Chef Thana draws on Japaneseexperience to grow food enterprise
Coleraine caterer Thana Thammavongsa created unique Japanese influenced ready meal prep boxes in response to demand from customers during the pandemic to be able to enjoy her tasty Asian meals at home.
Thana, who owns Whoosh café near Coleraine town centre, needed to find options to increase her turnover and boost sales that would increase the resilience of her small enterprise against further restrictions.
Post lockdown social distancing rules have meant Whoosh has become very restricted in terms of indoor seating and this has tilted the balance of her highly regarded eatery towards a predominantly takeaway service. There is also no real
scope for outdoor seating.
Influenced by her experience in Japan, Thana decided on developing traditional Bento Boxes with compartments to separate parts of the meal for transportation and preparation.
The dedicated chef turned to the Foodovation team at the North West Regional College (NWRC) in Derry for advice and support for her project. Foodovation assists food and drink companies here in new product development and other innovations using support through programmes such as Invest Northern Ireland’s Innovation Vouchers and the InnovateUK
Thana explains: ‘’We had been working on developing new food products for some time and, with the help and guidance from Foodovation, we were able to finalise our range of bento box meals for customers to collect from the café and reheat at home.
“The focus of the project was primarily on nutritional values. Foodovation’s experience and expertise really helped us to speed up the process of working out the nutritional values of our bento meals. We also received guidance on food safety and hygiene through HACCP and labelling.
“All this enabled us to continue with our day-to-day operations whilst also finalising a new range of products. Knowing that we were working with an experienced team at Foodovation definitely gave us great peace of mind,” Thana adds.
Whoosh initially started as an event caterer in Coleraine in 2008 specialising in fine Thai and Vietnamese food for both corporate and private clients across Northern Ireland.
“Setting up a business on a shoestring budget was one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever had to face in my life,” Thana remembers. “But one of the best experiences. I love what I do and do what I love,” she adds.
Thana, a graduate of Ulster University at Coleraine, has a real passion for food and catering, using only the freshest ingredients to produce healthy, tasty, nutritious and high quality foods. Her highly original meals contain a delicious balance of delicate flavours and textures which provide its clients with the enjoyment of fine food and a healthy diet.
Whoosh had catered for events and functions of various sizes at diverse venues across Northern Ireland before the pandemic. Over the course of its first few years in operation, the company developed a tremendous portfolio of corporate and private clients and continued to attract clients from all areas.
In February 2013, Thana moved into hospitality by realising a long-held dream to run her own eatery with the opening of Whoosh Thai and Vietnamese Street Food Café in Coleraine.
“The café, just off the town square, gave me an opportunity to introduce the public here to the Thai and Vietnamese food I had enjoyed earlier in my life and have continued to love on my frequent visits home to the wider public. At Whoosh, we love eating, we love cooking! When we are not eating or not cooking, we think about food, we dream about food... Thai and Vietnamese food,” she laughs.
The food, she continues, is cooked freshly on-site every day.
“Our menu is all about fresh, healthy, spontaneous and delicious fast food served in a casual setting or also ideal for heating at home or as food on-the-go snacks.
“Our unique menu is made up of a blend of Thai, Lao and Vietnamese foods that offer a great balance of delicate flavours and textures to give the enjoyment of great food as well as a healthy diet. The dishes featured on our menu are light, fresh, low in fat but above all – cooked from the heart,” adds Thana.
The coronavirus pandemic led Thana to switch the emphasis of the distinctive café towards a sharper focus on call and collect meals for heating and enjoying at home.
The take-home meals have been designed to allow customers to heat and serve meals with all the authenticity and convenience of Whoosh foods.
The bento box style allows for a meal of segments with protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, and sauces/seasoning, ensuring a fresh meal.
NWRC technical consultant, Karen Marran, provided a wide range of expertise to Thana including upskilling in recipe standardisation, ingredient declarations, allergen identification, nutritional calculations and labelling requirements, reheat instructions and at home storage instructions.