The Underbelly called in with the Vietnamese Coffee Co. for a chat and some craic over great coffees and delicious Banh Mi sandwiches.
Our first series explores how local chefs, restaurateurs, artisans, brewers and distillers are crafting some of the best food and drink you may or may not have heard of, furthering Northern Ireland’s culinary scene and adapting to serve local communities over the pandemic period.
This is the way so many of the great meals of my life have been enjoyed. Sitting in the street, eating something out of a bowl that I’m not exactly sure what it is. And scooters going by… This is the path to true happiness and wisdom.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN IN VIETNAM
We sat down with Gary and Martin Small, two brothers who run Belfast’s Vietnamese Coffee Co., home to the most authentic banh mi sandwich this side of the orient and coffee that could fuel a SpaceX mission to Mars. After traveling Southeast Asia, it was Vietnam they fell in love with and they wanted to bring the country’s coffee and its most famous comfort foods home to Belfast.
This is their story…
Why Vietnam? Why Vietnamese coffee?
Six and a half years ago my brother and I travelled throughout Southeast Asia. Whilst there, Vietnamese food, culture and, most importantly, the country’s coffee blew us away. We get asked every day, “Why Vietnamese coffee?” Well, when you try it, you’ll know. It’s powerful stuff and it’s some of the best and most overlooked, high quality coffee in the world.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
We both always had admin jobs. I worked in the Civil Service for 18 years and my brother worked for Ulster Bank for 20. Within three months of each other, we were both made redundant. It was a bit of a shock, but these things are an opportunity. There’s no point moping about it. We thought it would be good to get out of the ‘corporate setting’ and work for ourselves.
Neither of us had ever worked in restaurants before. Thinking of what we could do – after realising that, what’s probably every man’s dream of opening a bar isn’t feasible in this town – we naturally turned to the idea of opening a coffee shop. At the time, there were a few independent places about, but nobody was doing Vietnamese coffee. We rightly guessed that there was a market for it in Europe and, now, here we are.
What is it that sets Vietnamese coffee apart?
It’s set apart by the type of bean that’s used and the ingredients included in its unique brewing process. It’s made through a filter called a phin. You take a scoop of coffee, put the wee weight on, drop the coffee in and place it on top of your cup. You pour in a small amount of hot water, then the grounds expand and it starts to drip. This takes four to five minutes, no longer than your average coffee in any shop. It gives the coffee a very intense and strong flavour.
Typically, Vietnamese coffee is made with robusta beans which come from the central highlands. Vietnam have the highest quality of robusta beans in the world. It’s absolutely perfect growing conditions for the plant to thrive.
A lot of people think that robusta is a cheaper quality bean, but it doesn’t work as simplistically as that. A lot of people think that Arabica is automatically higher quality than robusta. You can get really cheap, poor quality Arabica, in which robusta will absolutely kick its ass. It’s like wine – each region has its own specialty; some of its crap and some of its amazing. It depends on the quality and know-how of the growers. Arabica has been king in the western world, but the world is vast and there is great stuff all around us.
‘Tricks’ of the trade…
Typically when you order a ‘Vietnamese coffee’ outside of Vietnam, it’s actually cafe du monde – a French chicory roast. In America, many of the Vietnamese coffee places don’t actually serve Vietnamese coffee. We’ve had Americans in who work at coffee shops and they came back astonished that they’re not actually serving the real thing.
And what about your coffee?
Our coffees are mostly blends – robusta mixed with Arabica – so it does produce a slightly milder taste and appeals to more palates. You still get that ‘pick me up’ with the strong, traditional Vietnamese flavour, but it’s balanced.
In Vietnam they’ll often add in vegan butter and lovely things like caramel and cocoa – this is included in our coffee, which gives it a very distinctive and smooth taste. There is no bitterness whatsoever, which is kind of strange with robusta.
Our ultimate goal was to have our own brand, so we bypassed the ‘big players’ and started trading with small farmers in Vietnam, which has allowed us to do the online thing and have different varieties. Building these relationships and supporting locals down there has been instrumental to our success. We now have four different types of coffee.
How should it be consumed?
The most popular way to drink a Vietnamese coffee is with condensed milk. That’s actually not unique to Vietnam – Austria drinks it that way and various parts of the Caribbean. The tradition of the condensed milk was built out of necessity – refrigeration was scarce, so they used cans of condense milk. A necessity is now a novelty, who knew?!
Even as a black coffee, once roasted there’s no bitterness. You can taste and smell the cocoa and the caramel – it’s got an excellent aroma and there’s a nice ritual to how it’s served with the phin.
