It’s a whole new ball game for chains. Customers today expect high quality across the experience, from the food to the service and even the interiors, says Paul Hopper, the founder of Vietnamese grab-and-go group Hop.
“Even when I started it four years ago, you could get away with a lot more, in that you didn’t necessarily need to be amazing at all touchpoints of the experience, you just had to, for example, be quick. You just can’t do now,” he tells Food Spark.
Hop was started in 2015 by Hopper, who fell in love with the country while backpacking around Asia after chucking in his City job as an analyst.
Now, the fifth and largest outlet is opening at The Leadenhall Building (aka The Cheesegrater), boasting a new breakfast menu and the brand’s first foray into evening meals.
But Hopper says that the core of the new spot, debuting on December 4, will still be food-to-go, with dinner modelled on a pub-style offering where people pay at the bar and their meal is brought out to them, rather than a sit-down restaurant.
“I wanted to make sure that the transition was quite subtle and it wasn’t such a chalk and cheese experience; that you wouldn’t come in at 2pm and its grab-and-go and takeaway packaging, then all of a sudden you come in two hours later and it’s full-blown table service. It’s too much of a shock, so it’s a slower halfway house for now,” he says.
From hardcore to more generic
The inspiration for the dinner menu came from Hopper’s time in Vietnam, glugging a street-side beer or cocktail accompanied by bar snacks or sharable small eats. It includes three types of chicken wings: one with spicy Sriracha, another with a sweet lemongrass glaze and one with satay sauce.
“All three are classic winners, so we serve those as individual portions,” says Hopper, adding, “We are actually going to do big sharing platters, so you get 21 wings on a plate – you can mix and match them, and they go perfectly with a beer, obviously, as they are nice and salty.
Breaking into the bread trend sweeping the capital, Hop will also offer a range of fluffy Vietnamese-style bao with traditional fillings like pickles, coriander and cucumber – flavours usually found in the country’s signature baguette, the banh mi. Options include a sticky hoisin pulled beef, a vegan pumpkin croquette and a chicken satay skewer, which also come individually or as part of a sharing platter.
With the new site, Hop has also revisited its approach to breakfast. Previously, it had tried to keep the meals as close to authentic as possible, which meant a lot of savoury items that are alien to London audiences, says Hopper.
There were some challenges with getting visitors to accept that the breakfast banh mi came with chillies, pate and coriander, says Hopper. A fusion version with bacon and egg or omelette and all the trimmings traded much better.
However, Hopper has been testing a new idea, a bacon baguette with Sriracha ketchup, as well as an option with the traditional ingredients.
“All the research and sampling that we did when you offer them the full monty with all of the thrills or you offer them the bacon butty with the Sriracha ketchup – the Sriracha ketchup one will outsell the other one at least double,” he predicts. “So we have been learning from the original menu that we need something more mainstream at breakfast, as it’s a habit day-part and people are so used to relatively dull stuff.”
At Leadenhall the old breakfast range has been kept for those who want to be adventurous, but the lines have been reduced. More “generic stuff” has been added, such as the baked egg range, made with eggs that look fried and served on a tomato base that is “funked up” with a bit of Sriracha, soy and few other Asian aromatics.
“You add things like crispy shallots, shredded spinach. Then, if you want to go the whole hog and make it unhealthy, you can add bacon and Chinese sausage and pimp it up, or you can just have it clean and really light and healthy,” he says.
The chain is also reducing its congee – savoury rice porridge – down to one line rather than offering three options, and introducing a coconut porridge with versions like mango and coconut curls or chocolate and condensed milk – a heavily used ingredient in Vietnam.
“We are trying to bridge all gaps from really generic through to hard core and a bit in between,” Hopper says.
Heating up sandwiches and spices
Responding to the growth in the vegan and vegetarian market, Hop has been experimenting with plant-based options, including aubergine and shiitake mushrooms in soy, served on a noodle salad, and leek and tofu gyoza. But there’s quite a big difference between what people say they want and what actually sells, Hopper comments.
“That might be because the vegan products that we trialled aren’t very good, but I don’t think so. I thought they were really good, but they would still be very low selling items,” he says.
“We are obviously looking at tofu, stuff which never trades really well regardless of what you do to it. It’s tricky for Vietnamese food as people just associate it with meat, and it’s quite an acquired thing to find someone who wants Vietnamese food and wants it vegan. It’s quite a small market, so even if we had 10 things on the menu that were vegan, it would still sell small, so we always have at least one option in every range, but we are experimenting.”
When it comes to grab-and-go, the bestsellers have always been the hot boxes: rice with a protein of choice, sauce, pickled veg and shredded salad. Half of Hop’s total sales across the business come from that range, with lemongrass chicken the most popular option by a mile. After that, it’s an even split between pho, banh mi and the chain’s newer warm noodle bowls.
“I thought pho would be a massive seller, but it’s amazing how much the British public love a sandwich,” remarks Hopper. “The second we made our banh mi go from an ambient product to a hot product, it was a 10-fold increase – people love a hot sandwich.”
Another trend he has noted is a big push for spice. “We are going to play it quite hard, because most of our dishes come with a little bit of kick, but not much. But you can instantly make it incredibly spicy if you wanted to do it, which I think is the beauty of the cuisine. Spicy-healthy is a trend.”
Beyond the classics
Since starting the Vietnamese chain, Hopper says he hasn’t seen the cuisine change much over here.
“It’s something we are looking at now at the minute. We are doing all the obvious classics people understand – banh mi, pho and a noodle salad, but what are the trends in Vietnam right now? Who’s on the cutting edge of driving the food scene in Vietnam and what are they doing? It’s certainly not those dishes. It would be something quite funky, they are very creative-driven nation,” he explains.
While everyone has been saying Vietnamese is going to be the next big thing for the last five years, Hopper believes it’s now truly on the cusp.
“You keep seeing lots of healthier chains bizarrely struggling as people want to be healthy but they don’t want to be boring… whereas Vietnamese cuisine is super exciting and I think it’s going to be huge,” he says.
“We just need to stick to evolving the product base to the trends, like the vegan trend and the free-from trends. I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve chosen a cuisine that is actually quite free-from in most stuff. I think if we play our cards right, we can ride most of the trends that are coming.”
So what about the future for Hop? It was always built for scale, says Hopper, and the plan is to get to between 30 to 50 sites. He has been bulking up the senior team, including bringing in a head of food, Deniz Safa who was previously at Italian chain Coco di Mama. With her, Hopper wants to do seasonal menus and change the offering three to four times a year, rather than the current norm of twice a year.
“The food has to be amazing as a standard now, whereas before there was all sorts of crap on the high street. Just because it was there, it would trade really well. Now, it’s just dead, you can’t do it. The brand experience and customer service – that has to be amazing, and the interiors too, bizarrely.
“People, because of social media and Instagram, are more likely to buy even a grab-and-go from somewhere that is easy on the eye when you come in, and they are so discerning as customers now. They will point out that your shop looks sh*t if it’s tired and that never used to happen, so you now have to be in the top 5% to do really well.”