Interview with an Innovator: Paul Hopper, HOP Vietnamese

Egg Soldiers sits down with client Paul Hopper, founder of London’s leading Vietnamese grab-and-go restaurant operation, HOP Vietnamese, to relive our grand Vietnam trip last year and discuss his exciting plans for menu expansion and new HOP dishes
Paul Hopper, the founder of HOP Vietnamese
At the end of 2022, Egg Soldiers paired with HOP Vietnamese to explore potential avenues for modern Vietnamese dish development, with a bold, multi-category menu expansion for the HOP brand the end goal.

To kickstart the project, Egg Soldiers creative director Toph Ford joined a small team on an almighty food tour across both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to be inspired by the authentic flavours and formats found within Vietnamese cuisine.

In the months that followed, Egg Soldiers' industry-leading team of development chefs and menu strategists worked directly with the HOP team to bring a number of new Vietnamese menu additions to life, unleashing close to 20 new options into HOP's two London outposts in March.

These included new bánh mi baguettes, multiple soups and salads, and seven more styles of its signature 'HOP box' lunch options.

But that's just the start of Egg Soldiers' and HOP's collaboration, with a second menu expansion planned for summer 2023 which will see HOP not only make its return into breakfast, but also expand its dessert and sides ranges, and introduce new Vietnamese iced coffee styles, bubble tea options, and signature lemonades to coincide with the opening of two new HOP locations - in London's Bond Street, and Trafford in Manchester.

In this exclusive interview, HOP founder Paul Hopper discusses the collaborative development journey so far, reveals his takeaways from the grand Vietnam trip last year, and goes into more detail about the menu expansion and new HOP Vietnamese dishes.
Thinking outside the (HOP) Box
HOP founder Paul Hopper (right) with managing director Richard Franks in Ho Chi Minh City
First off, Paul - let's revisit the Vietnam trip last year! Did you arrive with a clear agenda for what you were looking for with the planned menu expansions?

Paul: "You know, it was the first time I'd been back to Vietnam since 2012!

"Southeast Asian cuisines in general have a real attachment to street food, and Vietnam is just an amazing place for a food lover! We were there for 10 days, and we knew we wanted to get to grips with what breakfast is like in Vietnam and to see what we could harness as part of a Western approach.

"We also wanted to find out the latest in terms of sweet treats, drinks, and coffee culture. What do the Vietnamese eat in the evenings when they're out having a drink? What could we learn from other daily eating occasions, beside on-the-go lunch, that we could take back and run with?

"For me, Hanoi was the perfect starting place. Depending on what you believe (or indeed read), Hanoi is the birthplace of some of the most famous Vietnamese dishes. And they really respect heritage when it comes to cuisine."
HOP's Paul tackling a bowl of pho in Hanoi
With Hanoi being very much North Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City close to the southern tip; you must have had two very different experiences in terms of what you ate?

"Absolutely. For example, the pho is drastically different in the north compared to the south. In Hanoi, it's incredibly simple. You get the broth, the noodles, the spring onion, and your protein - delivered to the table with a little coriander and some mint. And that's pretty much it, other than maybe a little bit of chilli on the table - very clean and delicate.

"But when you're in the south, in somewhere like Ho Chi Minh City; they chuck everything at it! It's probably because they're close to Thailand, but there's much more of a sweetness from the broth, and a lot more flavour experimentation in general. They give you a good 5+ herbs to put in your pho, and a few different sauces like spicy sriracha, chilli oils and hoisin sauce.

"We had a lot of pho during the trip - all types of soup, really. There's just so much you can do with different ingredient combinations! It was one of the first focus areas with Egg Soldiers' development team once we all got back to the UK, and we launched a load of new phos and soup dishes as part of the first HOP menu expansion in March!"
On the hunt for dish inspiration down the Vietnamese backstreets
The rest of us at Egg Soldiers were very jealous of our co-founder Toph going with you to Vietnam! What was the initial plan when bringing on Egg Soldiers, and did it evolve?

