Nghi Nguyen’s on how he combined cutting edge technology with Vietnamese street-food.

Quitting your high earning banking job to set up a new concept Vietnamese restaurant might sound like madness, but to do it five months before the financial crisis hits is something else entirely.

But Saigon-born Nghi Nguyen is not one to give up easily. And so it is that, four since years since he first had the idea for Velo, his innovative ‘quick service’ restaurant on London’s Tooley Street is setting a new benchmark for modern dining in the capital.

We caught up with him to find out more.

I first had the idea for Velo in... September 2008, five months after I quit my City job. I remember the collapse of Lehman Brothers and saying to myself: “Are you mad to start a business at this time?”

Leaving the city had nothing to do with the financial crisis that followed... Not at all. I made the decision in late 2007 and could not have known what was to come. It was purely a personal decision.

I did worry about how it would impact the business... setting up something like Velo when everyone was about to stash away their cash under the mattress or stay at home cooking for themselves was madness really. But I couldn’t let the idea for go and so just went ahead.

Velo is a brand new concept for fast service restaurants... It combines state-of-the-art touch-screen technology with a pick up display that lets customers track orders as they progress through the kitchen. It saves customers a lot of time and hassle.

There were plenty of challenges involved in setting everything up...
creating the technology from a blank sheet of paper, getting a good site with zero restaurant track record, completing a 13-month custom fit-out, going through many iterations of food recipes to get the taste and quality right, and finding great staff were all big challenges.

Tooley Street was the perfect location for Velo... Office workers, local residents, students, visitors - they are all there. With More London, Bermondsey village, the Shard and London Bridge (UK’s largest station by 2018 on completion of its redevelopment), SE1 is getting more central to Central London every day.

The idea for the touch-screen technology came about... from an image of lunch-time queues and a host of cashiers behind sandwich counters in Canary Wharf, where I used to work. I asked myself why we need queues and so many people behind a counter just to take payments.

The first 12 months were all about creating the concept in my mind... Then I had to roll up my sleeves, sourcing and trying out all the hardware. I designed the self-service kiosk cabinets on Powerpoint which took over a year. The software was developed from scratch and I spent two years on Skype every day with developers based in Mumbai, feeding them with designs and instructions.

The advantages of using touch-screen technology in a restaurant setting...
come down to speed (Velocity) without feeling rushed, convenience without any hassle and, counter-intuitively, personalisation: you can customise orders according to your personal taste and choose items you’ve ordered previously.

This technology makes complete sense for most quick service restaurants... It’s just matter of time until they adopt a similar technology and I do plan on developing the Velo technology for other restaurants.

Although I grew up in Germany... I still have strong memories of the food in Saigon, whether home cooked or eaten out. In Germany, Asian ingredients were hard to come by, especially in the small village I grew up, so we had to make do with potatoes in noodle soups.

My earliest memory of Vietnamese food is... the sticky rice breakfast (Xoi) that my mother bought every morning from a nearby market for the four of us children. I often got up early and devoured the portions that were meant for my siblings.

My dying dinner would be... a family dinner with my aunt and cousins in their village home in Tay Ninh outside Saigon.

Velo’s food is different to other Vietnamese restaurants in London... it’s modern, made to order, cooked without MSG and served super-fast in a fresh and contemporary interior for eat-in or take-away. Plus you can order from our touch screens – it’s really quick and simple - or from our friendly staff at the counter. I think it is this distinctive combination that sets Velo apart.

Unposh is in... and Vietnamese street food is unfussy, down-to-earth, affordable and healthy. It’s what most people want these days.

Velo was made to grow... To grow but to retain its original character. If we can make it more than five Velos in five years, that wouldn’t be a bad start!

Velo Restaurant
Tooley Street
London Bridge
Telephone: 0207407 9310

Interview by Emily Jenkinson

April 2013