What is your drink of choice?

Since entering the hospitality industry it’s given me an appreciation for a good classic cocktail. I tend towards gin-based stirred cocktails, but my go-to depends on my mood. If I’m happy and want to keep it light and fun, then I’ll go for a Southside. If I’m having a hard week and starting the night off, I’ll go for a dry gin Martini. Every other time, you’ll see me with a Negroni.

Tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m 33, Canberra born and bred. Even though I was born in Australia I’m of Lao heritage, and Laotian culture was a huge part of my life growing up. Part of this culture is that I’m very family oriented. I also love to travel, eat and drink, so that’s what I’m doing whenever I’m not working.

My career path up to this point has had a lot of twists and turns. When I was in college my parents had a family restaurant where I worked for several years, and that was my first taste of hospitality. I went to University and studied a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in Accounting, then worked in the professional industry for a few years but corporate life was not for me. I left that behind at 24 and decided to open up my first business, a Zambrero franchise.

I got into the franchise model because I wanted to learn more about systems and experience working in a systemised environment rather than in a family business. The first year of Zambrero was really tough. The business failed, and we took massive losses. But failure wasn’t an option for me, I had a lot on the line so I had to make changes. I turned it around and ended up having Zambrero for 6 years. The whole process was one massive learning experience.

During this time I decided to take up a hobby, but it ended up turning into a pretty serious side-hustle. While still running my franchise I moved to Sydney to study makeup. I landed some work experience, made some good contacts, and before I knew it I was a freelance makeup artist working for brands like Nikon and Elizabeth Arden. This gave me a lot of experience in networking and building connections. I got into makeup because I had self-esteem issues when I was younger and makeup was a way for me to feel good about myself. I wanted to help other women feel empowered in the same way I did, so I got into makeup mainly to teach other women.

But at the end of the day food has always been my passion and I missed it. After gaining this extra life experience going back to hospitality felt natural to me.

Tell us about ZAAB and how it came to be?

I regularly visit Laos and Thailand, to visit family but also because I love to travel. I’m consistently surprised and always inspired by the vibrantly different hospitality scene in South East Asia. From travelling and being immersed in the culture, food and nightlife, I knew I wanted to recreate this experience for people in Canberra and bring elements of my culture back to my home.

This is how the concept of Zaab came about. In the beginning it was just an abstract idea. I made sure I had the support of my parents who would play a huge role in my business, especially my father who is our Head Chef. I did as much research as I could, asked as many questions as I could. But really I just started doing it. I didn’t really have a plan. I started putting a team together, signed a lease, and then it just happened.

In October 2016 we opened with a bang. Back before Lonsdale St was the nightlife hub of Canberra that it is now, we were among the first late night hospitality venues here that offered everything from food, to cocktails and parties. We had live music and DJs nearly every night and we were open till late. At this time our food and style was super traditional, showcasing real Lao and Thai culture and nightlife, from our wooden stools to late night noodle cart.

This Zaab was very different to the one you’ll see today. When the first winter came around and the hype started to die down, the first lot of setbacks started to come through. Canberra wasn’t ready to accept the original, more traditional Zaab. I had to put myself into a different mindset – the business I had wanted it to be wasn’t what Zaab needed to be in order to be successful. Changing took a lot, both mentally and financially, but the most important thing through Zaab’s evolution was that I believed in our core: our culture, our casual vibes and having fun. I wanted to keep the ambience and experience we had as a venue, just presented in a different manner, and here we are today. We’ve gone from strength to strength, but it wasn’t without hard work and lots of setbacks.

How can we support ZAAB?

Come in for a feed, or even just for a drink. I’d recommend both together (it’s more fun that way). In the current COVID-19 lockdown we’re open for takeaway including our incredibly popular cocktail bags. If you see things on our social media, if you can share and engage it helps spread awareness. Other than that, give us feedback. Everything we do is based on feedback. We want to know what people really think and want so the more honest the better. I’m always here and up for a chat, but you can talk to my awesome staff as well.

Any advice for those thinking about turning their dream into a reality?

Literally just do it. You will never ever be prepared enough, so why not just start? You will learn along the way, and if you keep aiming higher then you’ll continuously be learning.

Surround yourself with good people, and a strong support network of friends, family, peers and mentors. If anyone is truly toxic get them out of your life. Have people who you trust and who believe in your vision that will be honest with you and tell you when someone or something is holding you back.

There will always be setbacks, no matter what you choose to do. A lot of people thought I would fail, and when Zaab first started to decline people in the hospitality industry thought I already had, and they stopped coming. But I persevered and now they come back and they’re glad we’re still here. What I learnt from this is that when you face setbacks, change your approach but not your direction. Be clear about your vision but be flexible and adapt to changes in your environment. But don’t be put off even if people try to tell you to give up, because there’s no way to success without failure along the way.

Finally I would say that, speaking from my experience in hospitality as a male dominated industry, hospitality is not accessible for female entrepreneurs. Adding this to not having a hospitality background, not knowing the Canberra hospo community, and not having established connections was a challenge. My advice – it’s going to be tough and people are going to try and step on you like no tomorrow, but you have to believe in yourself and keep going until you earn the respect of your peers. If you can do that, then you can do anything.

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