There’s not many business owners that would willingly leave their shops fully stocked and unattended for strangers to wander in and out of as they please, but Dao Khanh Hiep has managed to successfully do that for over a year now based purely on his faith in the goodness of people. Mama Fanbox is the first unstaffed chocolate shop in the country where customers are entrusted to select, scan and pay for food and drinks without a single hawk-eyed staff in sight.
After stumbling upon the concept in a Japanese magazine, where there are already several venues that operate in the same manner, Dao was convinced it was something he wanted to bring to Vietnam. “In Japan it works because there is a lot of trust between the people that live there. It’s something that is beneficial for everyone, because it builds a community of good people.”
The ground floor of the shop has a computer screen with an accompanying printer and till and right in front of it there is a clear set of instructions to explain to customers how to purchase their items. All that is required to open the till is to enter your phone number, and the automated system helps you gain points if you pay too much during your visit. The shop even lets you pay the bill the next time you come, saving the receipt for you for your second purchase. The shop is distinctly void of any human forms – although there are a couple of people offsite that are ready to chat to customers through a speaker system should they run into any trouble.
Although the laissez-faire approach of Mama Fanbox may be an attractive and novel concept for some, it can be a baffling experience for others. “Some people feel uncomfortable being in a place where there is no staff – they find it strange not being served by anyone.” Dao explains how a group of customers were so startled by the voice that came out of the computer screen that they ran back outside faster than you can say Scooby Doo.
Dao himself is quite the chocolatier. He first started out in the cocoa industry five years ago with his umbrella company Mama’s Chocolates. Over time he slowly built a large following of chocolate lovers, which most are eager to show their support for his other more unusual ventures. “If someone was to not pay for something in the shop then we use our camera technology to take a picture of their face and I would share that amongst my community on social media to see if anyone could help me in recognising them. It’s not done in a malicious way and I would never be out to get someone – it’s more to make a purpose of educating someone rather than trying to destroy them.” Dao assures me that this however is rarely the case though and although there have been a handful of small losses, the staffless factor has in fact saved him a ton of time and money. “I don’t have to train staff members or put any resources into managing employees. And that leaves me with more time to dedicate to creating new and improved products”. These are as experimental as Mama Fanbox’s business model, as Dao enthusiastically invites me to try his line of edible lipsticks. On top of that there is also a mystifying chocolate-based whitening cream (because why the hell not).
What does remain constant in the shop is the running theme of karma – the spiritual belief that every action has a corresponding consequence. The venue is wrapped with a towering wooden replica of the Bodhi tree that Buddha sat under during his time of enlightenment, embodying Dao’s belief that good things can and will happen if you let them.
Once visitors are ready to leave they are expected to clean up after themselves – the only trace that is encouraged to be left is a handwritten note that is then hung up on various pieces of hanging string that zig-zag across the sprawling three floors of the venue. The outcome is a stream of heartfelt messages from strangers all connected through experiencing the same space but at different moments of time. In this way, it seems that Mama Fanbox has achieved the formidable feat in bringing people closer together without a single person around to enforce it.
Find Mama Fanbox at 246 Nguyen Van Cu, Hanoi.