Quarantine Q&A: Madame Pho

This is the second in our Quarantine Q&A series; chats with some of our favourite local businesses on how they’re coping during lockdown, what they’re doing to survive, and how you can help. Know of a local foodie business that could do with a shout? Then get in touch. We are not being endorsed to cover any of these businesses – we like eating nice food and drinking good coffee and would like to continue to do so post-lockdown, so shouting about their efforts makes sense. You can check out the first in our series of Quarantine Q&As with the Pocket here. Front and centre this week is Botanic Avenue’s Madame Pho. It’s pronounced ‘fuh’, apparently.

Belfast’s Botanic Avenue is probably the most diverse area of the city when it comes to restaurants. Chinese, Lebanese, Taiwanese, Cuban, Mexican (sort of), Nepalese, Korean – all are offered on one of the most eclectic food stretches in Northern Ireland. Adding its Vietnamese flag to that impressively cosmopolitan list of nationalities is Madame Pho, a Vietnamese street food restaurant which has been making waves thanks to a busy social media presence and a following of devoted punters.

Whether it’s the OG bánh mì (a fresh baguette filled with pork neck, Vietnamese ham, pate, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber and coriander) or the namesake dish of slowly, slowly-cooked beef broth and noodles, Madame Pho has been winning lots of admirers since opening in January.

That is, until – like so many local food and hospitality businesses – it was forced to close its doors in March. It seems particularly cruel to a local eatery that only opened its doors five months ago. But Madame Pho – as so many other local businesses have done – has adapted, and is now offering a takeaway service for Pho fanatics. It is, essentially, comfort food – and what better time for it?

We spoke to Madame Pho founder William Chan about the effects of the lockdown on the new business, the challenges of offering a takeaway service, and what he likes to cook for himself when no-one’s watching.

Hi! For the uninitiated, tell us a bit about Madame Pho and how it started.

Madame Pho is a Vietnamese Street Food concept located on Botanic Avenue, Belfast. The idea for Madame Pho first came about when I returned to Northern Ireland last year after living in Asia for five years. Pho was one of my favourite dishes whilst living in Asia and I was surprised to see no Vietnamese food offerings over here. At the time I was working for a tech firm in Belfast and decided to quit my corporate job to set up Madame Pho.

“…the current situation has really changed the trajectory of our business.”

How are you personally finding the lockdown so far?

Lockdown has been very challenging both on a personal and business level. However, I am very grateful that my close family, friends and staff have stayed healthy during this time.

A lot of the businesses we’ve spoken to have been around for a few years at least. You’re pretty new in Belfast – I imagine the current situation has hit pretty hard?

Yes, we only opened our doors in January so the current situation has really changed the trajectory of our business. It has been a crazy five months since we opened; from growing a strong customer base to being featured in the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News and receiving our 5 star hygiene rating. We then closed our doors for six weeks in March to comply with government guidelines but have recently opened up our ‘PHO2GO’ offering to the public.

“We want to make sure our customers are getting the same food experience as they would if they were sitting in our restaurant.”

Right enough, I keep seeing PHO2GO on Instagram – tell us about that? 

PHO2GO is a takeaway concept we planned to roll out later in the year. Madame Pho is predominately a casual dine-in restaurant but with social distancing in place we thought it made sense to offer our PHO2GO concept during this time. We believe our street food concept is perfect for takeaway, e.g. our bánh mì sandwiches and rice bowls. We have been working hard to develop our Home Pho kits to make sure you can enjoy our Pho soup noodles from home. ‘PHO2GO’ has been very well received so far and social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have definitely helped get our message out to the public.

How have you found the challenge of offering a delivery/collection service during lockdown? 

The model certainly has its challenges. We want to make sure our customers are getting the same food experience as they would if they were sitting in our restaurant, so we have been looking at all aspects of our service from our packaging to our delivery times and dishes to make sure our food can stay consistent in this takeaway model. 

“…many local businesses are in danger of going bust without enough support during this time.”

Do you find that people are more keen to support local now compared to ‘before’? 

I can only speak for my own customers and many have expressed how happy they are that we have reopened for takeaway. It has been great to see many restaurants pivot their service to a takeaway model and looking at social media there does seem to be a lot of interest from customers to support this. However, I also see people willing to queue two hours recently to wait for fast food chains that have reopened which is a shame as many local businesses are in danger of going bust without enough support during this time.

Do you have any guilty pleasure recipes to make at home?

After working a six-day week, I try to keep cooking to a minimum on my day off. One of my lazy recipes I like to make is my home made fried rice. I bring home any leftover rice from work and stir fry it the next day with egg, bacon, sweetcorn, sriracha and hoisin. It may not sound great but it hits the spot every time.

What can people do from home if they want to support you?

As with many businesses we really appreciate the support during these difficult times. Personally, I am really big on social media and I am very active on all platforms to promote my business. If people would like to support Madame Pho from home, I would ask you to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and post/share any content you have from Madame Pho.

What’s the first thing you’re looking forward to doing post-lockdown?

Socialising with friends and family.

Check out Madame Pho on Facebook and Instagram.

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