On hipsters, influencers and the like…
You get this attitude in cafes and restaurants that what they’re doing is of mass importance, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s a business selling hot drinks, let’s be honest about it. I feel we excel at that and it’s something we take pride in.
We don’t need to hear your thoughts about everything to do with society just because you own a business that sells coffee. I might have my own idea about politics; I might know a lot about politics. But just because I own a coffee shop doesn’t mean I should be saying to you, “Listen, this is how should be! This is me, and this is Belfast!”
How do you see yourself within the local food culture?
Belfast’s scene is growing. Ormeau is now hipster-central. You might as well be in Williamsburg or Portland. The challenge for us is doing something different while keeping our products affordable. You have to be careful in how you incur your costs and mitigate a balance between quality and affordability. You want to be independent, but you don’t want to arrogant about it. This is a working class city, so that attitude, rightly, doesn’t get you too far.
At the end of the day, we’re two working class guys making coffee. We’re not saving lives and we’re not here to reinvent the wheel. We offer something authentic and new without stepping too far outside ‘the norm’.
On the perils of the industry and bureaucracy…
There is a growing amount of independent hospitality businesses that are doing great quality stuff. Unfortunately, the way the city is set up, it makes it increasingly difficult to make that sort of business a success. The ‘powers-that-be’ tend to cater to mass chains rather than high quality small businesses.
We’re on the main stretch between the Europa station and south Belfast on Great Victoria Street – the first thing most tourists see coming into the city. We’re technically in the city centre, but in many ways we feel like we’re miles away. The government hasn’t invested in this ‘no man’s land’ – they won’t even pick the weeds outside. Small things, like general upkeep of an area, can make a huge difference for a small business.
We’ve done all we can on our end to be successful, as have many of our neighbours. It’s on the government to do their part. You get this feeling they’re always working against you.
How have you adapted to Covid-19?
We now have an e-commerce site. It was a bit of fumbling around at first, but we’re now getting our sales up. Just as we were getting it off the ground, Covid hit.
Despite that, we managed to get the site built in a way that made it more functional and we introduced new products. We have a range of different blends of our own coffee now. During the first few months of the lockdown, a lot of people were at home and craving coffee. We actually took on as much business online during those months as we normally would in the shop. Social media was instrumental to this.
Now that restrictions have lessened, the online stuff has dropped and, while the rest of the city has somewhat gone back to work, our foot traffic isn’t what it used to be and fewer people have money in their pocket. It’s understandable.
No matter what happens with our physical location, we will carry on in some capacity. Our retail will always be strong and we want to meet the demand for it. We’re now shipping to customers all across Europe, which we are tremendously proud of. And we’ve managed to stay self-sufficient and stay off Deliveroo and the like – the soul-sucking bastards.
What makes Vietnamese food special?
Vietnamese food is unique in its own right. Even compared with all the amazing food throughout Southeast Asia, it sets itself apart. Vietnamese flavours are very complex. It’s very healthy, fresh and affordable. They have some produce you can’t get anywhere else in the world. Hot, sour, salty, sweet – everything is in balance. You could spend years travelling the country and not even crack the surface.
Tell us about your Banh Mi sandwich…
This another thing Vietnam got from the French. The bread is based on the French baguette. Typically, the bread is a lot more ‘airy’ than your traditional baguette. A traditional baguette is too dense, so you end up spending most your time chewing the bread and you don’t get the rest of the flavours. It’s very important that you can taste all the components.
What’s magical about the sandwich is that you look at all those ingredients individually and you wouldn’t think they’d work together, but they do. Pate, pickles, vegetables, coriander, your choice of meat and chili. It’s constructed in a way that you get all of those flavours in every bite. Nothing overshadows, just complements. That’s the genius of it.
What’s the feedback from the Vietnamese?
The Vietnamese are very tough people. They have really high standards, especially when it comes to food – and they should. With Vietnamese coffee, every town and region does it differently. You’ll get people that come along and they’re very particular and they have every right to be.
Most of the feedback has been positive. It’s always daunting serving someone from Vietnam because you want to get it right and give them a good experience. I think most Vietnamese people are just happy to have something that is familiar and uplifting of their culture.
Ultimately, Vietnam is a place everyone should visit. It has left a lasting imprint on us. The county and its lovely people have changed our lives forever, for which we are tremendously thankful.
What’s your message for the community at this time?
Listen, if you’re interested in some ‘rocket fuel’ that could put Elon Musk out of business and want to enjoy one of Belfast’s best sandwiches, give us a shout!