It is a clear sign that Northern Ireland is becoming more cosmopolitan that there is a successful Thai and Vietnamese ‘Street Food Cafe’ in the market town of Coleraine. It is a place where customers are encouraged to sit, mingle and chat with complete strangers, while quickly eating healthy fast food.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was established by someone who herself has a cosmopolitan background. Thana Thammavongsa was born in France, but her parents were from Laos in South East Asia.
Whoosh began back in 2008 as an event catering business, servicing corporate and private clients across Northern Ireland. But Thana’s ambition was always to open her own eating house, even though most of her working life has not been in the industry.
“I moved here about 17 years ago,” she says, initially to do business studies and languages at the University of Ulster’s Coleraine campus. “It gave me the basics,” continues Thana. “But it was more my work experience that helped me. I am learning every day! I used to work as a translator and interpreter for a company and I did business development, but I always cooked from a very young age and I wanted to do something that I enjoyed rather than work for somebody else.”
Thana admits that it has been a challenge to persuade an unfamiliar local population that Thai and Vietnamese food is worth sampling and then to eat it regularly. “We have slowly been telling people about Thai and Vietnamese food,” she explains.
“Vietnamese food really isn’t known. On the mainland it has become better known. People are more aware of Thai food. Through that we have introduced people to a few Vietnamese items.
“Vietnamese, Laos and Thai foods are similar. Vietnamese is slightly more subtle. The spices come from the side, rather than being in the main dish. So people can just season as they prefer. There is always a little bit of meat in the meal.”
Presentation is important – and a sense of the restaurant’s style can be appreciated from the photos on its website, www.eatwhoosh.com. “If it looks good people are more willing to try it,” stresses Thana. “That is what we found through catering. We make it colourful and attractive.”
Whoosh is still a small business – just three people work there. Business expansion is restricted because Coleraine is so small, with the restaurant closing most nights at 5.30. “It would not work here in the evening,” insists Thana. “Everything here shuts at 5.30.
“On Friday we have extended our times to 8pm and that works well. If there were people here [in the town] we would be happy to open longer. But we have tastings evenings twice a month and that works very well.”
Thana would like to move gradually to having several Whoosh outlets. “By the end of this year I would like to be looking at another location,” she says. “I would love to open in Belfast. If it works here in a small town then it will work in a city.”