WILMINGTON — After 20 years of running one of the region’s most celebrated and successful restaurants (it accumulated Best Of awards in multiple categories, every year for two decades, and has a packed parking lot daily by 5 p.m.), Indochine has branched out to a second location. Indochine Express is a stand-alone, takeout-centric restaurant now open in Monkey Junction.
Much to the delight of the restaurant’s thousands of fans, Solange Thompson isn’t done yet. She already has plans underway for more ventures.
More businesswoman than chef, Thompson’s imprint on the Wilmington restaurant industry is an undeniable force. How, so close to retirement, after two decades in business, has Thompson motivated to expand during one of the worst economic spats in years?
“Vitamins,” she said.
Making Wilmington a home
Thompson moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was 22 years old. She joined her husband in Wilmington, who served as the last commander of the Ft. Fisher Air Force Station before it closed in 1988.
“Everything was La Choy soy sauce, La Choy water chestnut, La Choy bamboo shoot and rice from Uncle Ben,” she said of the Asian food scene at the time. While at the grocery store, she would always try to convince her husband to stock up on rice, before finally adjusting to the idea that the U.S. didn’t have a rice shortage.
“So I finally got used to the idea that it was safe,” she said, referencing rice on the shelves. “I was always in fear of the bombing and the sleeping and the … you don’t know whether you’re going to live or die.”
Growing up in the midst of the Vietnam War, Thompson’s memories are still vivid. She recalls going to sleep every night wearing a necklace with her name, address, birth certificate, and a $20 U.S. bill in case she was displaced during a bombing. Some nights, her mother instructed Thompson and her siblings to sleep underneath the bed for safety.
Police would raid homes nightly, searching for pro-communists. “It didn’t matter whether you were 12 years old or 15 or 35,” she said.
When she arrived in Wilmington, she had a hard time sleeping because it was too quiet — she couldn’t hear bombs or shotguns firing in the distance.
“When he brought me here, I was culture shocked,” she said.
There was no Asian grocery store. It was late fall and gloomy. She wasn’t happy. She had to wait on her husband to come home from work to go anywhere — she didn’t have a driver’s license. She credits getting her license as marking a major shift in her independence and confidence.
“I came home, I showed my husband the card, I said, ‘Freedom!’ And I was never the same after that,” she said. “Before that, I was meek, quiet — the typical Asian wife. After that, that was the end. Freedom at last.”
With her license in hand, Thompson took her mother and three young children everywhere. She found Cuisinart tools in the Cotton Exchange and taught herself how to cook using Vietnamese and Chinese cooking books.
“I had never cooked in my life,” she admitted.
She opened her first restaurant, Egg Roll Factory, on Lake Park Boulevard in Carolina Beach in the ’80s.
“I think I was too ahead of my time for Carolina Beach,” she said.
Her next restaurant, another Egg Roll Factory, was in Wrightsville Beach in an old wood building that’s now a parking lot next Sweetwater Surf Shop. It had to be torn down because it was in a fire zone.
Then she tried her hand at antiquing with The Blue Dragon in downtown Wilmington, next to the old Caffe Pheonix. It wasn’t until 2000 that Thompson found the sprawling building off Market Street that’s now home to Indochine today. Since opening, she has built an oasis, with tiki huts in the back, designed to accommodate squirmy kids or private parties. Every corner of the restaurant is infused with elegance (even the bathrooms).
The location was jinxed, she was told. It had cycled quickly through 10 other spots before she arrived. But Thompson was set on filling a void. Among a desolate landscape of Chinese buffets and La Choy products, Wilmington needed an upscale Asian eatery.
“I had this vision of what I was going to do with a restaurant,” she said.
Crediting her loyal employees and customers, Thompson — who visits Vietnam annually — has settled comfortably into Wilmington. “I still call this home even though I was not born here,” she said.
‘Customer is the king’
With a French father and Vietnamese mother from Huế, Thompson’s recipes are a “hodgepodge” of her upbringing and travels.
After 20 years, the menu has barely budged. “My customers are such creatures of habit that every time I change or I take one thing off then I have people calling me and fussing, ‘I want my dish back,'” she said. On a weekly basis, customers call her cell phone (she has no clue how they get her number) to reserve a table or ask if they’re open.
Indochine Express features a pared-down version of the full Indochine menu, including the restaurant’s must-haves. For favorites that didn’t make the cut, say, the Ayuda Eggplant or Quan Yin Delight, Thompson said her staff will make exceptions upon request. “We will make it for them. We never say no to a customer,” she said. “My motto is the customer is the king.”
Though she runs arguably the city’s most beloved local restaurant, Thompson said she never really had time to reflect on success. Years kept flying by, and something always needed tending to. Failure wasn’t something she thought much about, either.
“I was fearless,” Thompson said. “I think it was my mother’s spirit that gave me that strength and determination to move forward. In any endeavor that I decide to do, to do it well.”
Thompson’s basic philosophy toward business and life can be boiled down to a basic skill: “What I realized that I received from my mother was the art of negotiation. My mother did not give me money or anything. But she told me how to be kind to people and deal with people in a nice, honest way. So the only thing I can say to anyone is if you give your children the art of negotiation, they can go anywhere. No money in their hand, they will survive. And they will make it and become successful.”
Even more simply, Thompson said she always attacks the problem — not the person.
Longtime Indochine general manager Kathy Long, who’s stuck with Thompson since the Blue Dragon days, caught on to the vision early on. “She is well before her time — well before her time as a businesswoman,” Long said. “It’s tremendous what she’s accomplished.”
Thompson is working with an attorney to arrange a system she envisions for her current and future Indochine Express locations. She wants to let her most faithful employees buy shares in the restaurants.
“I want this thing to continue as my legacy, but for people who have worked for me that need to take care of their family. It’s not about the money, it’s more about the responsibility,” she said.
Once she’s fine-tuned her more recent ventures, Thompson said she’ll finally retire, go on vacation, and hand off the restaurant to her daughter, Marie Bartsch.
“Indochine, I think, is a very happy place; I put my passion in there and I put my heart in there,” Thompson said. “And then my customers still, now, every day when they see me, they thank me for making such a nice place for them. So it means a lot to me after 20 years.”
Indochine Express is now open at 5120 South College Rd, Unit 108 Wilmington, NC 28412.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org