed to highlight the plight of refugees in Australia. “The stores are a platform for a discussion about the image of the Vietnamese refugee, about the future of our urban population and philanthropy. The plan has always, and continues to be, to create an entrepreneurial cyclical motion around growth and giving back,” she says.
Unapologetically political, she says the mission of misschu is not just to engage her guests in Vietnamese food but in a richer understanding of what it means to engage with proactive, politically and culturally aware Vietnamese people. “I am building a business, but also a rebellion against the stereotype of my people as quiet and submissive, or war-hardened peasants.”
Last year, Nahji launched ‘Dumplings not Detention’, a T-shirt campaign encouraging Australians to focus on the blessings of our multicultural society and raising funds for the Refugee Council of Australia. On the issue of asylum seekers, she says, “There are no boat-arrival crises. If boats are sinking, rescue them. If there are people smugglers aboard, arrest them and process the asylum seekers in a timely manner. One issue is a criminal one and the other is a humanitarian one. We can process asylum seekers and punish people smugglers all at the same time – there, problem solved!”
Rolling with it
Nahji says that misschu remains her daily obsession and passion. She opened her first London tuckshop last year, and has sights set on world food domination in every international hub – Dubai, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai – one roll at a time.
Has she had an ‘I’ve made it moment?’ “When I first took a holiday from misschu and the operations continued more or less seamlessly, it was clear the business had a momentum of its own,” she says. “But then there is another sense of arrival; the realisation that you have become a successful business operator. Someone who can successfully mitigate risks and exploit opportunities on a daily basis. I have successfully transformed many problems into opportunities over the years and that’s given me the confidence to believe I can manage most situations now.
“There will be a time when I wind back my involvement and focus on philanthropy and my private life more exclusively. But, for now, I never take for granted that I am able to wake up and essentially be myself for a job. I am not forced by an imposed office or bureaucratic culture to dress or behave a certain way. My business constantly articulates and informs my politics, my desire for sustainable cities and the articulation of my passion for hospitality.
So, what would she say to people who describe her as the ‘rice-paper roll Nazi’? (A riff on the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld – Nahji has a reputation for barking at customers who ask stupid questions.)
“If the joke that I am a Nazi is a reflection of anything, it is my brutal determination to sell a massive quantity of the best rice-paper rolls the world has known,” she laughs. And that, Nahji, I can’t really argue with.