Pang is the sort of place where you can immediately tell that careful consideration has gone into every detail, from the pristine mint tiling of the interior offset by the dark green, white and bright fuchsia of the branding, to the rainbow colours of their signature rice-paper rolls. It’s not all about aesthetics here at Pang though, far from it. The brainchild of entrepreneur Barry Wallace (a term he still struggles to refer to himself as), it’s been a ‘rollercoaster’ journey over the last 7 years, one that has taken him from Dublin to Belgium, to London and back home again, where he opened Pang on Dublin’s Kevin Street in December 2017.
Rice Paper Rolls
‘I wanted to come up with a unique and healthy concept that suited the city right now. When I took a look at the Dublin market I saw there were some Vietnamese places, but that they were few and far between. There didn’t seem to be anyone doing a quick, healthy Vietnamese takeaway. I had come across rice-paper rolls on my travels in Vietnam, and had seen them become popular in places like Sydney, Paris and Belgium – so I decided to bring my own spin on it to Dublin. The rolls and Phở (a traditional Vietnamese star anise infused broth with rice noodles) that we serve are full of flavour and fresh-produce. We are mostly gluten-free, with the one exception of the Hoisin sauce, as I haven’t been able to find a gluten-free version of that yet. We use Soy Sauce Tamari and make our own teriyaki marinade to keep things close to 100% GF.’
With veganism and more health-conscious eating on the rise, the timing seems to have been just right for Barry’s concept. Even the local students are tucking in, with their lunch boxes and Banh Mi (a crispy, stuffed Vietnamese baguette) proving popular. Having previously wanted the rice paper-rolls to stand-alone as Pang’s sole offering, Barry has since decided to diversify the menu for the coming cold Winter months;
‘We’ve just launched a new Vietnamese salad bowl menu, expanded our rice-paper roll flavours and added a new Banh Mi option. We’ve plans to open earlier in the coming weeks to cater for the students and local offices. We’re also going to start doing Pho-spiced breakfast bars and breakfast Banh Mi’s along with coffee and pastries. We will start to open 7 days soon and will be on Deliveroo with our new salad bowls and sandwiches. I’m putting up a specials board as well so we can throw on different stuff to surprise customers every other week.’
Seven years ago, long before Barry had come up with the name for his newest venture while washing the dishes, he had found himself at a crossroads. Having left school at fifteen, he worked for five years in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council. It was a good job but he felt it had come too early for him. He wanted to see the world, so he traveled around for a few years, taking in Asia and Australia;
‘I had a great time traveling – working in bars and just buzzing around, but when I came back I had a different slant on things. I got a bar job in Killiney Castle Hotel and signed up for a FÁS ‘Start Your Own Business’ course. It was very helpful because I knew nothing about the administrative side of running a business. I found the paperwork quite difficult, but the course gave me a bit more confidence’
Eventually he found work in a clothes shop in the city, excelled at it and went on to manage three retail premises; ‘I wanted to be part of the company, but then the recession hit and I lost my job. I had managed an €80,000 budget for the shops. I went to trade shows like Bread&Butter (a Berlin-based annual trade show) to identify trends for each season and buy stock, but on paper I didn’t have any qualifications and found it very hard to get something else in retail. Even though I had the skills I was made to feel very small and brushed aside by the industry. That’s when I decided never to work for a company for that long ever again – not unless it was my own.’
Despite the setbacks Barry’s entrepreneurial spirit prevailed; ‘I was always looking for an idea, trying to identify different things to bring to the party. I had ideas around pharmaceuticals, clothing technology and another to do with bulk-buying wine. There are a few things I might return to in the future. I still have some ideas on the shelf!’
Reinventing Fish and Chips
The return of an old friend turned things around and Barry started to look beyond the retail industry for his next venture; ‘One day my buddy Simon came back from London where he had been working as a chef. We decided to try to do something together, but it was the middle of the recession. We couldn’t get a loan and there was no way we were going to ask our families for money at a time when everyone was struggling. We needed something we could do easily without spending much, so we opened a market stall in Sandyford Industrial Estate. We wanted it to have a seafood theme, so we called it Bia Mara (Irish for seafood)’.
