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20 Questions with Michael 'Bao' Huynh

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All throughout Shitshow Week, we’ll be featuring tales of restaurants that are falling flat on their faces. So it's a good as time as any to check in on empire builder Michael Bao Huynh, a hyperactive restaurateur who should by all accounts have a pile of failures on his hands by now. And yet he still operates a cache of mostly successful restaurants that have yet to even approach shitshow status. The man opened seven or eight projects in Manhattan in the last year (even he couldn't pinpoint the exact number), and he's got about fourteen more on the way:

20) What's the status over at DOB right now? We are doing well, the only thing is we need a beer and wine license to make up the difference. Now I get the message — you cannot eat good food with water. I have like 600 signatures from block associations, if we don’t get a license, we gotta move.

19) And Mikey’s Burger? Mikey’s Burger is doing very well. Actually we are surprised by how well we’re doing, and we’re doing another location, probably next week. Yeah, probably over at Press on 3rd Avenue? Yeah, he got a new store, he moved locations. We have a lot of room for it, five or six stores in New York is not a problem.

18) So do you think Mikey’s has the potential to be another Baoguette? Yeah, the same thing. The idea, the flavor, the concept, I think more people eat burgers everyday, because it's more affordable? And you don’t want to wait in a long line, so basically, we got a good shake, and it’s a more unique burger. I cooked burgers like 25 years ago in Upstate New York. I upgraded it a little bit with a touch of Asian. Not too much. I don’t want Americans to eat the burger and say, “Oh this is an Asian burger,” just a touch to it. You know Spike Mendelsohn, he worked for me?

17) Oh, that’s right. Have you been to Spike’s Burger place? Yeah, I go up to D.C. almost every two weeks. You know, old friends. Sometimes I get bored, I go to D.C., I have some pizza. He’s my adopted brother — maybe we can do pizza together. Spike Mendelsohn, he went on a trip with me to Vietnam for two weeks. This was like three or five years ago, I did it to raise money for students at CIA, and he was a student there. He was on a trip for free, we went to Vietnam, and then he came back and cooked with me in Mai House.

16) How often do you go to Vietnam? I go almost every month. I’m opening a restaurant in Vietnam, work has started. It’s going to be a diner. Lots of Americans there. They want corned beef, they want pastrami, they want those things. We know what they want to eat. After that it’s going to be a Vietnamese restaurant, but we’re still waiting on the right location. I want to open a pizzeria. I think pastrami, corned beef, the old Jewish traditional food, no one can make it in Vietnam.

15) This would be in Ho Chi Minh City? Yes, that’s why I said to my adopted brother Spike, 'we should do a pizza place, go to Vietnam and open a pizza place.' We probably want to do a show together in Vietnam. A TV Show? Yeah, we want to do something together “Chefs Gone Wild.” Party every day, eat every day, cook every day.

14) And you're going to open a cooking school in Vietnam? Yeah, we have one in Da Nang, we want to open a second one in Saigon. This is important for me, because I’m getting older, I just want to do some good things. I work with the board in New York, we want to do a few more inside Vietnam. We want to invite chefs from America to go back to Vietnam and cook. It’s my job to promote the Vietnamese thing, I want to show people my beautiful country, so I want to bring chefs to Vietnam every two months. Cook, party and eat, and learn to cook Vietnamese in two weeks.

13) What's going on in Oakland? Yeah, we’re still working on it. We got a green light, we’ve started already, we’ve signed a lease, we’ve paid the deposit. So basically the project includes the farmer's market, like you know where Slanted Door is? I can take the ferry across the bay. Todd English is going to be my neighbor, and Michael Mina.

12) The restaurant’s going to be in the SF Ferry Building? No, opposite side, Jack London Square, it's across the bay from the Ferry Building. Oakland, it looks like Williamsburg. It’s beautiful, it’s going to be very nice there. I think we probably take at least like four five months to build it. I recently asked Hung Huynh the Top Chef winner to open it up with me. Because you know, we want to team up sometime. To have him, to be a part of it would be just great. He’s a good friend. It’s not a confirmed thing, but I can make it happen.

