Huddled in a dark room in the back of Fuego, a West End restaurant and nightclub that has since closed, An Bui prepared to take the stage. It was a makeshift stage, surrounded by a collection of odd, mismatched chairs and a gaggle of small business owners just beginning to explore social media.
This was the scene in September of 2009, and Bui was just beginning to cause a buzz on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. His use of these digital platforms had landed him a spot on a panel, hosted by the Social Media Club Richmond, called “Local Business and Social Media-Is It Working?”
The answer for Bui was clear.
Bui says that he was 10 years old when he escaped Vietnam in a tiny boat. He eventually made it to the United States and in 1995 his family purchased a restaurant for $70,000 and changed its name to Mekong. Bui, who was a student at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, was a natural at running the restaurant. He loved people-and most of all, he loved sharing his passion for food and drink with everyone who walked through his doors.
It was his knack for sharing that landed Bui on the tiny stage that night in the back of a nearby Fuego restaurant. The panel event kicked off shortly after 5 p.m., with many rushing from their cubicles and desk jobs hoping to hear how Bui had leveraged social media to bring attention to his burgeoning business.
For Mekong regulars, Bui had paired his extensive list of Belgian ales with Vietnamese cuisine for years. But for the uninitiated, his use of social media led to an explosion in popularity. So much so that Bui was becoming known as the Chief Beer Officer at Mekong and soon his signature phrase, “Beer is the Answer,” was on everyone’s lips.
Leading the panel discussion was Kendall Morris, who went on to help launch Create Digital. Morris asked the panel a series of pre-selected questions on the use of social media marketing to promote local businesses and then opened up the floor for questions from the audience.
Everyone wanted to hear from Bui. People were curious about a lot of things, ranging from his opinion on users who buy Instagram followers to grow their business, to all the different kinds of strategies he used to attract a following. He shared story after story about starting An’s Beer Club on Facebook and “An’s Beer TV” on YouTube with his good friend and social media consultant Nhat Pham. And he announced to the crowd that anyone could “friend him” if they liked good beer, before inviting everyone back to Mekong for beer, of course.
“An’s special gift is treating everyone he meets like someone special, getting to know them and providing the best service he can, every time,” says Nick Dawson, a healthcare consultant focused on human-centered design and digital media. Dawson says that from early on Bui showed “his affinity for and success with extending his style of service outside the four walls of Mekong using social media.”
Simply put, Bui knows people.
His secret to success is pouring quality beer and talking to his customers (both online and off) like they are family or at least very good friends. As a result, Bui today has an online following that continues to grow. On Facebook alone, more than 63,000 people “like” Mekong and Bui have become the local beer celeb with whom everyone wants to collaborate in RVA.
Adding to the momentum, Bui was recently presented with CraftBeer.com’s Great American Beer Bar award (for the second time in two years) with more than 37,000 votes. Bui’s story has hit a fevered pitch in recent months, as Richmonders began to speculate about what’s next. Fans have chatted in beer dens and multi-tap brew houses across the region for months about Bui opening his own brewpub.
According to Bui, he has just been waiting for the right moment. And the right location. “I have been wanting to do this for four years,” he says. “This is the right time in Richmond.”
When the huge space next door opened up, Bui decided both the timing and the location were perfect. The space next door was no other than the former Fuego (which was also Soju Café for a brief stint), where An presented to the Social Media Club years earlier.
Bui says that he will change the space entirely and he’ll call it: The Answer Brewpub. Among the changes in the 12,000-square-foot space, pastel wall colors from the previous tenant and the six layers of flooring in the kitchen will go away. Expect more light, multiple floors, and several cavernous rooms to explore. “I see this being more like German brewpubs,” explains Bui, “with room after room.” A patio and upstairs deck are also in the works.
Mekong restaurant and The Answer Brewpub will operate as completely separate entities. For those who enjoy the delicious spring roll, rice pancake, or broken rice dish with your Belgian ale, know those things will not change. Mekong will stay the family-friendly beer and food haven we all love. At The Answer, different eats will be available: Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich with myriad ingredients like pork, carrot, and cucumber; Bao, a steamed bun; and other Vietnamese bar/street food. Even the beer will be different. With 25 taps planned, Bui expects to have no crossover from one space to another. “We will have lots of festivals and collaboration with other local breweries,” says Bui. “Increase tourism for beer for everyone in Richmond.”
The combined capacity of Mekong and The Answer is a little under 1,000 with 70-plus taps. Once open, The Answer will create about 60 new jobs in the area. The small shopping center that held a Vietnamese restaurant with only three taps five years ago is poised to become a beer destination.
Upstairs will be a members-only speakeasy. Rare beer lovers and followers will revel in this arena. Bui is hoping to garner a good group of members and allow them access to beer not readily available in the area.
He hasn’t decided on a brewer yet or (as rumors fly) hasn’t decided to disclose whom he has selected to brew or manage the space. Fear not, beer lovers, expect the same meticulous curation of beer for this new endeavor as at Mekong.
If nothing else, it is apparent Bui is serious about raising the beer bar in Richmond. And he’s serious about encouraging others to share their love for beer far and wide. “Before, you just had a good beer. Now you tell your friends,” says Bui. “Now you even take a picture and put it on Instagram, Facebook, or whatever and put it out there for thousandsof friends. If there’s a good beer, you’re going to put it out there. It’s like sharing a beer with the masses.”