By Brett Davis

Craig Jackson has been a fixture in Vietnam’s hospitality scene for over 25 years. He tells [C] Vietnam what it takes to build a restaurant empire and the challenging beginnings of his business in the country.

In the early 1990s, many sharp business minds were casting their eyes toward the emerging economies of Southeast Asia as a new frontier of possibility. Vast populations of potential consumers lay in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many of those entrepreneurial minds were businessmen based in Hong Kong, an open and free-wheeling global economy in the years before Britain’s ‘hand-over’ of control to mainland China.

Australian businessman Craig ‘Jacko’ Jackson, the founder and co-owner of Al Fresco’s Group, was working in the hospitality trade in Hong Kong at the time. He had come to Hong Kong to prepare for a venture with his partners looking for those same opportunities in Vietnam. While that vision has undoubtedly come to fruition over the last 28 years – Al Fresco’s Group now operates 46 restaurants under four brands across the country – it would take fierce dedication and some luck to make it happen.

In 1995, Jackson travelled to Hanoi to assess the lay of the land, and search for a critical component of a trustworthy local partner. A year later, after linking up with local partner Nguyen Thuy Quynh, the first Al Fresco’s restaurant was opened in the capital’s Hoan Kiem District. While the restaurant was very successful, it also marked the beginning of at least half a decade of hurdles, pitfalls and challenges that would be part of introducing a new concept of Western dining to Vietnam.

The stories from Jackson’s early years in Vietnam are legion and legendary, from endless red tape to staff pilfering hundreds of spoons each month to annoyed neighbors lobbing bricks over the back fence of his first establishment. Jackson has seen it all in his time here.
Craig ‘Jacko’ Jackson

Yet, the story of how he managed to create what he has over the last quarter-century began much earlier. Born in rural Queensland and educated at the prestigious The Southport School, Jackson was always a keen sportsman, and after a stint on educational exchange, he started his professional career in junior management with the Southern Pacific Hotels Corporation. This led to experiences in hotels and resorts in Australia and the UK, as well as restaurants, bars, and nightclubs./

He credits his sporting youth with teaching him much about some of the other, more intangible aspects of the business. “Sport is a great learning tool, self-belief and teamwork, the will to win and communication,” he says. “Also, in terms of having a competitive nature, of that grit and determination that I’m not going to fade away or give up, because it would have been very easy to find a reason in the early days to just walk away.”

There is a restless energy apparent in Jackson, both physically and intellectually. He thinks it likely caused him, not long after returning to Australia in 1993, to accept an offer from childhood friend Wayne Parfitt to join his restaurant business in Hong Kong. It is also what he credits with his continuing desire to always look for new or different ways to improve his business.

“Everywhere I go, even when I’m in someone else’s restaurant, I’m always looking at new ways to do things. I’m very analytical, so I can see something and see it’s a good idea,” he says. “When you have an open mind, and you want to improve your business, there are many ways to get ideas, and your brain is always working and always assessing.”

By 2001, the number of restaurants had grown to five, including two of the new brand Pepperonis, all still located in Hanoi. By his estimate, the patronage at that time was still around 95% expatriates or foreign tourists. He says he was keenly aware of the high price point for Vietnamese customers. However, this all changed when a manager suggested offering a significant discount promotion.

This sparked a surge of local patronage, and the group has never looked back, beginning its expansion to more locations in the Hanoi area and ultimately to Ho Chi Minh City in 2003, where the company is now headquartered.

Another common thread, of investing time, energy, and resources into training and culture, emerges when talking to Jackson about his success. Food preparation, service training, or language training, although the latter is less of an issue in 2023 than in 1996. The ‘family’ culture of the company is proven by its track record. Countless staff members have been with the company for years, some even from day one, 27 years ago. There are also examples of three generations of one family who have made careers at Al Fresco’s.

“We like to try and employ on character, and I think people like being with like-minded people,” he says. “So, I’m very protective of making sure that everyone talks to each other nicely. When they have lunch together, they all sit around like a family. The guys really like working together.”

As for the future, Jackson sees the number of restaurants expanding to 65 in the near future, but the business has always self-funded its expansion, so it has happened organically over time. He stepped away from day-to-day operations and appointed Ben Winspear general manager several years ago, another employee who has been with the company since 1998.

“It’s just been a good transition, Ben runs it and I just sort of stick my nose in occasionally and make myself a pain in the arse,” he adds with a laugh.

Still restless, all these years later

Al Fresco’s Group Staff

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