Vietnamese café and community hub set for expansion
After 10 years working in medical research, Eric Ly had moved up to manage a lab. But the business bug had bit.
Every year when Ly would visit his native Saigon, he and his friend Somath Om would enjoy the desserts sold in eateries there.
“We saw that Boston is missing a place, especially for young Vietnamese, to hang out,” he says. “There was no place in Boston that sold Vietnamese dessert.”
While bubble tea shops abound in Boston, the fare Ly and Om now serve at Coco Leaf Dessert Café, which they opened in January of 2017, includes a wide range of traditional Vietnamese desserts, including Italian custards, French-style flan, mochi doughnuts, smoothies, sweet crepes and Vietnamese coffee. That last item is slow-brewed.
“It takes longer for the coffee to brew,” Ly says. “The flavor is stronger, more concentrated.”
The centerpiece of Coco Leaf’s menu is its assortment of Chè desserts — sweet desserts made with mung beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, tapioca, jellies and fresh fruits. The restaurant offers a dizzying array of the desserts, served in clear plastic cups displaying multicolored layers of fruits and beans, often topped with shaved ice.
All of the desserts, some frozen, some baked, are made on the store’s premises. The Italian custards, in strawberry, coconut/passionfruit and matcha green tea flavors, are sold in glass bottles with the Coco Leaf logo printed on the side.
In addition to its extensive selection of desserts, the café Serves breakfast and sandwiches.
As with all new businesses, it was a gamble opening a café, especially with such a niche market. But in Dorchester’s Fields Corner neighborhood — the epicenter of the city’s Vietnamese population and a crossroads of the city’s Irish American, black, Latino and Cape Verdean communities — the demand was strong.
“The first three days, we had a line all the way to the door, constantly,” Ly says.
Owning a restaurant is more in keeping with his outgoing personality, the entrepreneur says, than working in a research lab.
“I have had a chance to meet a lot of customers,” he says. “It’s a much more public place. I remember their names and their stories. People love to come in a talk to us.”
Ly grew up in Saigon before coming here to attend UMass Boston and Boston University, where he obtained a master’s degree in biochemistry. He says his experience managing a research lab helped him gain the skills he needed to manage a staff that has grown from eight when the business opened to the current 12.
Om, formerly a chef at a four-star restaurant, gained experience opening a new restaurant for a former employer. His parents owned restaurants in Lynn.
“I’ve known him for ten years,” Ly says of Om. “He has a solid background in the food industry.”
Opening the business took a year, during which Ly continued working in the research lab while overseeing permitting and construction. Ly and Om decorated the interior with weathered wood wainscoting and benches and solid pine tables.
“We love wood,” Ly says. “We wanted something natural. Not too modern.”
More importantly, they had to build out a kitchen, with ovens, a grill and a serving counter.
Ly says two-thirds of the startup funding came from his savings. An additional third of the funds came from a Small Business Administration loan.
In the early days, Ly worked seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Having a hands-on business partner helped keep the hours more manageable.
Capitalizing on the success of the shop, Ly and Om are looking to franchise their business within the next five years. Under that arrangement, the pair would license others to open cafés with Coco Leaf’s branding and dessert menu.
In the short run, they are planning to open more stores themselves, and are currently in negotiations with a landlord for a second location.
Considering their first location’s success, Ly is confident their expansion plans will succeed.
“This is a unique concept,” he says. “There is no place in Boston — no place in Massachusetts — serving this food.”