Whether a group of office workers is looking to blow off some steam on a Tuesday or a band of homebrewers is gathering for their monthly meeting, Mekong Restaurant & Bar at 6004 W. Broad St. knows how to draw a crowd.
As illustrated by the Vietnamese restaurant’s catch phrase, “Beer is the answer,” and its 52 beers on tap, most come to Mekong for the beer and grab a bite between sips.
At some point customers will catch sight of An Bui, the ebullient face of the family-owned business, passing out tastes of beer from behind the bar and greeting the fans and friends he’s made since Mekong opened 19 years ago.
Bui said Mekong did more than $2 million in gross sales last year, the best the business has ever done. Now Bui and five of his siblings are putting that money to work.
This month they’ll open the Answer Brewpub, a 12,000-square-foot restaurant, brewery and event space at 6008 W. Broad St., a few doors down from Mekong. And last month they ventured into the Fan by buying the Commercial Taphouse at 111 N. Robinson St. from owner James Talley.
BizSense caught up with Bui, 40, to talk about the growing family business, the Richmond beer scene and his search for the perfect beer.
The following is an edited transcript.
An Bui: If there’s anything I can’t answer just tell everyone beer is the answer.
Richmond BizSense: Did you come up with that phrase?
AB: It happened at one of the beer events that we had back in maybe 2006 or 2007. Somebody in the room yelled “Beer is the answer!” and we made it part of our branding.
RBS: Why did you decide to open the Answer Brewpub?
AB: It’s kind of like with our success, we owe it to the community. Now it’s like, what can we do? What can we return back to the community? There are lots of beers that come to town but there are some beers that are still missing in town.
It’s about trying to see what we can do to continue to push the beer scene in town. Maybe one day Virginia or Richmond will be on the beer map.
RBS: You don’t think it is yet?
AB: We’re getting there. I think it will take a few more years. We had few breweries for so long and the past couple years we’re up to maybe over a dozen breweries now, so we’re breaking the record.
RBS: Do you think there’s a point when the local brewery industry will plateau?
AB: No. Beer is part of the culture. The history goes way back to when they were building the pyramids. I don’t think it will plateau. The history is there. It’s part of us.
People say we’re at the peak or we’re about to have the brewery bust. We’re still in the boom. The beer style and quality will get better. With the competition, with more choice, it can only get better for the consumer.
RBS: Do you worry about setting up a brewpub right next to your restaurant and competing with yourself?
AB: People ask me that every day. My explanation to them is that it will not hurt Mekong, but it will help in the long run. (The brewpub) was set as a destination. It’s a good tourist spot for us. When people come visit the brewpub, they will come and visit Mekong. We’re trying to set these two buildings as the beer Mecca.
It’s really different from Mekong. Here we’re brewing beer, we’ll have growlers to go, so people come here and do a growler to go and get take out at Mekong. To us it’s the same company but different departments.
RBS: With the purchase of Commercial Taphouse, had you been looking to get into the Fan or was it a unique opportunity you didn’t want to pass on?
AB: I’m always looking in the Fan, but I never thought of having a place there because there are so many friends I have in the Fan. I treasure friends and relationships and I’m afraid of taking some of their business away. In James (Talley, the former owner’s) case, it’s trying to continue the legacy of Commercial Taphouse as the first taphouse here in town. It’s a big deal for us.
RBS: You seem to have quite the following. People like you and like seeing you behind the bar. Does that ever get challenging?
AB: No, that’s from the heart and the passion that I put into it and creating that beer scene. It happens to work. They share my passion and love for beer and its spreading to people. Now people are spreading the same thing that I shared with them years ago. Sometimes when I see that it brings lots of memories back.
RBS: When was the last time you had a Bud Light or a Coors Light or some other big brand domestic?
AB: It’s been a long time maybe back in college days doing keg stands with Schlitz and Old Milwaukee’s Best, since then I haven’t been back.
RBS: What do you like drinking these days?
AB: This is the one question I hate to answer and I still haven’t answered, “An, what is your favorite beer?” There is no perfect beer. There’s perfect water but there’s no perfect beer. I’m still searching for the perfect beer so if you happen to know where to find the perfect beer is, let me know.
RBS: Did Mekong start out being so focused on beer?
AB: No. It was open as Vietnamese cuisine with wine. The first two years in business it was tough, we were struggling, everybody had food and wine so we decided to take the risk and move in a different direction. We replaced some of the wine bottles with big format beer bottles. At that time we didn’t know that we were building a community, a beer community to support us.
RBS: How did Mekong come about?
AB: It was my parents’ idea. All the siblings were working everywhere so the idea was to have us work together so they can come and visit everyone at the same place.
We got here in 1985 or close to ’86. My dad was in prison when Vietnam lost the war. He was with the South, so they captured him and they sent him to prison, what they called a re-education camp. After he got out in 1984 he said, “Kids, this is no life for you. I need to send you guys somewhere.” So my brother built a boat, and we escaped Vietnam and landed in Malaysia. In Malaysia, my dad had connections with connections in the US. We got a sponsorship from St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. They sponsored us to Richmond and we’ve been here ever since. We came here in ’85 and then we sponsored our parents in 1991.
RBS: Where did you go to college?
AB: J. Sergeant Reynolds (Community College) for hotel management. I never graduated. I started the second year and was about to apply for college but then the family opened Mekong up and I’ve been stuck here ever since.
RBS: Could you imagine what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing this?
AB: I have no idea, but I’m glad I got to escape because I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
His past. His heart. An is the best.
Richmond is lucky to have An Bui and Mekong. When long time Richmonders talk about how our sleepy city became cool over time, the flourishing microbrewery scene and destinations like this to enjoy them in are part of the reason why. Looking forward to visiting Answer when they open up.