More Than Just a Restaurant

We met 26-year-old Vansana Nolintha, owner of Bida Manda in an earlier post. Now, he talks to us about his Laotian restaurant, including how created a destination restaurant filled with culture, food and community.

Did you always want to start a business? No. I went to N.C. State for chemistry, and I studied design. After that I went to Europe and got a Master’s degree, so, academically, it wasn’t what I planned. I’ve traveled a ton – to over 30 countries – so I never thought I would settle down in one place.  But after I finished at Trinity College, I came back to Raleigh and knew it was a place I wanted to settle down. And now I think there is something wonderful in immersing yourself in a community.

I knew I wanted to do something with people, my Laotian past, and my academic history. Those three elements were the heart of my studies. And it just happened that Bida Manda is the manifestation of all of that. I get to be with people on an everyday basis; I enjoy hosting and telling my stories.

I would be lying if I said opening a restaurant wasn’t a part of the plan… it just wasn’t part of the plan now. The family that my sister and I lived with in Greensboro had restaurants. So I was working in restaurants and hospitality – it has always been a part of my life. In Laos, my parents had a guest house where they were constantly hosting people and having people drop by. I always thought when I was older, like 40 or 50, that I would open a restaurant or do something with culture and food. But if I didn’t do it now, Bida Manda would always be a dream. When the idea started, people jumped on it and started nurturing it until this place came to be. It truly has become a community effort; every single element is hand-crafted.

There’re very few things that can connect people on an intimate level very quickly, and I think food is one of them. One of my favorite things is watching people’s faces when they have Laotian food for the first time. Seeing their discovery is something that keeps me going every day. Bida Manda has become that for people, where they discover something new – whether it’s a new culture or taste. And we want Bida Manda to always be that for people.

Do you/did you have other ideas of businesses you want/wanted to start or that you think someone else should start? Any that you’d be willing to share? I think the food truck industry needs to grow in Raleigh. I think downtown, especially, is on the edge of becoming one of the best downtowns in the country. One of its limitations is the food truck industry. It’s not something I would do, but I think someone should. It brings such a diverse community to downtown. Food trucks enable young entrepreneurs to take what they believe in and run with it. It’s not as intimidating as running a restaurant.

What’s the best thing about owning a business? That you are responsible for your own success and failure – you really can craft your life. Working for yourself allows you to be very intentional about the choices you make. I think it’s not new to me because I’m a designer, but when you stand in front of a design and fully hold yourself accountable to the final product, you are accountable. Owning a business is the same in the sense that you are responsible. There’s something empowering about that.

Any failure or hardship that you’d be willing to share? We did not anticipate to be so busy so early. Therefore, we did not put the infrastructure in place to handle that kind of traffic. So the first couple of weeks were very, very challenging. We were understaffed and under-prepared management-wise. But we have the best team, and everyone at Bida Manda sees this not just as a job, but also as a project, so people stuck with it. After five weeks, we feel like we have a system. And we are just so thankful to have that following. The restaurant industry is scary, and we are grateful every day that the community opened their hearts to us and gave us a shot.

What’s the best piece or two of advice you would give to entrepreneurs just starting out? Just be very intentional about time: don’t rush; think everything through. They need to ask themselves why they want to do what they want to do. And write it out. One of the biggest resources was our business plan. Our plan wasn’t so much about income or cash flow in a given month. We identified what we wanted to do and how this place should feel. The more meaningful the business plan becomes, the more you have something to rely on. Every day has tons of decisions. If you don’t have a solid business plan, you can easily go astray from your original vision. We go back to our business plan, and we make decisions that go beyond cash flow.

What do you like best about being a part of the food community here? I think people around here appreciate when restaurants are focused. And when I say focused, I mean not only about their genre but the ingredients that they use. Some places have two or three products that they take pride in. It’s like older restaurants that used to take pride in that. Our community really appreciates that. If you have good, honest products, people will appreciate it.

What is your biggest challenge? I think because we are one of the first Laotion restaurants in the country, we have this opportunity to be a cultural investor for Laos and for the Laotian. Besides offering great food and great service, we have to be graceful and gentle about the product we are serving. It’s not just selling a dish, it’s telling a story to people who know very little about our story.

Anything else you would like to share? We are just so thankful every day. I’m 26 years old; my sister just turned 25. It’s incredible that we have this much love and support, that people love us and trust us. Investors trusted us. Customers come and open their hearts to this new project. Especially within our community – this size – that a humble idea can turn into this business. It’s a direct reflection of what this community is, and what the Triangle is about.

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