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.
Critically, more than 90 percent of all growth in suburbia over the past decade came from groups other than white non-Hispanics. In California, the trend is even stronger, with Latinos and Asians dominating growth in suburbs and exurbs. New restaurants generally follow where immigrants and ethnic minorities congregate, as happened in the last century in places like New York’s Lower East Side and Little Italy, East Los Angeles, and Chicago’s Greek Town. Today, in California and other car-dominated places, suburban strip malls like the one that Nok’s Kitchen occupies serve as magnets for innovation.
Many urban planners and new urbanists dislike mini-malls, but to a new generation of food entrepreneurs, the malls’ easy parking and generally lower costs make them what Houston architect Tim Cisneros calls “the immigrant’s friend.” As ethnic minorities have moved to the urban periphery, places once known primarily for their hamburger stands and chain stores have instead become homes for ethnic food. The city with the most authentic Mexican restaurants per capita, for example, is Humble, Texas, a diverse outer suburb of almost 17,000, north of sprawling Houston.
If you want to see shifts in the restaurant culture, look to places like Southern California’s Orange County and the Inland Empire. Orange County, once home of generally bland WASP food and standard taco restaurants, last year won 31 Michelin designations, offering everything from sushi joints to inventive new Mexican places, as well as a host of European and fusion spots.
Kwini Reed and her husband, Michael, a culinary school graduate, started a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that had done well. But they saw that the pandemic was driving customers out of the central city. So in 2021, they opened their eclectic new restaurant, Poppy & Seed, on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) in Anaheim’s successful Packing District, which almost entirely features locally owned restaurants. “In the pandemic, people moved out of the city and headed to the suburbs,” Reed, who has relocated her family to Orange County, explains. “People aren’t headed downtown but they are dawdling closer to home. It’s creating something new.”
For businesses on the urban fringe, the pandemic proved an entrepreneurial opportunity. As demographer Wendell Cox notes, offices there have recovered capacity far faster than in the largest urban cores. Rising crime in inner cities has made the situation even more difficult.
One California startup taking advantage of the changes is EastBrew Café, a family-owned coffeehouse that opened in a large outdoor mall in Eastvale, a diverse new community of about 70,000 in the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles. The café opened at a seemingly inauspicious time for restaurants: January 2020. But as the pandemic struck, the café suddenly found its business booming, as many people began to work from home. With its inside spaces closed, EastBrew built a to-go business and opened an outside patio, a feasible option most of the time, given the region’s gentle climate.
Now that indoor dining has returned, the café, which serves breakfast and lunch, is crowded with customers and remains one of the few locally owned businesses at the mall. EastBrew participates in art walks and community food drives. This kind of engaged business, notes co-owner Leticia Davila, appeals to people who want good food and coffee in a neighborhood where they can afford to live and buy homes. “People wanted something different, something locally owned,” she recalls. “This is an opportunity for our kind of business. People want something else that was never available here.”
“This is not suburbanization but localization,” argues Shaheen Sadeghi, the visionary developer of the Packing District and numerous “anti-mall” complexes—essentially open-air shopping areas with local businesses—throughout Southern California. “Suburbia is no longer bland,” he notes. “Orange County is local like New York and L.A. are local.” Doing business locally, appealing to a diverse, dispersed customer base with social media and word of mouth, and utilizing app-based delivery, Sadeghi says, have allowed small culinary startups to compete with larger chains.
Like Nok’s Kitchen, many of the most successful new food businesses started at home or in food trucks. Sarah Lezama, 33, started Rye Goods, which specializes in breads made with rye flour from central California and Camas, Washington, in her garage in 2016. “Once we got out there, the orders came,” the slight, tattooed Lezama recalls. “We did not expect the response to be so strong.”
Lezama started baking before she was tall enough to reach the top of her mother’s oven and perfected the art at culinary school. When lockdowns came, she recalls, people wanted something new that they could consume at home. “The pandemic brought people closer together and [made them] more open to new things,” she says. “It was a great time to figure out the business models of the future.”
