Scents and flavours of Asia add spice to the capital's fare
After five years of hard work and planning, Paul Cadden's dream of opening a quality Asian-style restaurant in Dublin was realised
THERE are mom-ents is a person's life when things change forever. For Mayo native Paul Cadden, that moment came in the spring of 2002.
He was travelling through Thailand and Vietnam and remembers finding himself standing on the side of a busy street in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. As if almost frozen in time, he was captivated by the sight of hundreds of motorcycles as they weaved their way through the bustling crowds. The sweet and spicy smells of Asian cooking wafted up the street from the small food stalls nearby.
In that moment, and enthralled by the vibrancy of the Asian lifestyle, Paul realised what he wanted to do next with his life. As soon as he would return home, he was going to set up an Asian- style restaurant, and try and recreate, in Ireland, a little of what he had just experienced.
His dream didn't become a reality overnight. In September 2006, after five years of hard work and planning, he finally opened Saba – an authentic Thai and Vietnamese restaurant located on Clarendon Street, just off Grafton Street, in the heart of Dublin city.
Today, he employs more than 80 staff.
In addition to the restaurant, he set up Saba-To-Go, a take away and home delivery restaurant in Rathmines, now run by his brother Alan; and Saba-Dilla, an Asian street kitchen that services corporate events and outdoor festivals.
What about the relevance of the name Saba, I ask.
"It means 'happy meeting place' in the Thai language," Paul explains.
"Everything we do here is all about creating a happy place where people can enjoy quality, affordable and authentic Thai and Vietnamese food in a relaxed and fun environment."
No stranger to the hospitality sector, Paul's parents ran the well-known Asgard Tavern, an award-winning seafood bar and restaurant in Westport, Co Mayo.
After finishing school, Paul studied hotel management in Shannon before heading to work in hotels in Switzerland and London.
While working with the Forte Group, Paul made the transition from the food and beverage side of the business into accounting, and qualified as a Member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accounting in London. He later became deputy financial controller of a 600-bed hotel at Heathrow Airport.
At the age of 23 Paul returned to Dublin and, while he enjoyed his new finance role in Jury's of Ballsbridge, he was beginning to miss the cut and thrust of dealing directly with customers. A stint as a consultant followed before he joined the Diep le Shaker company of restaurants, where he became a director.
While on a skiing holiday with friends he fell drastically ill. Before long he found himself paralysed from the shoulders down, and was diagnosed with a rare condition known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
"The condition, which affects a person's nervous system, occurs in only about one person in every 100,000," explains Paul.
He eventually recovered fully, but only after having to learn to walk again.
"It was a humbling experience," he tells me honestly.
Once he recovered, he set about fulfilling his dream.
"While I knew in my head what I wanted to achieve, it was still only an idea. I had no premises, no team, no chefs, and no money," he tells me, laughing.
In order to finance the business, Paul remortgaged his house. In addition, he relied heavily on the support of his parents, as well as the Ulster Bank – which he says has remained very supportive of his efforts.
"Because I wanted the food to be as authentic as possible, I decided to visit Thailand again. I knew a Thai chef called Taweesak Trakoolwattana (Tao), with whom I had previously worked but he had since returned to work in Bangkok. He was a great chef and I knew he could guide me in finding good Thai chefs," Paul explains.
He tracked Tao down in Thailand and the two agreed to meet for lunch in Bangkok. Paul excitedly shared his plan to open a restaurant in Dublin and that he was looking for chefs. Tao agreed to make enquiries on his behalf and to meet him again for dinner later that evening. Paul remembers well arriving at the restaurant that evening only to find that Tao was already there – and behind him were four Thai chefs whom Paul had also previously worked with in Ireland. Tao announced that he and the other chefs all wanted to be part of Paul's new project and would come back to Dublin to work with him.
"The Singha beers tasted sweeter that night," Paul says, smiling. "It was really emotional and I knew from that moment on that my dream was going to become a reality."
He adds, "For me, this business is all about providing great food, great service, great value and a great atmosphere."
