Nokmaniphone Sayavong started her business, Nok’s Kitchen, during the worst of times—the Covid pandemic—and in a state that often treats small businesses with the delicacy of a cat torturing a mouse. Yet she has found a way to thrive. Her minor miracle, located in a strip mall at the edge of Westminster, California’s Little Saigon, epitomizes the durability of the California dream, which is nowhere more alive than in the state’s innovative food culture.
Like many successful Golden State entrepreneurs, Sayavong rose from obscurity. After arriving in 2016 from the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Nok, as she is known by family and friends, studied computer science for two years at the University of California–Irvine. But Nok, 36, had also learned to cook for her younger siblings and, later, for her husband, Billie, 39, an American citizen and computer consultant.
Billie, brought up in California but of Laotian descent, loved the sausages of his ancestral home, pungent with lemongrass and garlic and made with pork shoulders, but he couldn’t buy them, even in the heavily Asian parts of north Orange County. Nok learned to make them at home. Then, amid the Covid lockdowns, Nok had a brainstorm. If her husband yearned for a taste of home, so might the estimated 12,000 Laotians residing in Los Angeles and San Diego. (California accounts for half of the nation’s ten largest Laotian population centers.)
“Covid came, and people were eating at home,” she recalls. “We were afraid but decided to start making sausages for sale.” At first, word of mouth within the Laotian community drove business their way, and she posted her sausage-making services online, taking advantage of new laws allowing such kitchen-based enterprises. Then her business exploded, as she sold at farmers’ markets and local fairs in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties.
Nok grew her business by reaching out to other Asians. Ninety-five percent of her customers were Vietnamese, who number more than 400,000 in Southern California alone, by far the biggest concentration in the U.S. (With big Vietnamese concentrations in San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento, as well, California accounts for more than one-third of the Vietnamese population nationwide.) By May 2022, business was so good that she and Billie decided to take the plunge, starting her restaurant as the lockdowns came to an end.
But opening in Westminster, she hopes, represents just a start. “We plan to open a factory,” she told me. “We plan to expand to all the Asian markets and open up a Laotian barbecue place, as well. I see expanding to San Francisco, New York, and Hawaii. We have found a new niche that no one was doing. This is just the beginning of bigger things.”
California may be best known for its innovations in computers and entertainment, but it has long been on the leading edge of food trends. The epicenter of the farmers’ market and organic food industries, the state produces 40 percent of America’s organic food. Many ethnic culinary trends, from Mexican to Korean barbecue to sushi, spread to the rest of the U.S. from California, which also incubated popular chains like McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Cheesecake Factory, Marie Callender’s, and Taco Bell. George Geary, a chef and food writer in Southern California, told the New York Times: “Everyone looks at California for trendsetting in a lot of ways. If it makes it here, it’ll make it anywhere.”
Two constants of California’s food culture are the automobile—parking and fast service are key—and a high-performance delivery economy. The state is home to the largest online delivery companies: Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Postmates. This extension of car culture has further established a food culture in suburbia and the exurbs, where people continue to relocate. Between 2010 and 2020, the suburbs and exurbs of the major metropolitan areas gained 2 million net residents, while the urban core counties lost 2.7 million. Since 2015, large metropolitan areas have been losing residents to smaller cities and, by 2022, to more rural areas as well.
Read the rest of this piece at City Journal.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
Photo: Nok’s Kitchen (Photograph by Becky Sapp)