We had long been seeking a fun, creative, and original project to undertake during our travels. Vietnam left a deep impression on us; the people, places, culture, and especially the food. After much time spent brainstorming, it was over breakfast in Ko Lipe, Thailand that we arrived at the idea we were looking for: ‘let’s open up a pop up stall to sell Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches !”
We often dream about how much fun it would be to have a food truck. We even considered doing the trip in one - at least until we realized the nuisance of border crossings and customs agents would quash that plan. But a pop up stall is close, and seemed pretty doable. The next big question for us in Ko Lipe was "Ok, but where ?"
We had not originally planned to visit Bali during our trip. We actually visited Bali one year earlier, enjoyed the beach in Canggu, went diving at Tulamben, climbed Mt. Agung, and chilled out in Ubud. We loved the experience, but it was not a high priority for us to visit again. However, we also knew that Bali has a wide array of markets, and lots of hungry tourists. It seemed uniquely well suited to this new endeavor of ours. So we chose Bali as the place to launch our bánh mì empire.
But wait. Can we even make a delicious a bánh mì sandwich ? We thought we could. With fresh, delicious ingredients, really you can make anything well. Bánh mì is especially simple if you have those things. We confirmed this was the case during our time in Kuala Lumpur, where we made some sample sandwiches that came out excellent. Let us also explain about bánh mì before we go any further. The bánh mì sandwich is a Vietnamese-French creation. As a result of colonial history, baguettes are ubiquitous around Vietnam, and street vendors slice them in half to load them up with any combination of meats, vegetables, and condiments. Meats commonly include sliced pork belly, sausage, and/or pate. Vegetables include pickled carrots, fresh cucumbers, and cilantro. And typically a generous smear of butter or mayonnaise. Bánh mì sandwiches can be found not only across Vietnam, but wherever there are Vietnamese communities around the world. Joshua originally grew a taste for them while living in San Francisco*.
Upon arriving to Bali, our first step was to find a venue. We had sent out a number of emails, but received no replies. We made an offer to a street vendor to rent his gerobak for the day - he tried to rip us off. We drove our motorbike in circles around Canggu and Seminyak, visiting the weekend markets. After striking out at Samadi, Old Man’s, and the flea market, the folks at Love Anchor finally offered to rent us a stall the following Sunday.
With our position secured, our attention turned to ingredients. For a while, this also seemed like a wild goose chase. Bali is an international tourist mecca, but it is still a deeply religious Hindu-majority island in a conservative Muslim country. Naturally, finding quality pork products was a challenge. Locally-owned Balibel Charcuterie proved to be our savior. Wedged in an alley off Teuku Umar Barat Avenue, closer to the center of Denpasar than the tourist beaches of Kuta, a family shop sells home-cured charcuterie products made from Bali-raised pigs. One delicious taste (chased down with the moonshine also produced on-site) and it was an easy decision to go with Balibel.
Cilantro also proved to be challenging. It took visits to four different supermarkets before we found a supply at the Grand Lucky Supermarket on Sunset Road. With some lucky foresight, we carried sugar, salt, and sesame oil over from neighboring Malaysia, so we had those ingredients on hand. In case you are interested, here is the information for our main suppliers:
Fruits & Vegetables: Cucumber, carrots, lime, and garlic from the Taman Sari Market (Pasar Taman Sari)
With a recipe fixed, we turned next to marketing. There was a small wood shop making furniture right around the block from our apartment. Ayumi had the smart idea to scavenge through their pile of discarded wood, and when the kind folks saw us, they helped us choose a few good boards for our signs (we donated to their cigarettes fund in return for their help). We acquired paint and brushes from Bali Artemedia, a surprisingly well-stocked local art store. The next two nights were like being back in Arts & crafts class. Joshua sanded the boards, and applied a base layer to the signs. Ayumi designed and painted the logo (not yet, but soon to be globally recognizable).
Sunday April 23 was the big day. We had spent the night before preparing our ingredients - pickling the carrots and cucumber, re-packaging the ham, putting the special spin on our secret sauce**. With a loaded cooler, four painted signs, and two bright red chairs in tow, we arrived to the market early to claim a good, visible stall near the front. In this we were successful, and we expected business to be brisk. But no one was eating lunch between 9:00-11:00 AM. Joshua fell in to a minor state of despair.
Ayumi provided the good cheer we needed, and our venture was saved by a solo traveler from Denmark (Denmark immediately became our favorite country, and we promised to visit there later during our trip around the world). This customer - like many others - did not want meat, so we lowered the price by 5,000 Indonesian Rupiah and loaded hers up with more pickles and fresh cucumber.
We learned from our neighbor that the market used to attract many other food vendors, but their participation had dwindled, and we were actually the only food vendor on this day. Most vistors to the market were shopping for crafts, clothing, and accessories. We decided to target the men reluctantly dragged to the market by their partners, and our fellow vendors who needed a quick lunch. When traffic slowed down, we offered free baguette samples to the passing crowds. After some confused faces appeared, we made a new sign on the fly to explain what a bánh mì sandwich is.
We served a steady stream of customers. Some locals, some tourists, and actually one repeat. We learned that by creating action at the stall, it attracted more visitors. We did that by wolfing down a few sandwiches ourselves, wearing smiling faces and all. But we could not eat everything, so we formed a routine whereby Ayumi would count the remaining breads, and Joshua would mix the pickles. We had a code word to initiate the routine when a potential customer was identified: “eureka !”.
By 4:00 PM, we had sold 14 sandwiches to almost cover our costs, and decided it was time for gelato. We considered the project to be a pretty huge success, especially because we learned so much by planning for and running the stall. We kept the sign and will re-open Bánh Mì Dinosaur in Berlin in July. We just hope there are some friendly Danes there to support us !
*A couple from San Francisco stopped by our stall to share (to our surprise) that there is a bánh mì sandwich shop in San Francisco called Dinosaur. We do not reveal how we came up with our name, but nonetheless, this is still a crazy coincidence.
**A gift for those readers who made it this far. Our secret sauce is a combination of mayonnaise with sesame oil and soy sauce roasted garlic.