11) So what about Baoguette? Are there any other locations you’re eyeing? Yeah. We are in the process of raising the capital, a lot of money. We look for spaces in Miami that are vacant, we want to put the next one in Oakland, same thing in LA, my brother’s there. We are in the process of raising capital. I had a lot of offers in the last three or five months — big money. But I didn’t want to give it up. I could have made a lot of money for it. The magic number is ten stores, sixteen stores, not only in New York, but we’ve had requests for Union Station in D.C., Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal. Everyone wants Baoguette, because our concept is easy, and they make good money. I opened DOB, and I have to work twice as much. Even sometimes a big restaurant like BarBao, you work maybe three or four times harder, but you make three or four times less money. I mean, which one sounds better — three Baoguettes, or one DOB?

10) Is that how you think of opening restaurants: three Baoguettes or one DOB? Well, I’m just saying, every chef needs a home, when my friends ask me which restaurant to go to, I say don’t go to Baoguette, come here, to DOB. We’re looking for a West Village location, you know. For DOB? No, just something in a similar style. The price here, entrees are fourteen dollars to sixteen dollars? It’s a good price. In the West Village we can charge a little bit more, make a little bit more money. I’m very flexible. I’m the one architect, the builder, and the real estate agent. So, I’m so flexible. People are afraid to open a restaurant. For me, it’s a piece of cake, you know?

9) When you say that you do construction, and that you’re the architect and the builder, does that mean that you’re in here with a nail and a hammer? No, I don’t know how to use a hammer. I can put everything together, but then I have to work there. I understand the paper work, I understand everything.

8) Would you ever want to do a food truck? Food trucks in New York, I think like every two years you renew the license? Maybe I’m a little bit late for it, but if someone comes and gives me a truck, I’ll do it, a Baoguette truck.

7) What piece of advice would you give to small restaurateurs who are just starting out? I think maybe I could set up something on the block where I give out free advice. The big guys take advantage of the small guys. Sometimes, chefs are new and they take chances, because they think they got nothing to lose. It’s something to do with 'no money or no honey.' Everyone’s happy in the beginning if they make money. But if you don’t make money, no honey. Everybody walks a different way.

6) So in the next two months can we expect any new projects from you? Yeah, I’m doing a taco place. Everybody loves Asian tacos, so we’ve been testing the tacos here already. We’ve go the menu, we’ve got everything ready to go. We do have a lot of spaces, you know, I’m in the real estate business, and there are a lot of storefronts that are empty, available. So it's flexible.

5) What’s the name of that going to be? It’s going to be called Taco Bao, Baorrito, or Chinito. Because, I grow up in the Bronx, they always called me Chinito. Actually, we want to do BAOBQ. You know Dirty Bird? It’s going to be like a Dirty Bird version, take out. I think its time to build another store where we can build some more. Once you build a store, you’re not going to make the money, you want to build like five, six or ten. Ten’s the magic number. The people that run Pret A Manger, are going to help me run Baoguette.

4) Does Pret A Manger want to buy Baoguette? No, they want to help me come and start it up again. Now, I have five Baoguettes. Before, I spent too much, and it looked like home, you know? But the next few Baoguettes are going to be standardized. You know, they next few days we work out the numbers.

3) What about a project in Brooklyn? Yeah, the waterfront, I wanted to do something with the people from OBao, they wanted to do a new location on Ninth avenue or something? The only thing is, we're like two or three years away from it. There’s too much risk there. I’m older now, I don’t want to play games. I don’t have two or three years to work. Every year for me is more important. BarBao is a good restaurant, but I think the location is too big for it. It should be half the size. I feel like in Williamsburg, like 60 percent can make it? I think we might wan to do BarBao on the Upper West Side, like half the size. I think we’d like to do it Casa Mono style? Like BarBao but Casa Mono? Like lots of wine, but half the size.

2) Have you been to Ma Peche yet? I’ve never been there, but I look at the menu, and I have asked people if they like it. I asked professionals like Pichet Ong? He’s been there two times, I trust his judgment. I don’t need to go, I trust his judgment. If people like it, I like it.

1) Have you seen Inception? No, my friend went to see it, but if I were to go to the movies, I’d just fall asleep anyway. I’m just too tired.


241 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10003

Potential New Mikey's Burger

379 3rd Ave. NY, NY 10016

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