In June 2021, when the pandemic was easing, she opened her first bakery, in Newport Beach. On weekends, customers lined up outside the store, waiting to get in. Lezama relies heavily on social media rather than traditional advertising to get the word out. She recently opened a new bakery in Tustin, just northwest of Irvine, and another will open soon in Laguna Beach. She now employs 26 people, and has become a supplier for several local restaurants.
Brian Kim, former chef at the Nobu branch in Newport Beach, saw his career crash as the pandemic began, but he soon recovered. Rather than collect stimulus checks, he started a high-quality, online sushi-delivery service called ShariNori by Chef Han. Using the skills that he had developed working as a sous-chef since age 15, Kim launched operations in a tiny kitchen within the popular and eclectic Fourth Street Market in Santa Ana’s downtown, a gritty, largely immigrant area. By June 2020, Kim was delivering sushi across Orange County, making it possible to hire eight people, many of them former colleagues from Nobu. “My dad used to say, if you want to make the career that you chose work, you have to be flexible and have passion,” says Kim, now 37.
In the pandemic, with so many sushi spots having closed, providing quality sushi for online customers turned out to be a bonanza. Having established his niche, Kim wants to expand his offerings to pickled vegetables and plans to open a stall for dried fish, both popular dishes among Koreans and other Asians. He is also considering a new brick-and-mortar place.
“A lot of people gave up during the pandemic, but that’s when I started,” he recalls at his expanded facility, which now employs a dozen. “I did the exact opposite. We jumped in when things were bad, but that’s when the opportunities arise. You can make it through tough times, but you can’t be a copycat.”
Restaurants have been a major field of endeavor for immigrants and minorities. Nationally, minorities represent 30 percent of all business owners, but they account for 41 percent of restaurant owners. Asians, for instance, own 19 percent of restaurants, compared with 8 percent of all small businesses. These trends are even more pronounced in California, where minorities own roughly 60 percent of all restaurants, with Asians owning more than one-third and Hispanics nearly a quarter.
These proportions are not so surprising, considering that a 2012 Census Bureau American Community Survey found that “60 percent of California restaurants are owned by people of color.” Many have grown up in or around the industry. Luis Miramontes and his sister Yvette came of age working in the family market in Norco, 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Their Jalisco-born parents (their father was a butcher) started catering events and taught the two how to cook and deliver food and how to treat customers.
“Everyone thought we should open a restaurant, since we knew the business from the inside,” Luis recalls. They opened their first, Tacos al Fuego, in a mixed-use mall in Corona, 26 miles from Irvine, in July 2020. Beginning during the lockdowns, they were initially restricted to outdoor dining and deliveries. Procuring supplies for gourmet tacos, which are slow-cooked and heavily flavored with spices, was a challenge as supply chains collapsed. Fortunately, the Miramonteses already had relationships with local dairies for their cheese. At one point, they had to drive to a farm in central California because their bean supplies had run out—a major disruption for a Mexican food business.
Now that full-service business has returned, the restaurant has expanded and is thriving, with 22 employees. Decorated in a mixture of Mexican and New Age motifs, it’s still a family operation: Yvette runs the restaurant, Luis runs the kitchen, and their mother, Teresa, serves as the “teacher.” They make everything from scratch and even butcher their own meat. But it’s the food, different from run-of-the-mill Mexican cuisine, that makes the difference. “It’s all about the ingredients and being original,” Luis notes. “It’s a mentality that we learned at home.”
In California’s fierce ethnic-food economy, differentiation is the key to avoiding what researchers Ivan Light and Steven Gold have identified as “cannibalistic competition.” Chato’s Bar and Grill, a funky bar and eatery, is located in Santa Ana, where more than 75 percent of the city’s roughly 300,000 people are Latino. The city serves as ground zero for Mexican food in Orange County; it’s home to hundreds of Mexican restaurants, ranging from chains to tiny taco joints to elegant dining establishments.
Aaron Amrine, one of the founders of Chato’s, grew up in Santa Ana but is half-Laotian and half-white. Like many of his friends, he worked in restaurants ranging from fine dining to pizza places, learning Spanish along the way. He helped get Chato’s started with profits from his real-estate company, which thrived during California’s most recent housing boom.
