SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A few short years ago, Indochine owner Solange “Niki” Thompson was going on two decades of running only one successful Thai and Vietnamese restaurant in Wilmington. By this summer, she will have grown her portfolio by four restaurants, with a fifth on the way.
Her satellite version of the popular eatery, Indochine Express, was a concept born out of the pandemic. Thompson said the timing to grow the brand felt right since diners were focused on takeout. She opened the first express in Monkey Junction, and four months later a newly branded restaurant, Cafe Chinois, popped up in the former Southern Thai (she also kept its staff) in the Pine Valley area.
On Thursday, she will launch her second Indochine Express in Southport and by mid-July Leland will have its own as well, Thompson confirmed.
“I’ve always liked Southport. It’s a quaint little town, one of my favorites,” she said. “And Leland is upcoming, growing, and a perfect place to open another express.”
By the time all the eateries are operational, Thompson will employ 250 people. The restaurant group — including daughter and manager Marie Bartsch and director of operations Kathy Long — has been working to get Southport open since January.
“It will be just like Monkey Junction,” Thompson said, “same menu, same look.”
Options include a dozen soups, salads and appetizers, as well as a truncated selection of chef specialties, including curries, Pad Thai, fried rice, plus a handful of sweets. Prices range from $4.99 to $17.99 with lunch specials starting at $9.95.
Recipes are culled from Thompson’s family and friends. The restaurateur has perfected her version of homestyle soul food in 40-plus years in southeastern North Carolina’s dining scene.
Her first foray goes back to the ‘80s when Thompson moved to the U.S. from Vietnam. In her 20s, she was newly married to her husband, a commander of the Ft. Fisher Air Force Station before it closed in 1988. Upon moving, she missed the Asian fusion flavors of home — her father was French and her mother Vietnamese.
With only Chinese takeout prominent in the area, Thompson began toying with family recipes and those she learned in Vietnamese cookbooks ahead of opening her first restaurant, Egg Roll Factory, in nearby Carolina Beach. She eventually expanded into Wrightsville as well.
Thompson also operated The Blue Dragon in downtown Wilmington before opening the sprawling Indochine campus in 2000. Today, the indoor-outdoor compound offers multiple dining areas in the 1960s building off Market Street, with cabanas outdoors surrounded by a koi pond and lush foliage. It remains one of the area’s most popular destinations and usually goes on a wait nightly as soon as doors open.
The express versions are designed mainly for takeout. At around 1,500 square feet, there’s enough space for 40 diners to eat inside. Southport will have full ABC permitting, while Leland will only offer beer and wine.
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Delivery is a part of the business model as well, and Thompson has her own fleet of drivers to take the food to customers within an 8-mile radius of each express. There aren’t hidden fees as with many third-party food delivery apps; Indochine Express has a flat $5 delivery charge.
“And whatever you want to tip the driver,” Thompson added.
One point she assures is customers get the same quality of food from Indochine Express as the flagship restaurant on Wayne Drive.
“Though it’s to-go, it’s not fast food,” she said. “It’s a mini Indochine. It has to be food with art.”
Visually, diners are treated to various paintings and sculptures, artifacts and antiques from Thompson’s private collection, which adorn the walls and design the space of all her restaurants. She has taken a modern approach to the express: bright colors, hand-painted accents, wood carvings, and one-of-a-kind wallpaper.
Southport’s Indochine Express will be located at 1131 N. Atlantic Ave. in the former Siam Thai Bistro. The Leland eatery will take the spot of the former Charlie Graingers restaurant in the Walmart Shopping Center.
As far as where the next expansion will be, Thompson said “somewhere in North Carolina.” The restaurateur isn’t looking into franchising Chinois, but Indochine Express has proven to be substantial in its growth. Therefore, Thompson isn’t limiting her options only to the greater Wilmington area; she sees opportunities for opening in other markets in the state.
“I don’t want to be like Panda Express with thousands of stores,” Thompson clarified. “I love North Carolina and I see a need for a good concept like mine.”
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