All the chefs are from Thailand or Vietnam. Even Jolin, who serves us on my visit, is from Saigon in Vietnam. Her attitude to customer service is as innate and as obvious as the warm smile on her face.
The herbs and vegetables are sourced from a Fair Trade farmer's co-op outside Bangkok and flown in, fresh, every week.
Paul sources much of his other produce from Irish food producers. "All our beef, chicken, duck and fish are from excellent Irish suppliers," he says proudly.
But running a restaurant in the capital city is not without its fair share of challenges.
"Rates are a massive challenge," he tells me.
"Since our rates were revalued in 2013, they have gone up more than 145 per cent. And that is on top of water rates, bin charges and a raft of other charges," he adds.
He is praying that the Government doesn't raise the VAT level on food, from its current 9 per cent figure, in the upcoming Budget.
"It would have a serious impact on jobs and on the sector as a whole," he stresses.
How has the recession affected him, I ask.
"People don't have the same disposable income that they once had. For a period, some even felt that it was somehow wrong to be seen eating out," he says. "In addition, every time there were job cuts or a negative announcement in the media, you could instantly see the impact on our turnover."
The reaction of many in the restaurant industry was to reduce prices, thus creating what Paul calls "a race to the bottom".
"Cash flows really suffered as a result and, sadly, many were forced to close," he says.
He too reacted by offering deals and incentives such as an express two-course lunch for €13.95. Because he was determined to retain his high level of quality and service, he began to come up with innovative ideas such as holding a lobster festival and other "festival feeds" where he offered discounted prices to those attending shows or theatre nights out.
In line with traditions in Thailand and Vietnam, the restaurant celebrates Thai New Year, the King of Thailand's birthday, the Vietnamese New Year and the Moon Cake Festival.
He is proud, too, to see how many Thai and Vietnamese workers from other restaurants come to eat in Saba. The Vietnamese ambassador has dined in Saba, as has Thailand's ambassador.
Paul is heavily active as a director of Dublin City Business Improvement District, has served on the Board of Dublin Tourism and is a former President of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
"We all have to work together to promote our businesses and the city," he insists.
"We have some of the best restaurants and pubs in the world," explains Paul. "And there has never been a better time to eat out in Dublin, with greater choice and value on offer than ever before."
Paul is clear that his staff are key to the success of the business.
"They are what makes the place special," he tells me.
It's no wonder that the restaurant has won numerous awards this year – including Best Customer Service in Dublin, and Best Casual Dining Restaurant in Dublin and Ireland.
In 2011, motivated by the desire to share some of their traditional Thai and Vietnamese recipes, Paul and Tao decided to create Saba: The Cook Book.
The beautifully produced Cook Book went on to receive rave reviews both in Ireland and internationally – even winning Best Asian Cook Book in the World, at the Gourmand Awards in Paris. Importantly, it has so far raised more than €13,000 for Crumlin Hospital and the Thai Red Cross.
What about the future, I ask him.
"While the last few years in business have definitely been about consolidation, we are now looking at new opportunities," Paul explains excitedly.
He is considering opening new restaurants that might have an even more casual feel. However, he does not see himself going down the franchise route and plans, instead, to grow the business organically.
Although more competitive now than when he started Saba-To-Go, he sees significant potential to grow the home delivery and takeaway side of the business.
As we wrap up our meeting, the restaurant begins to fill with a mix of workers popping in for lunch and tourists who have discovered the place.
Paul Cadden is a positive, warm and charming man who obviously enjoys what he does. He loves coming to work every day. Sometimes he will just stand for a while and soak up the atmosphere; the clinking of the cutlery and glasses, the beat of the music and the sound of laughter from customer enjoying themselves.
"This has become more than just a restaurant for me," explains Paul. "It has become a family."
Together with his dedicated team of chefs and support staff, Paul has now achieved his dream. And he has new ones too, to chase.
For now, at least, he can be proud that his restaurant, Saba, has most certainly become a happy meeting place.