Startup Stories: How hard work, tradition and passion created the recipe for this Vietnamese street food success
The story of Michael Le and Great Aunty Three begins in Can Tho, a city in southern Vietnam.
“My grandmother is the culinary queen in our family. Every time I go to Vietnam everybody talks about her food, about the successful restaurant she owned, they rave on about it, I still hear it!” says Michael, creator of the Great Aunty Three Vietnamese street food in Sydney’s Enmore.
Michael is no stranger to good food, having been raised in Australia in an old-fashioned Vietnamese household where great importance was placed on traditional family recipes and shared mealtimes.
On his first trip back to Can Tho, in exploration of his roots, Michael came across the phenomenon of street food, the spark that ignited his entrepreneurial idea. “I went to local street vendors and ate amazing food. Some were selling it out of little crates or trolleys, some in front of shops, and the nightlife was buzzing”, he recalls excitedly.
“The food was like nothing I’d ever tasted. I wanted to capture that experience and bring it to Australia.”
With that thought still in mind and a few years down the line, Michael took the decision to reshape his career, forfeiting the stability of a 9 to 5 job in IT in favour of starting his own business.
It was not easy to break away from the stable life his immigrant family had toiled so long for, but an exhausted Michael had reached saturating point: “I felt drained, a part of me was just not happy in that corporate environment. I felt like I was living someone else’s dream, not mine.”
However, the decision of quitting in favour of opening a Vietnamese street food restaurant was met by resistance from all corners. “When I proposed my business idea to the family in 2008 they wondered why I’d want to give up a stable job for something that could potentially ruin my life” Michael remembers wistfully.
“They asked why I’d want to work so much for ‘peanuts’, but I saw a gap in the industry, I saw opportunity”
Michael’s newfound passion and the support from his mother were what got him through the tough transition period. “My mum was the only person who believed in me” he smiles, “She gave up everything to give me a good life, she was the one who carried me as a baby on a boat from Vietnam to Australia. I had to sell the first property she had helped me buy with the promise of making this new business work”.
Heartachingly, Michael’s mother passed away before seeing the shop completed, but her legacy lives on, “when mum passed I could only keep going on in here, I found peace in my restaurant and I know she’s watching over me. Great Aunty Three has now become my mother’s legacy.” he adds.
“We want to provide consistent, quality, affordable, food that exceeds expectations”
Great Aunty Three prides itself on nurturing a company culture of integrity and honesty, “we want our clients and staff to feel valued” says Michael, “our unofficial motto is to ‘treat our customers like our very own extended family, who are joining us for lunch!’” he remarks about the no-fuss, delicious food that is prepared here every day.
Albeit the initial distrust for the new business venture, Michael’s grandmother has since come around to the idea and embraced being the inspiration for the brand name.
“She tried to tell my uncles to talk me out of it, so I had no choice but to ignore her for six months while I developed the plan” says Michael, “I only had the courage to bring her in here when we opened, and when she saw the customers she was really happy”.
This picture was taken in 2013. It captures the proud moment when my grandmother realises #DreamsDoComeTrue, and just could not wipe that big smile off her face. It was a very special moment in our journey.
“My grandmother didn’t realize that all along she wasn’t teaching me recipes to cook at home, but for the restaurant! She taught me never to be stingy about food, to eat well, because health is everything”
Grandmother Ba, which in Vietnamese coincidentally means both “three” and “second born” (Ba is the second born child in her family) is the glue that holds the family together.
“As well as being a fantastic cook, she has a gentle calmness about her and has taught me my most valuable life lessons: work hard, treat people right, stay humble, and don’t be greedy” lists Michael.
It’s clear that Michael’s great inspirations have come from those closest to him, even when they doubted him, and he now feels at ease in his new role.
“This sort of industry is perfect for me, because my creativity is not restricted. By sharing our food with everyone I get to be the rebel that I couldn’t be growing up in very strict Vietnamese culture” he notes, his eyes sparkling.
“Starting a business can be a lonely place at times, we didn’t have the luxury of money or know lots of people”
I look up at a man who remembers walking the very same streets of Enmore as a child, picking up cans for recycling and discarded bags of potatoes to make chips and marvel at how his resilience has helped him battle against the odds and emerge the proud owner of Great Aunty Three, Enmore.
“You’ve got to be passionate about what you do, passion somehow finds a way!” says Michael, “don’t believe in ‘no’ because there’s nothing stopping you from finding the solution”.
As he tucks in to a steaming bowl of Bún Heo Quay (their famed noodles with pork belly and crackling), I ask him what advice he would give to a young Michael: “find people who inspire you and can help you – he replies between mouthfuls – make time for them and you will get so much out of it”.
He stops eating and smiles nostalgically, “my mum was the only one in the world that believed in me and sometimes that’s all you need, someone you care about who believes in you. Remember, never kill anyone’s dreams”.
By Laura Loonstein
Written by: Laura Loonstein; Special thanks: Michael Le & Great Aunty Three].