Asia Market is one of the most innovative shops in Dublin, and Eva Pau explains how she has built on her family’s brilliant idea
It is never easy to judge demand when a business idea is first put to the test.
So Eva Pau, commercial director at her family business Asia Market, was pleasantly surprised when interest in an event at the food company’s Ballymount shop to mark the Chinese New Year in February defied all expectations.
An outdoor night market with lots of stalls was organised, filled with lanterns to mirror the atmosphere of typical Chinese celebrations.
“Then thousands of people turned up and all my staff were literally trying to control the traffic,” says Pau, who was recently named Image/PwC Businesswoman of the Year 2022. Her friends joked that she had almost caused a traffic jam on the M50.
It was a far cry from the experience of her parents, who along with Pau’s uncle, spotted an opportunity 41 years ago to bring Chinese and Asian food to Ireland. Over the years, it has become a retailer and major supplier to restaurants across the country, achieving revenues of €56m in the 18 months to July 2020, according to documents in the Companies Office.
Back in the early 1980s, her uncle, judging the UK to be too saturated with Chinese food, came to Ireland to set up a Chinese takeaway in Rathfarnham, south Dublin. But getting ingredients was an issue.
“He was driving once a week or twice to places in the UK to bring back ingredients. I guess that’s when the idea for Asia Market came about.”
At that time, Pau’s father, who is originally from Canton, was based in England where he worked as a civil engineer with BT. He and Pau’s mother, who is from Hong Kong, were eager for new opportunities – and after having decided to try the Irish market, they settled on a shop on Dublin’s Drury Street, not far from where the Asia Market shop is now.
“They decided to set up the store, and as a lot of it was delivery based, dad was delivering to all over Ireland. Mum was front of house in the store.”
In the early years, the customers were mainly Chinese – but as the years went by and international travel broadened local tastes, more Irish customers came calling. Though Pau still remembers the risk her father felt, bringing in the first small batch of coconut milk – unsure if it would sell before going out of date.
Drury Street and the shop were an integral part of Pau’s childhood. An only child, she was born shortly after the shop first opened.
“I remember that when I was really young I didn’t have a childminder. Instead I was with mum and dad all the time – and they worked seven days a week.
“Mum was the cashier and I had a little space below the cash register for myself, like my little playpen. But I was also playing on the street quite a bit as well.
“At that time, I remember Drury Street was all fashion wholesalers on one side. And at the weekends we were open, but they weren’t – so it was really quiet.”
As a child she travelled with her parents to meet suppliers, as her parents opened up import routes for a range of Asian goods.
“At a young age I was already exposed to dad’s friends in Asia who supplied us with goods.”
As she got older, her mother made sure she was busy, with Pau taking on several extra-curricular classes, including Chinese, Irish, violin, and piano – though Pau is quick to point out that her mother was not the clichéd ‘tiger mother’, and did not pile on the pressure.
Despite being immersed in the family business, Pau did not plan a career with the company. At Trinity College she studied IT, and remembers few if any other Asian students on campus. She then did a master’s in information technology management and organisational change at Lancaster University in England.
Her parents had always encouraged her to travel and see what the world had to offer. Pau was naturally pulled towards Hong Kong, where her grandmother still lived.
“My idea of Hong Kong was that it would be very fast-paced, and so different to Ireland, very cosmopolitan.
“Also, I loved the skyline in Hong Kong. When you see it, you fall in love with it.
“I decided to stay and try living there. I remember dad giving me advice... well, actually he kind of scared me a bit, because he was like, ‘Don’t have a gap on your CV, or else you’re not going to get a job.’”
So on arriving in Hong Kong, she started working in Rabobank without delay. She then moved to FedEx for a short time, before joining RBS, where she advised high net-worth individuals on buying UK properties.
But as the years ticked by, she began to feel it was time to move back to Ireland.
“Hong Kong is very transient. I was always meeting new people, every single day. But it was very hard to keep the same group of friends. It made me think maybe I should go back home.
“I was thinking I could set up my own business, but I didn’t really have much business experience at that time. So I decided the best thing would be to learn from my parents.”
Her parents were surprised but delighted by the decision, believing that having grown up in Ireland, Eva would bring a new understanding of opportunities in the Irish market.
One of her first initiatives in 2009 was to bring Asia Market’s products – covering Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean flavours – to local shops, not just speciality stores.