"I brought Egg Soldiers on board maybe a month before the trip. As I said, I wanted to start the move towards a more all-day offering, and so, initially, they gave me a strategic deep-dive into what was trending in all other day parts across other comparable businesses, and the lay of the land with consumer behavioural trends.

"From that, I knew I was going to use Egg Soldiers to actually develop all the concepts we'd come up with across these day parts, for both the March and summer expansions.

"I really wanted Toph's expertise on the trip, and the timings matched up well for him to come along - a bit of luck there!

"Good thing too. Having his expert eye and development brain with us in Vietnam really helped us along the way."
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Broadening menu horizons
The new Roast Duck Banh Mi at HOP Vietnamese
Ok, let's talk a bit more about the March menu expansion. Tell me about the inspiration behind the two new HOP banh mi baguettes.

"So we now have a roast duck banh mi, which I've always wanted to do, to be fair - Egg Soldiers just helped me bring it to life. And we also launched a chargrilled pork option.

"The inspiration for the pork came from Bún thịt nướng, which translates to Vietnamese grilled pork with rice noodles. It's a Southern Vietnamese dish primarily, and we had a few in Ho Chi Minh City. The pork is amazingly tender and juicy inside, and has a great char on the outside.

"We thought it'd be great in a crusty baguette, and we ended up with a honey-glazed version for the banh mi, packed with Vietnamese herbs, pickled carrot, shredded salad and spring onion, with sriracha vegan mayo and our secret sauce.

"We also have the chargrilled pork in two new versions of the HOP box, in a new noodle salad and in a new pho (it's that good)!

"We also need to mention the new side - the sweet and sticky pork riblets! These are quite common in Vietnamese street food markets, mainly in the south, and they're basically small baby back ribs. Sticky, sweet, umami little numbers that just need a bit of lime or kumquat squeezed over before getting stuck in!"
Right, the main event: the summer expansion. How is HOP starting its move into being an all-day eating operation?

"Well, we're really excited to launch the new HOP breakfast offering, which will include a range of Banh Mi Baps!

"We're doing five of these baps in total, and they're a bit of a 'fusion' breakfast option as we're leaning on the French influence from Vietnam with soft brioche buns; adding in Vietnamese-style sauce, herbs and pickles; with bacon, eggs and mushrooms the hero ingredients (keeping things tailored to Western palates).

"It's not obvious to go for Asian food for breakfast in the West, and we know from having touched on breakfast pre-Covid that you have to be quite mainstream, so we're giving people the choice of a classic bap with just the egg, bacon or mushroom with sriracha ketchup, or to be more 'adventurous' with all the trimmings.

"The 'Bacon & Egg Works', for example, has sriracha ketchup, pickled carrots, coriander and crispy onions with a fried egg and bacon on a buttered brioche.

"We're also launching a hot pot breakfast range, which is kind of a shakshuka-type approach, and three fruit-based 'yog pots'.

"Beyond breakfast, we've got a new kids' menu launching with the Manchester outpost in July and, over the next 6–9 months, we'll be looking at pushing a late night menu."
Paul signing the leases for the two new HOP Vietnamese sites
Upgrading the HOP drinks menu was a major development focus area for HOP and Egg Soldiers - what new launches are you most excited about?

"We've done a lot of work on drinks, and we're introducing a load of HOP Lemonades for the summer; seven new bubble teas; and we're going to be adding to our amazing Vietnamese coffee offering.

"We import Vietnamese drip coffee directly from Vietnam, and it's serious rocket fuel! We currently serve that either black or with condensed milk, hot or as iced versions.

"And we're introducing two more Vietnamese iced coffees - a salted caramel and also a chocolate - to coincide with the Bond Street opening in August.

"When we went back to Vietnam, the coffee scene had just exploded compared to when I was last there, driven by younger generations creating new styles and experimental versions.

"I had a salted cream coffee in Hanoi with Toph, and it really caught me by surprise! It was so good, and it's where the idea for our new salted caramel iced coffee came from.

"We're going to be leaning quite heavily on the Vietnamese coffee angle going forward, as it's such an innovative arena but still quite hard to find in London. We're looking to change that."
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