Connecting community through food and hospitality with Flint Social Club's Tony Vu

FLINT, Michigan — “My biggest passion in life is to do cool sh*t, and so that takes on all these different forms. It’s a no-brainer,” says Tony Vu, who runs the Vietnamese noodle shop MaMang and is the progenitor of the Flint Social Club — a “nonprofit organization [that] operates at the intersection of food and entrepreneurship.”

Not only that, Vu runs a brick-and-mortar in Traverse City that is creating a food pipeline between the cities, in addition to Detroit and Ann Arbor, where Flint food entrepreneurs can “hone our craft or process to do [a] series that we’re calling, Flint to Table, and take this on the road.”

He says, inside the Flint Social Club’s new pop-up space, The Kickback, sandwiched between the Dryden and Ferris Wheel buildings, all of this is possible because “I’m good at what I do.”

That’s an understatement considering the social club’s recent accomplishments of expanding their pop-up and vending events to The LatinX Center, Comma Bookstore, 810 Day, and Night Market, offering complete catering services, partnering with 100K Ideas, celebrating the 1st anniversary of their Heartwood at the Market program, and recently purchasing the iconic Flint Tom Z’s Coney Island building, along with the original Tom Z’s Coney Island Sauce recipe.  

The purchase will see the social club give back to the community, take the Heartwood program, and expand “it into a full-service breakfast and brunch program, locally sourced and chef-driven.”

Flintside caught up with the Flint food heavyweight to talk about his goal to give local chefs a supportive space, growing his business ventures, and the lessons he's learned along the way.

Inside The Kickback, Tony Vu shares his love for "providing a few lanes" of success for food culture in Flint on Nov. 14, 2023. (Bryce Mata | What made you start the Flint Social Club?

Tony Vu: “I started this because I knew the food entrepreneur community needed support and help. One of our main goals is to ensure that the barriers are as low as possible. It’s very community-oriented. It’s very collaborative as well. We have our ears to the ground. We work with different partners, not only in the food and business sector but also in arts and music. We recognize that Flint has such an immensely, powerfully creative community. There is so much going on underneath the belly of everything. Hopefully, we’re providing a few of those lanes in an easy and accessible manner.”

Flintside: Talk to us about what the Flint Social Club does.

Tony Vu: “Our most visible program is the Farmer’s Market stall called Heartwood, a teaching kitchen where we hire people interested in the hospitality industry. You learn the ins and outs of how to run a fast, casual food stall. The other side is food and pop-ups. We’ve done a number of different pop-ups and programs. We’ve collaborated with other businesses and food entrepreneurs, like The Golden Balance. We serve as a home base for people to take over a full-functioning kitchen and run a pop-up and everything out of that. The third way we operate is that we are a commercial kitchen.”

Birria Ramen and Korean Fried Chicken are two of many cultural delicacies the Flint Social Club serves the residents of Flint. (Courtesy photo)Flintside: During the photo shoot, you mentioned that you all own this space. What are your plans for it?

Tony Vu: “Where we’re sitting right now, it’s a new space we’re about to launch officially called The Kickback. We [will] probably take eight different vendors for the first cohort and figure out their goals, where they’re at, where they need help most, sign up for bank and Square accounts, and then fill out that temporary vending application. We’ll do a mock inspection so you know how to pass it. We’re gonna provide equipment as well. So, we’re launching our website [where] you’ll see a number of things. Ultimately, [we want to] be able to serve with these permits and have a space right downtown in the heart to do it.”

Flintside: Flint is considered a food desert in many respects. Do you feel the social club is helping change the narrative?

Tony Vu: “I think what we’re trying to do to change the narrative is that that’s not true, for one. There’s this conception, I think, where the Flint community needs to be saved. We take care of our own. We don’t need to be saved. We need opportunities. There’s a lot that Flint can do to support itself, and you don’t need to build things to attract outside communities, populations, or cities to come to save Flint. You need to invest in the community here, and Flint will support itself.”

“There’s this conception, I think, where the Flint community needs to be saved. We take care of our own. We don’t need to be saved. We need opportunities.” says Tony Vu, pictured with food entrepreneurs at its Heartwood Farmer’s Market stall. (Courtesy photo)Flintside: In that respect, you can get burnt out or jaded trying to change narratives. What keeps you motivated to continue?

Tony Vu: “I’ve been burnt. I’ve experienced all kinds of joys of success. I’ve been through it all. And from a food aspect, I’ve done it all. I started with pop-ups that grew into food trucks. Food trucks grew into a stall in the Farmer’s Market. Farmer’s Market grew into brick and mortar in Traverse City; all the while, I was also building up Flint Social Club as a way for the chef community in Flint to express themselves creatively and individually. I think all these things are part of my path. The more I work with the community and fight for them, I see how passionate they are. It inspires me.”

Flintside: Out of all these things you’ve done, what are some lessons you’ve learned?

Tony Vu: “Part of it was learning where the needs of the community were and meeting them there instead of expecting them to come to this place that I built, fully prepared to go. From a personal standpoint, I think with myself and trying to grow Flint Social Club, I have a big vision. I see how all the pieces connect. If I had free reign, I could put it together so quickly. People [ask] how do you do this between two different cities, three hours apart every week? It’s because I can. I’m good at what I do.”

“I don’t take anything, I give. I’m leaving things! I am so fortunate. I’ve won life,” exclaims Tony Vu on Nov. 14, 2023, on the precipice of launching The Kickback in downtown Flint. (Bryce Mata | Finally, what do you take away from your life?

Tony Vu: “I don’t take anything, I give. I’m leaving things! I’m like Hansel and Gretel! I’m leaving breadcrumbs and everything! I am so fortunate. I’ve won life. I enjoy every waking moment in the healthiest way possible; there is no line between work and not work. I am plugged into life, and I’m very grateful. Life for me is to be able to do and express myself in the way that I do by doing cool sh*t and helping people along the way.”

Find the Flint Social Club on Facebook, Instagram, and its website. Also, check out the Flintreprenuer Symposium with Mama Sol, Tony Vu, and Jasz Sisco as the panel discussion at 100K Ideas, 601 S. Saginaw St., on Dec. 5, 2023, at 5:30 p.m.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.