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Thomas Nguyen: “Our world is becoming a review-driven world”

Our world is becoming a review-driven world — Whether you are in retail or hospitality, in many cases, consumer action is driven by what your reviews look like. While reviews are not always foolproof, like the adage goes, where there is smoke, there is fire. If you are a 3-star business, that means overall, your customer experience […]

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Our world is becoming a review-driven world — Whether you are in retail or hospitality, in many cases, consumer action is driven by what your reviews look like. While reviews are not always foolproof, like the adage goes, where there is smoke, there is fire. If you are a 3-star business, that means overall, your customer experience just isn’t very good.


As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Nguyen. Thomas is a co-founder of Peli Peli, a South African fine-dining concept currently one of the best-reviewed restaurants in Houston on both TripAdvisor and Yelp, and Peli Peli Kitchen, a South African fast casual concept that was named Eater Houston’s Fast Casual Concept of 2017. Thomas was featured on season 3 of CNBC’s Restaurant Startup.

An alum of the University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas School of Law, Thomas practiced for three years as a litigation attorney. While at UT, Thomas helped found Omega Phi Gamma, currently the largest Asian-interest fraternity in Texas.

Thomas is a 2019 Golden Fork Faces of Diversity Recipient (Greater Houston Restaurant Assoc), 2015 Houston Business Journal 40 Under 40 recipient, 2016 Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year and 2016 & 2017 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was an attorney for three miserable years. I realized early on that I would never be a great attorney simply because I didn’t have a passion or interest in it. I was never going to be able to outwork someone because I hated being a lawyer. Without any prior restaurant experience, I co-founded the first of five Peli Peli locations in Houston featuring South African-inspired cuisine. 10 years later, we are a Houston restaurant favorite.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

My passion is in marketing, branding and public relations, and one of the first “mistakes” I made was assuming that I would be able to market a restaurant without truly understanding how a restaurant operates and appreciating the consumer experience. I don’t think I could do what I do now without having been the General Manager of our first location for 3.5 years.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I would have to say my wife, Kristine. I met her after I quit being an attorney and before I started Peli Peli. I had moved back home with my parents and was kind of lost without much direction on what to do next. Knowing that I had at least one person in this world who loved me regardless of my accomplishments gave me the confidence and will to endure the hard times associated with opening and growing a restaurant brand. There were people who thought I was crazy when I told them I was starting a South African restaurant without any experience. She wasn’t one of them. Sometimes having that one person who believes in you is all you need.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

In the beginning, we couldn’t pay people to try South African food. No one had any interest. The educational hurdle of convincing people to try South African food was substantial. I knew that in order for us to survive, we had to focus on customer service and create the most amazing customer experience. This would give us 5-star reviews and the reviews would give people enough comfort to give us a try. Today, we are proud to be a review-driven business. Attaining a 5-star review through an amazing customer experience is the backbone of what we do as a restaurant.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I think sometimes we get lost in assuming a person who gives a bad review is being unreasonable or that it is fake, or that they contributed to it. At the end of the day, perception is reality, especially in hospitality. It is a business based a lot on emotion. In addition, I think we have to create the right environment for customers to tell you how they really feel. Whether a review is good or bad, the data is often extremely invaluable. There is always an ounce of truth to every review that is written. We believe that.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Absolutely. Houston is one of the most competitive restaurant industries in America with over 12,000 restaurants and growing every day. We are literally surrounded by amazing restaurants with elite reviews. The only way we can compete is to also provide phenomenal customer experience and 5-star reviews. Why should someone eat at a 3-star restaurant when there are literally thousands of 4 and 5-star restaurants to choose from?

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

We helped a customer create the perfect marriage proposal at our Peli Peli Galleria location on New Year’s Eve. We had one of our servers, Steve Harmon, learn their favorite Bruno Mars song and surprise them with not only the ring, but singing the song in front of the entire dining room. The proposal was such a romantic moment that the entire dining room got to experience. A truly memorable New Year’s Eve experience!

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Funny thing is we started receiving many requests for marriage proposal assistance and still do to this day. We love playing a role in such an important moment for our customers. You can’t help but get caught up in the emotion and love of the moment. For these proposals to occur at our Peli Peli locations is a treat in and of itself. We certainly appreciate them. Due in part to these moments, Peli Peli has developed a reputation for being the perfect place to celebrate special occasions.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Our world is becoming a review-driven world — Whether you are in retail or hospitality, in many cases, consumer action is driven by what your reviews look like. While reviews are not always foolproof, like the adage goes, where there is smoke, there is fire. If you are a 3-star business, that means overall, your customer experience just isn’t very good.

2. Be comfortable with thinking outside-the-box — I think one benefit I had was actually my lack of experience in the restaurant industry. As a result, a lot of the marketing that we did early on for Peli Peli came from other industries and was considered novel for our industry at the time.

3. You have to walk the walk — It will be hard to create a 5-star experience if your employees are not treated well. It is unlikely that an unhappy person will create happiness for someone else!

4. Your service or product is just the floor. Positive experiences will bring a customer back, and repeatedly. In 2020, having a restaurant that has good food and service is only the floor. Having those alone no longer guarantee success.

5. Create the right environment to support your actions — If you want to create an environment that produces 5-star experiences, you have to make sure you build the right team to support it. Are your hostesses or customer service representatives hospitable? Are you keeping track of your reviews and responding to them in a timely fashion? Is the focus on creating a wow experience for your customers a priority?

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

Share information. For all of the philanthropic activities or special occasions that we do, we are completely open with information on how to create a similar event or experience. This way, we hope these moments can be replicated by others.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love volunteering at local charities that I am passionate about and encouraging our customer base to join me. It has been really fun to serve others but also to meet and interact with long-time customers that have supported you all of these years. A great way to connect and share a special moment with your customers. It would be great for more and more businesses to do something similar!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pelipelihouston, Instagram at @pelipelihouston, @southafricanasian and Youtube at www.youtube.com/c/pelipelirestaurants

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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