Could your life be better? How? And are you a fan of barbecues?
Three questions that don’t often go together, unless your name is Gavin Crossley. I’m talking to him in his Binh Thanh storage shed-cum-showroom, barely six months after he asked himself the same three things and then started Saigon BBQs. For the record he answered yes and yes to the first and third questions, while the second has gotten him involved in a world of ‘dual fuel’, ‘wok burners’ and ‘rotisseries’ he never thought twice about five years ago. That is, unless he was on the business end of a pair of tongs, beer in hand and holding forth on life as he knew it in his native Sydney, Australia.
Gavin is Saigon’s newest player in the hotly contested barbecue market, only with one big difference — he’s no restaurateur. You won’t find him trawling the markets at 4am looking for the best deals on chicken and squid. But that doesn’t mean the Quan Ut Uts, Barbecue Gardens and 5KUs of this world should completely relax.
Gavin’s more like the Ray Kinsella of BBQ — you know, Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams character, the one who hears the heavenly voice say, “If you build it, [they] will come.” Yes, Gavin’s more like that, only in reverse. He’s building them and sending them away — and it’s going pretty well.
Cooking with Gas
“I can’t supply my customers quick enough,” Gavin says of his fledgling new enterprise. “As soon as I get the stock from my partner in Hanoi, they’re already sold. So I just keep ordering more and waiting.”
Running with the tagline ‘Life is Better — Barbecued’, Saigon BBQs was born out of necessity, he says — he simply couldn’t find a decent gas barbecue in the city.
“I tried and tried for months to find a good quality, gas-powered stainless steel barbecue and grill in Saigon, but I couldn’t,” he says. “That’s when the idea came to start doing something about it.”
From conception in April 2014, through sourcing the locally-made material and then an “easy-does-it” launch in August, the process hasn’t taken that long. Despite this, and as evidenced by his backlog of orders, the idea is proving popular — and not just among expats familiar with the western home barbecue concept.
Gavin says he wasn’t worried about the local tradition for charcoal barbecue, evidenced in the success of a chain like 5KU, springing up over the last two years in disused lots through-out Ho Chi Minh City. “The tradition of charcoal barbecue here provides a unique flavour, and so we do provide that dual-fuel option, but it’s much less clean than gas.
“Also, the Vietnamese definitely see it as a status symbol. They want their shiny new toy from me so they can have barbecues in their nice new middle-class villas, and I’m happy to provide that for them.”
Small Business in Action
When photographer Glen and I meet Gavin, he is juggling a reasonably tight timeline. It involves a conference call with China for his day job at a container logistics company, this interview, a photo shoot — and about 15kg of stainless steel barbecue.
The barbecue in question is the Frill Neck 3-Burner, the baby of the range. Its stable mates are the Blue Tongue, the Iguana and the T-Rex. “All lizards,” he says, laughing.
He’s strapping the Frill Neck to his trusty Honda Cub before setting off on a regular delivery — to the expat enclave of Thao Dien. It’s a brisk 12-minute ride from where we are now on Binh Quoi, a pleasant, often tree-lined journey he’s been travelling more and more. We set off behind him and I can’t help but get excited about being part of small business in action. I ask him if he ever thought he’d be doing this, and he replies from under his helmet with what can only be described as a broad Australian smile, “Never — but I’m glad I am.”
But why leave one of the cradles of modern barbecue for Vietnam?
“I fell in love with this country in 2000 and then again in 2007,” he says. “So by 2009 I sold everything I had and packed my life into a 19kg backpack. I spent the first two years learning the language at university — this has helped me a lot. I met my wife a couple of years ago, I have a good job, we’re building a house and soon we’re having a child.”
And he’s not leaving barbecue behind.
“Barbecues are in your blood if you’re an Australian. There’s no mistaking that barbecuing is part of your life. It’s almost inconceivable that you can ever live without one.” He smiles that grin again and continues. “It sounds a bit cheesy, but I’m not just selling stainless steel hot-plates and grills,” he leans in slightly to meet my eye, ensuring I don’t miss his punchline — “I’m selling a lifestyle.”
And what about the dream? I ask, alluding to taking on Saigon BBQs full time. “We’ll just see how it goes,” he smiles again, and I get the feeling it’ll go pretty well, one hotplate at a time.
See the full range at saigonbbqs.com