Their food was a hit but there were some kinks in the concept to be ironed out; ‘Our first dish was Seafood Linguine and everyone loved it. For two days we sold-out, but the next week no one came near us. We didn’t know what was going on! I talked to one of my mates who was working in the area. He told us that the food was amazing but that they had all gone back to work with sauce all over them! That was lesson number one – linguine is not a street eat! Simon suggested we try fish and chips so we did that, but gave it a twist. We were making Jamaican Jerk Mackerel with Seaweed Salted Chips and Chipotle Sauce and Salmon in a Curry Tempura and Rice. The fish and chips were selling so well that we decided to just focus on that. By the end of the summer we had queues around the block and were selling 150 portions an hour! Deep down I knew this was it. I started telling everyone I knew that we were going to open a restaurant and with relentless positivity made it my mission.’
Eventually word got out that Barry and Simon were keen to open a restaurant. A friend of a friend got in touch with them and after tasting their product he was on board, but there was one catch – they had to move to Brussels. Barry was all in immediately; ‘At the time I was single. I loved travel, loved new cities and loved a challenge so it was a no-brainer. In 2012 we moved over and opened Bia Mara in October. On the first day we stood around without any customers. The next day our first customer walked in and told us he was coeliac. He couldn’t eat anything on the menu except chips, so we gave him a portion on the house. That’s when the panic started to set in! We were like ‘Oh My God, what have we done!’.
In the Spring things started to pick up and a special paying tribute to their Irish roots brought them unexpected attention; ‘For St Patrick’s Day we decided to do an Irish fish and chips. We changed the menu to Gaelige and got a Guinness tap in. The special was a Guinness and Squid Ink Tempura of Hake with Oyster Emulsion, Green Chive Salted Chips and a Sea Spaghetti Salad! This was back when you could get organic reach on Facebook and a picture of that reached about 90,000 people. That was when we realised that we had something unique. Also we felt we had helped changed the perception of fish and chips as a one dimensional flavour profile and re-designed it into a something new.’
An Environmentally Aware Business
With Pang, Barry may seem to have gone off in the opposite direction to Bia Mara, which now has a second branch in Brussels and one in Antwerp, but many of the same brand values remain. Sustainability and using ethically-sourced produce is something that has been consistent throughout all of his projects. Along with the quality of the food and satisfaction of his customers at Pang, it’s an area he feels very strongly about; ‘Pang is an environmentally-aware business so all our packaging is plant-based and compostable. Although this now has a negative angle, it’s hard to keep up with the science and genuine companies. Our produce is all from good suppliers and its very fresh with daily deliveries. Our food has to be spanking fresh as we want a reaction from our customers and we want to stay in their mind. We love the idea that sustainability in its simplest form is variety. We encourage people who are not vegan to try eat 50/50 like a free range chicken Banh Mi with a courgette mint mango rice paper roll. Helping with the balance, or at least trying to!
The Road Ahead
With Pang, the hope is to develop inside Ireland, with a potential second venue on the cards soon; ‘People thought I was mad opening a cold rice-paper roll concept in the winter but it’s been a huge success. January did very well with lots of people looking for a healthy lunch alternative. We’re testing out new products and looking into a second location. We’re hoping to follow the office crowd as it suits the lunch time offering very well. I have a new partner too, Colm O’ Brien – great guy, clever, knows his food and is as supportive as it gets, a mentor. He sees the potential in this and has been great at nurturing the business and moving it along in the right direction’
It’s no secret that the restaurant business is tough and demanding, but clearly it’s incredibly rewarding too. It’s the customers that keeps Barry so invested in what he does; ‘I do restaurant consultancy on the side and the number one rule I teach to people is not to try to fool your customer. If you give them an honest product at a fair price, that’s half of the battle. I genuinely care about my customers so much and if something goes wrong I think they deserve a face to face explanation. I don’t like to let anyone down. I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep my business that way. I put myself under serious pressure every day and it breaks my heart when I can’t deliver something. I’m constantly trying to educate and better myself so I watch and listen all the time whether it’s a TED talk, a podcast or customer preferences!’