The business began as a taco cart in February 2020 and opened as a restaurant in the winter of 2021. Now a flourishing enterprise, it perhaps provides a glimpse of a future shaped largely by young Hispanic patrons—successful people who come to drink high-quality tequila and sample innovative dishes prepared by chef Sergio Ortega, a native of Michoacán. Chato’s is part of a new wave of Mexican restaurants that serve a largely second-generation customer base but also increasingly cater to Californians of different ethnicities, including the occasional untattooed baby boomer.
Amrine and his partners are expanding at a new location in the college community of Isla Vista, near UC–Santa Barbara. “You start these businesses by knowing the market,” he says. “The fact is, people who immigrate are more willing to work hard. I have worked three jobs to get this going. You have to know the business from the inside, and we have done [it] that way.”
The resurgence of new restaurants shows that, against all odds, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive in California. True, restaurants enjoy the advantage of not having to compete, as do manufacturing or business-service firms, with rivals in other states; they need only serve local residents and tourists. By spring of 2021, as the state was recovering from the worst of the lockdowns, nearly two-thirds of California’s job growth came in the leisure and hospitality businesses; the state projected that the food service industry would be adding 400,000 jobs in 2022.
Yet, even as they plan and dream, Golden State restaurateurs are threatened by ever-increasing regulation. Rather than encourage the rise of new food establishments, the progressive Left, particularly its unions, has sought to demonize the restaurant industry: University of California labor activists call for “Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants,” referring to the preponderance of minorities, particularly Latino and Asian immigrants, at the low end of the restaurant workforce—dishwashers and cleaners. Cowed by labor, the California legislature recently passed, and Governor Gavin Newsom signed, AB 257, a measure that essentially forces franchise owners to submit to a state board for wage rates and labor rules, granting control of their businesses to a union-dominated body.
Giant firms and owners of hundreds of restaurants will doubtless have an easier time finding ways to pay up. But the legislation also applies to those who franchise from a company with more than 30 stores nationally. The law is expected to raise wages to $22 an hour from the current $15, forcing many businesses either to close or to automate many jobs, as has already been happening where regulated wage rates have risen. Hoping to get the law repealed, the franchise industry is working to put a ballot measure before voters in 2024.
“All the labor regulation is a big problem for startups,” notes Sadeghi. A lifelong Democrat, he worries that the legislation is a desperate attempt to return to the industrial era, when the labor force was highly unionized and work conditions were sharply monitored. Successful small businesses today require flexibility and cannot adjust as easily as larger firms to dramatic wage hikes and other government mandates.
The state government in Sacramento is looking at other ways to regulate restaurateurs besides wages. The state’s headlong drive to achieve net zero carbon emissions makes cooking harder by forcing new restaurants to use electricity—an energy source that does not work for cooking most Asian foods or for searing meats. Not surprisingly, both the California Restaurant Association and ethnic business organizations oppose the policy.
The Left’s assault on franchises threatens the places where today’s restaurant entrepreneurs learned their trade. Carlos Perez, 32, who opened his Boil and Bake café in a Costa Mesa strip mall in 2022, worked for his father, a native Guatemalan and former manager at Winchell’s Donut House. Saving his money, Perez’s father and a partner bought the Shirley’s Bagels chain. “My father taught me how to do this,” he suggests. “I learned the food culture at Shirley’s”—just as his father had learned it at Winchell’s.
For now, Boil and Bake operates from just a single location, but it makes what are—to this native New Yorker’s taste—the best bagels in Orange County. Perez boils them the traditional way, but his offerings include much more in the way of vegetables, spices, and even things like kimchi. It’s a “California deli,” he explains, one with a strong social-media presence and a focus on constant change. If quality alone determines the outcome, then Perez could become the unlikely bagel king of Orange County.
Despite Sacramento’s determination to make life hard for those driving the state’s entrepreneurial revival, the California dream lives on in the spirit of its people. As long as that spirit prevails, there’s still hope that the Golden State will make a comeback.
Top Photo: Chato’s Bar and Grill, in Santa Ana (Photograph by Becky Sapp)