A Chat with Cafe RuNam
Citypassguide.com sat down with Chris Ngo, Cafe RuNam’s Chief Operating Officer, to discuss how Cafe RuNam is slowly changing locals’ minds about the concept of “pure” Vietnamese coffee. Through a meticulous selection process where only a minor percentage of beans make it through inspections, Cafe RuNam is all about consistent quality and traditional taste. It even took their Italian roastmaster months to achieve the perfect blends of Arabica and Robusta beans for the brand.
Citpassguide.com: What does “RuNam” mean?
Chris: Ru is understood as a lullaby song for a child, Nam stands for Vietnam, of course, since this is a Vietnamese brand. RuNam is “the lullaby of Vietnam”, the spiritual baby to be flourished with love, care and affection, bringing the best Vietnamese coffee to the world.
CPG: Who is behind Cafe RuNam?
Chris: Mr. Nguyen Quoc Khanh and his wife Mrs. Ly Q. K. Trinh. Mr. Khanh, Chairman of AA Corporation, an established construction company specializing in premium interior design, is taking care of the basic construction and designs of RuNam restaurants while Mrs. Trinh is the soul of the brand, a perfectionist. Her personal touch and exaggerated expectations are shown in the little details of our cafes.
CPG: How do you roast your beans?
Chris: We have our own roasting facility and coffee testing lab located in Binh Duong province. Our Italian Roastmaster has been researching for suitable roasting methods for Vietnamese coffee blends. There are several blends of Cafe RuNam differentiated by the percentage of arabica and robusta in the mix and roasting timing according to specific temperature adjustment. There are also many different types of each bean, so the entire process of finding the right method of roasting this mix was much more complex than simply roasting one type of bean. The difference of a perfectly roasted coffee and a burned coffee is the matter of seconds.
CPG: How are you bringing “pure” coffee to Vietnam?
Chris: What locals often drink in streetside cafes is not necessarily coffee. So introducing a pure coffee, without additives or artificial flavors like caramel, soybeans, corns was a crazy idea at first. From the locals’ perception, this is not real coffee, but we patiently change that perception by introducing the highest quality blends from our homemade production, from highly selected fresh green beans to monitoring the roasting process to crafting each coffee cup under consistent training procedures, as well as regular system audits from RuNam barista artists. Therefore we believe the culinary marriage of Vietnamese coffee beans with Italian roasting techniques works well. As a result, we currently have a large number of loyal customers and fans who love our coffee and the soul behind it.
CPG: Do you have additives in your coffee?
Chris: No. We use 100% coffee beans. That is the most challenging factor we’ve faced in the first several months of preparations before introducing our blends to the market. In the beginning, most Vietnamese coffee drinkers didn’t like the taste. This is something really new for them. We started to explain to our customers the reasons behind the taste and how it’s different with what they usually have. If they still don’t like it we can change the beverage or give them their money back.
CPG: Do you have a secret ratio for your blends of arabica and robusta?
Chris: Actually, this depends on the roastmaster. Depending on the season and the beans and the taste, he decides what is best suitable according to our blend guidelines and standard SOPs.
CPG: Do you import any coffee beans?
Chris: No. We use 100% Vietnamese beans. Although it’s very difficult to find good arabica here in Vietnam. The coffee growing conditions in the highlands is challenging for producing good arabica. Our roasting master has to occasionally sample different sources of beans from different plantations in order to keep up the quality and consistency of the coffee blends.
CPG: What are your best sellers?
Chris: Our ca phe sua da, ca phe da and cappuccino. These three have been the favorite of our customers. We received numerous compliments for our coffee drink menu. I have been tasting different Vietnamese coffee or cappuccinos whenever I travel or during my free time, I couldn’t find anything like it. The ambassador of Italy came to Vietnam in early 2015, and she first came to Cafe RuNam to have a cup of cappuccino, which was recommended to her by the previous ambassador. She loves it.
CPG: How did you personally get into coffee?
Chris: I got to learn about coffee when I was with KFC Singapore when we started to launch KFC breakfast. Before joining Cafe RuNam I was the Training and Development Manager for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I was sent overseas for barista training. I was a barista judge for some competitions. I was trained again with the RuNam roastmaster. The company sponsored me, some key managers and key baristas for Espresso Italiano Experience Seminar by International Institute of Coffee Tasters (IICT – Italy branch) to get myself ready for Cafe RuNam.
CPG: Have you created a signature Cafe RuNam coffee drink?
Chris: We have Madam RuNam, an iced latte with condensed milk and some secret ingredients. Also Sand Dune: a very unique coffee alcohol drink with Kahlua, Bailey's and some in-house ingredients. Besides those, we have many delicious in-house creations coming soon.
CPG: Who are your customers?
Chris: Café RuNam’s customers are comprised of following target groups: affluent local residents, middle to upper class tourists, local business people, the young at heart.
This depends on our store locations. In the South, it’s mostly Vietnamese and Việt Kiều. In the Center, it’s mostly tourists. And in the North, it’s like in the South - mostly Vietnamese and Việt Kiều.
CPG: Have you started exporting your beans?
Chris: Yes, we already have partner restaurants in several countries. However, the production at the moment is pretty tight since getting quality beans is difficult right now. We have a list of potential domestic and international customers who proposed to be partners with Cafe RuNam, but we’re not ready for this at the moment.
CPG: What’s the future of RuNam?
Chris: We’re in the process of spreading our brands to all the big cities in Vietnam where our main target customers are located. We already have our focus on the premium coffee market. Therefore selecting distribution partners or cafes needs a proper process of brand evaluation. We send barista trainers to the partner facility to train them on brewing, crafting and displaying coffee products according to Cafe RuNam standards. For long term, we plan to bring the best of Vietnamese coffee to the world.
CPG: How many cups of coffee do you drink every day?
Chris: About four to nine cups [laughs]. On some days I can’t even open my eyes without going to work getting a coffee. And when I’m on holiday, well, those are hell. I try to drink other brands, but nothing comes close to what I want. I usually have cappuccinos, ca phe sua das, espressos. I must have two to three cups of cappuccino and/or cafe sua da a day, at least! That’s just my life. Do you want another cup of coffee?
CPG: How do you educate yourself about coffee?
Chris: I read about it. I research about it. I sign up for quality coffee courses. I practice crafting coffee whenever I can. Recently, I started writing about it. Besides coffee knowledge, my writing also includes how coffee became a part of my life, my search for answers about the coffee industry and culture, and how coffee got me where I am standing today. I share what I write with my team. I may publish it one day when I am ready for the fame it may get me. For now, I want to stay focus flourishing my spiritual RuNam baby.
CPG: Do you like to drink any other coffee in town?
Chris: I actually check around every day to try different coffee. If I know any new coffee shop that just opened I check out their coffees. Traveling to any new city, I try the coffee there. Coffee is mostly my life, having a good cup of coffee everywhere I go, for me, is a way of indulging in life.
CPG: Anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t covered?
Chris: We are promoting not just coffee but Vietnam’s traditional aspects to our customers. One of the distinguishing symbols of Cafe RuNam is the art of the coffee filter (phin). For the foreign friends, if you come in a small group, and you want to learn more about the coffee phin making process, we have well-trained barista artists (or you could simply ask for me, I am usually based in Ho Chi Minh City) to personally present the uniqueness of the Vietnamese coffee filter culture for you and your guests.