“I’d meet up with a lot of the local supermarkets and then introduce Chinese products to them – just a small range at first.”
One of her main initiatives was marketing and developing the brand. “At that time, our Ballymount shop had a sign – blue with gold letters on it – and in Drury Street it was white with silver letters.”
Her parents discreetly gave her plenty of space, with her father travelling more to Asia and her mother basing herself in Ballymount as Pau modernised the city-centre store, re-organising stock and bringing in homeware and other new concepts.
“The thing I realised was I shouldn’t have been afraid of working with my parents, because they were the ones who were eager to teach me.
“Along the way there were decisions I needed to make, and I would talk to them about the business plans, saying, ‘I’m thinking of doing this, what do you think?’ They were all really helpful, which I think in the real world you don’t really get, because people are more competitive.”
Among her other ideas was the launch of the restaurant Duck on Fade Street, just around the corner.
“At that time, dad had a friend who was a roast meat master – but he was just in the shop, stacking shelves. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we utilise him and set up something for him?’”
The restaurant trade has been a learning curve for Pau, with the business being notorious for its tight margins. Her approach is to keep menus simple and food to a high standard.
She will take what she has learned in Duck to new projects. For example, she has ambitions to make the Ballymount store a destination shop, with a food offering. It initially started as a cash-and-carry outlet, before moving into retail.
“I want to grow it, adding more food and more cultural stuff. The next progression is to have a food offering there where families can relax and have some authentic Asian food.”
Meanwhile, she has plans to turn the Drury Street basement into a restaurant, serving dim sum and tea.
Pau is glad to be thinking of the future after some difficult years. The
Covid lockdowns, she says, were “really, really traumatic”.
“Usually our loading bay is full of palettes with stock, and it was just reduced down to one palette with a few boxes. It was a really dramatic drop, but we’ve started to grow it back.
“Luckily a lot of our customers were takeaways [where business increased during the lockdowns]. Then some restaurants moved to become takeaways as well. We had that avenue and we managed to keep going.”
Brexit was a massive challenge for the business too, as a large proportion of its stock came through the UK.
“Brexit had a huge toll,” says Pau. “We were bringing in quite a few retail products from England. That had to all stop, and it made a huge difference to the in-store experience, because we had to de-list a few of the ranges we had.
“There was a huge hole that we had to slowly fill back up. But then the products from Europe are not always labelled in English. So, we needed to look at labelling – and that was a piece of work in itself.”
The company has found new suppliers, while British exporters have also got customs paperwork in order, meaning that any issues are now largely resolved. However, supply-chain problems are a new and complex challenge for Pau.
“For instance, we would bring in chips from Belgium – and the Belgian supplier, because of the Ukraine and Russia war, is unable to get the oil they fry the chips in. That was a soya bean oil.
“So then they needed to switch to another oil, to palm oil – and because now everybody is looking for palm oil, prices have shot up.
“It’s all about balancing things and navigating change. But some issues seem to be more long-term than I would have first thought. We’re constantly battling that. And shipping costs have gone up too.”
It seems food is only going to become more expensive, but Pau says the demand remains strong, regardless of price.
“The range is already there, and customers expect certain products – so there’s no going back to making excuses like, ‘Sorry I don’t have those, I only have these.’
“We just have to keep going – and that’s going to be the challenge for everyone for the next few years.”
Name: Eva Pau
Position: Commercial director at Asia Market
Lives: Terenure, Dublin
Education: Information and communications technology at Trinity College Dublin, and a Master’s in information technology management and organisational change from Lancaster University
Experience: Roles at FedEx, Rabobank and RBS
Family: Married to Tom Maxwell (director of operations at Asia Market); son George (5) and daughter Camilla (16 months)
Pastimes: “My piano, baking and cycling.”
Favourite TV series: “I thought The Dropout was very cool and I like Masterchef too.”
Favourite book: “I’m a compulsive reader of cookbooks. I’m really liking Andrew Wong’s cookbook, he’s a chef from London.”
What advice would you have to someone considering entering a family business?
"Parents just want to show you everything they know – so it’s the best place to learn, it really is. Working with my family is the best decision I’ve made, and I actually wish I had made it earlier.”
You weren’t sure what you wanted to do when you finished college. What advice would you have for people trying to make a decision about their career?
“I’d grab all the opportunities that come up, but also try and put yourself into new opportunities. The main thing is to find something that you really enjoy doing, because then it doesn’t seem like work.”