Indie Of The Month: Red Panda
Written by Stella Nicholls
‘Serve the Customer in front of you’
I didn’t think that biting into a soft cloud–like bao bun would be so tasty, but just one bite of the delight and I was hooked. Fresh, tangy, tasty deliciousness prepared right in front of me. As a person with a lot of food sensitivities, I’m always thrilled to find something different that I can actually eat. The fact that it took me to ‘taste heaven’ as well as being healthy was an added bonus!
I recently met with James McCarthy owner of Red Panda, to find out exactly what ‘honest Asian Street Food’ is all about. As I sat and chatted to him, he continued preparing his fresh food, chopping vegetables ready for the lunchtime rush – the shop is open from 11 am until 3 pm. And a rush it was, as after only a few minutes, the door to the store opened and several college students arrived to order their lunch. James says that although it can be stressful, one of the high points that he’s experienced since opening is seeing a queue out the door.
He moved into his little shop in Gandy Street in April 2018. It was a fresh start for him to do something that he is passionate about, away from the general office ‘slog’ of writing countless emails. People who knew Exeter well advised him saying, ‘if you’re going to Exeter, go to Gandy Street’ and luckily for James, there was a property available.
James and his wife lived in South-East Asia for twenty years, which has influenced the type of food that he creates at Red Panda. He takes the best from a range of different Asian cultures like Korea, the Philippines, China and Malaysia and he serves it fresh with lots of salad and veggies. James says that they are mindful to choose ingredients that can easily be found in the UK, or they use local vegetables that can be adapted to Asian flavours. He doesn’t believe in flying vegetables around the world, so they try and do a substitution of seasonal vegetables, when and where they can. They aim to keep their food miles down, and also don’t use any single-use plastics, wanting to be kinder to the environment that James loves so much and to lead a better more sustainable life.
Since opening, the business has grown through word of mouth and the shop seems to have filled a niche in the market, with lots of people looking for the type of food that they serve. They have a very strong and loyal customer base, consisting of people who come back again and again and so the business continues to increase. Just what we love to hear at Grow!
James describes his food as very homestyle, honest and tasty, it isn’t overworked, so the flavours remain intact. The food is freshly prepared each day, he says, ‘It’s not fancy at all.’ I thought to myself, who needs fancy when you have such an authentically wholesome meal to devour?
Another interesting fact about Red Panda is that James decided very early on to make the base of all their food Vegan. He said,’ We start from the point of view of having something that everybody can eat, and then if you want to add meat, you can add meat.’ This ensures that their food options are very inclusive rather than them needing to remove ingredients for specific dietary requirements. James is amazed at the age range that comes into the shop, he joked, from ‘8 to 80’ and says they are like a ‘4G’ environment, meaning he has four generations of people eating there and it’s all people looking for the same thing – tasty, fresh, healthy food. He went on to say that over the last few weeks he had been serving crispy kale in chilli and seaweed and that the kids loved it – and they had no idea that they were eating kale. (I remember trying to hide my sprouts under the mashed potato as a child!)
One of the challenges that James faces is knowing how much fresh produce to prepare each day, as when it rains, he has fewer people coming into the shop. He needs to manage that quite carefully, watching the weather forecast, as he doesn’t like or want a lot of food to go to waste. On the other side of the coin, just as the rain lessens the numbers coming into the shop, increases, which results in James needing to be very intuitive and responsive, in that regard. He says that it’s important to put money aside for ‘a rainy day’ in his or any business, to keep a healthy cash flow. A concept he learnt, living in Asia, is that you ‘only buy a car, when you can afford to buy three cars’ not when you can afford the down payment.
On the best life advice that James has received, he said ‘Serve the customer in front of you’ don’t worry about the queue, talk to the queue once in a while but serve the customer in front of you, pay attention to them and give them the best service while you are serving them. He added, take care of your customers because they will take care of your business. Sage advice indeed!
And James listens to his customers too! He says his years in customer service has refined his people skills, especially those customers who may have given him a hard time. He is continually trying to self-reflect and improve, which is evident by the friendly interaction I saw between him and the people who came into the shop, during my visit.
He is passionate about the environment, he loves getting outside, going down to the beach, regardless of the weather, and he cares deeply about preserving our world and doing good. He says, ‘If I could do more, I’d do more’.
To catch up with James, why not pop into the Red Panda on 29 Gandy Street for a bite to eat!