Barry Wallace, creative director at Pang, tells IF&CR what it is like to bring a healthy food-to-go brand to the streets of Dublin.
“People thought we were crazy opening a summer rolls concept in winter,” says restaurateur Barry Wallace on launching Dublin’s most fashionable fresh food eatery in December 2017.
And despite the sceptics, Pang – a creative Vietnamese fast casual concept serving up rice paper rolls in Dublin 2 – has been a roaring success year-round.
“The response has been fantastic,” says Barry. “People love the super creative Vietnamese style. It’s like we’re taking all the delicious spices and fragrances from Southeast Asia and creating a healthy meal dining experience. We’re calling it the healthy craving.”
Barry opened Pang in Dublin shortly after returning to Ireland from five years working abroad laying the foundations for successful restaurants in Belgium, London, and Holland.
He started his journey by selling sustainable fish and chips in Ireland before taking the business model oversees.
“It was crazy,” says Barry. “One day we were cooking fish and chips in the rain on a Dublin market stall in 2011 and just three years later we opened our second restaurant in London with Guy Fieri and his camera crew standing there.”
Now the team are back in Ireland’s capital where they plan to stay for the foreseeable future to grow and develop Pang to be a nationwide brand.
The idea for Pang came from travelling the world – but not quite in the places one might expect.
“I first tried rice paper rolls when I was backpacking through Vietnam years ago and thought they were delicious,” says Barry. “But the inspiration behind Pang came later on in life when I really developed an interest for food. I’d seen a few restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney selling rice paper rolls and I thought it was really clever idea.”
As the fresh and health food markets in Ireland began to flourish, Barry recognised an opportunity to launch a similar venture back home.
“I noticed Vietnamese style restaurants opening up in Brussels and Paris and thought this is the right time to strike in Ireland. It’s a big trend coming from Australia via Vietnam.
“I’ve been studying the market for the past year and there is a huge demand for fresh, healthy food solutions. And not just in Dublin – very much the whole of Ireland has embraced a healthier lifestyle. It’s the age of information; everyone wants to improve themselves and food is a good start.”
As a nation, Ireland’s consumers have demanded more choice and greater access to healthier options, but there is still something a little bit traditional in the typical Irish customer. On the menu at Pang, alongside rice paper rolls and bowls of hot steaming pho, are bánh mìs; a type of Vietnamese sandwich.
“The bánh mìs are really popular because it’s embedded in us Irish that we love a good sandwich,” says Barry. “We love them because it means we can offer our customers a unique take on the traditional.”
Always on the lookout to capture more of the market share, Pang salads are set to launch this month with an extensive range showcasing the rich flavours of Southeast Asia from Laos to Cambodia and Thailand to Vietnam. There will also be a few surprises, Barry reveals.
“There’s a lot to work with in terms of flavour profiles,” he says. “I like to experiment with different pairings in what I call a flavour clash. We will be offering a Thai chicken salad with Jamaican jerk seasoning. It’ll be very much an Asian inspired dish but with a twist. I’m all about bending the rules.”
IF&CR is keen to find out whether it is these unusual combinations that will set Pang apart from other fresh, made-to-order salads on the market.
“It’s not like we’re doing a classic Caesar salad which everybody knows is delicious. We’re creating unfamiliar bowls that bring something new to the market.
“It definitely sets us apart but it does have its drawbacks because when you’re doing something innovative you need to make it work. If you’re innovating like that in the long run you are ahead of the game and a market leader.”
A creative at heart, Barry reveals he is constantly “exploding with ideas” for the next restaurant. He keeps a moleskin notebook in his pocket that currently has 22 restaurant concepts, six of which have already come to life.
“I’m very lucky,” he says. “I got an opportunity after a tough recession. I used to work in fashion retail and have taken all my brand experience from that and brought it into the food industry. I’m a serious home cook that has been crazy about food for many years, so it was an easy step over.”
While Barry may be the big thinker behind every idea, he is quick to point out that hiring the right staff and paying close attention to customer service is a key element in driving each project forward.
“I think what makes a really successful brand is really, really good people. In every team I’ve ever created, I try and make sure every staff member is genuine and the same person to everyone who walks though the door,” says Barry.
Price plays its part too, he believes.
“Obviously your product has to be excellent quality but it can’t be overpriced. I like the idea of giving people good value for money and seeing them return. I don’t pull the wool over people’s eyes to make a quick sale.”
Getting the branding right for each project is a passion of Barry’s who believes there is nothing more important than creating a brand that captures its customers as they come through the door.
“It’s a really delicate balance to create a brand that stands out, that is still commercial, and not too crazy. The phrase I always use when developing a new concept is to come up with an identity that is family-friendly but also has an edge to it.
“Whether your customers know a little bit about branding or nothing about branding, people don’t even realise that they are picking up on things. I love seeing a brand that is understated but very edgy – that’s so important.”
Creating a strong brand identity is essential when planning to take a fast casual format to multiple locations. Having enjoyed nine successful months in Dublin, the team behind Pang are itching to start expanding with their sights on locations in Cork, Galway, and eventually Belfast.
The beauty of Pang, Barry explains, is that the product is so versatile it can be moved into any space whether that be a concession in an airport, shopping centre, or forecourt.
“We are currently writing a franchise bible that will pull the brand together with the possibility of taking it to the UK.
“You’d be surprised at how easy our menu is to prepare. It’s all about getting the creativity right at the beginning then backing it up with knowledge and breaking it down into simplicity.
“Flexibility is what we do best and in the last seven years we have opened up a range of concepts internationally including bao burger restaurants, burrito bars, brunch cafes, and of course our fish and chips. These kinds of things just keep popping up, and we get offers all over the world for franchises, but Pang is our primary focus right now and I’m excited to see where it takes us.”