Local POC Business Feature: Café Mekong
One fantastic resource for Virginia Tech students is a website called InclusiveVT which allows students to engage in the Virginia Tech motto Ut Prosim by staying connected to the community. A main feature of the website is a tab called “minority-owned businesses” that lists different businesses around the Virginia Tech community. One business that is on the website is a Vietnamese/Thailand restaurant called Café Mekong that is family-owned by Max and Whitney Schuetz. The couple uses ingredients from local farms and their other business, a world market called Oasis World Market, to make unique dishes not normally found in Southern Virginia. This article will allow you to get to know the owners and how they started their businesses with the following interview.
What inspired you to start a restaurant?
“Whitney and I owned a restaurant for a few years when we lived in San Francisco. We also enjoyed visiting the many amazing eateries in that city. In particular, we were addicted to Pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup). When we moved to Blacksburg in 2007, we had to go to Fairfax for our Pho fix. We thought about starting a noodle shop locally but couldn’t get key ingredients so we shelved the plan. In 2009 we bought Oasis World Market and were able to source the ingredients. Two years later the pizza restaurant next door went out of business and we took that space for Café Mekong. We originally expected to keep it very small – mostly to have Pho to eat ourselves, along with a few of our other favorite dishes.”
How is tradition important to your business?
“Whitney comes from a food family. She was born in Southern China but grew up in San Francisco. Her parents both worked in restaurants and everyone in her family is a talented cook. Family gatherings and holidays always focused on food. Growing up in San Francisco, her traditional Cantonese recipes were mixed around with those of her friends from other parts of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Korea. Whitney created most of the dishes in Mekong and they reflect these merged traditions. In some cases, like the Pho, our process is quite traditional. In others, like our Thai noodle dishes, she kept the Thai sauce and noodles but changed the meat preparation to the Cantonese style which is more tender and flavorful.”
What is the message you want people to know about your business?
“Everything on the menu is there because Whitney wanted to eat it herself. It brings her great joy to know that others are also enjoying these dishes.”
For anyone thinking about starting their own business in the food industry, what piece of advice do you have for them?
“Work for someone else successful in the business before striking out on your own. Our first restaurant in San Francisco was a 7,000 square foot, 250 seat fine dining restaurant. Not recommended for beginners but we got a really good deal since it was in bankruptcy when we bought it and it had a rich history—The Mandarin was the first fine dining Chinese restaurant in the US started by legendary restaurateur Cecilia Chang. Even with Whitney’s experience and family, the first year nearly killed us while we figured out what we were doing. I was still working an 80 hour a week job in investment banking to earn the money the restaurant was burning. We eventually did get things working but a lot of lessons could have been learned more easily if we had worked in a similar business first.”
During the pandemic how has your business stayed in touch with your customers?
“We switched to take-out only. Not the best way to eat Pho but we need to keep all our customers and staff healthy so they can come in again when it is safe.”
What plans do you have in the future for your business?
“We are very happy with where we are with Oasis and Café Mekong. As Blacksburg grows and becomes more diverse, we expect to continue to expand our offerings to serve our community.”
What challenges did you not expect from owning a business?
“The biggest challenge for any business is finding good members for your team. We have a very good team at Mekong and Oasis, which has taken many years of hard work to build. The challenge is that Blacksburg’s population is in constant flux. People move here for school or a university job and then move on in a few years. It is always heartbreaking to lose a good team member when they or their spouse has to