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Nong Poonsukwattana on Building a Khao Man Gai Empire in Portland and Beyond

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Photo: Dina Avila

Nong Poonsukwattana arrived in America from her native Thailand in April of 2003 without much money to her name. Ten years later, she is now the owner of one of Portland, Oregon's most popular food carts, Nong's Khao Man Gai, a mini empire that includes two carts, and a take-out kitchen. Portlanders — and visiting travelers — go bananas for her signature chicken and rice dish, khao man gai. So why stop there? In the coming years, Poonsukwattana hopes to expand her single-dish concept to New York, Austin, and Hawaii, while also selling her Khao Man Gai sauce nationwide.

While all of those plans certainly make Poonsukwattana a busy person, she met up with Eater last week for some ping pong at Zach's Shack in Portland. In the following interview, Poonsukwattana talks about the years of struggle that led to her success with Nong's Khao Man Gai, why she's taken up hobbies like ping pong recently in what she calls "the calm before the storm," and what comes next.

So what is it that has changed to give you this time to hang out?
I set a goal that I want to expand my business. I realized that my role had changed because my business grew out of me. I think a lot of business owners go through that when their business grows out of their ability. At first you start because your cooking is your passion, right? And then when it's bigger you need more management skills. Then, okay, I want to expand. In order to do that, I had to be mentally stable, too, because I deal a lot with stress and pressure. I had to be there for my team [and] if really bad things happened, I have to be able to deal with that. So I had to be able to let go and let it run.

Trust your team to do it.
Yeah. And be like a visionary. It's kind of like an organic process that I didn't know and I want to be good at that. But it took one year to this point. It's awesome. But I have my next goal, too. I want to open in other cities. So this is the calm before the storm. Opening a restaurant is like getting a tattoo. It hurts, but you do it anyway.

So let's go back to the beginning. You've been here since 2003. What brought you to America and why Portland?
My ex was a student at Portland State. I was living in Thailand with his mom for awhile. So we married and I come here to be with him and then it didn't work out, so I decided to stay. And make my own future. It was a rough journey, like from scratch. But it's good.

Nong's Khao Man Gai's second location at the Portland State University pod. [Photo: Facebook]

And you spent a lot of time working in restaurants, including Pok Pok. So how did you decide it was time to open your own cart?
It's like one shot. It was like okay, I think this is it. I'm going to do this. So in that process, I paid off my credit card because I was going to have to put a lot of things on the card. But I still didn't have the confidence. First of all, I wasn't sure that I would like it. I used to work in a kitchen in Thailand, but it's different. I never ran a restaurant. Everything I learned from watching. At Pok Pok, I worked line cook in the shack out front. I didn't get to see the prep and everything because the prep kitchen is in the house. I was outside. I only made maybe like five dishes, but I had to deal with customers and everything.

How long were you there?
I was there for a year. I was actually going to be there for three months, but I was happy there so I stayed there for awhile. I was starting to use my savings. If I stayed there then my dream is going to be gone. So I had to do it. So I found a little cart.

Back then there were no food carts yet, [they were] not popular. So you could not just look on Craigslist for a food truck. Now it's like everywhere. I found a kettle corn cart so I drove all the way there. The guy wanted to sell it to me for $800 and said he was going to tow it to me and meet at 3 o'clock on Division. And then 3 o'clock came and he called and said, "Oh this guy, he's going to come and take it." I'm like you already promised it to me. And he said, "Okay, if you want it, it's $1,300."

Oh my God.
I know, he's a douchebag. And then he said he felt bad and he'll come, but [it would cost] $1,200. And when he left, I opened [the cart] and it was all kettle corn. He filled it up with all his garbage. So that's the first lesson. You have to pay your dues.

Ideally people won't rip you off.
Yeah, it's never a nice road. It always looks nice from the outside.

So what did you do when you got the cart filled with kettle corn?
I had to take the kettle corn out. Trash it and I go from there.

How long did it take to fix it up?
About four months. I think I got [the cart] around November and I got it open in April 2009.

Did you already have in mind that you were going to do the khao man gai?
I did have it in mind, but I didn't have confidence. I thought about [doing], I think now it's called a pop-up. Back then there were no pop-ups, but one of my close friends opened a restaurant and she closed on Sundays. I thought about renting from her on Sundays. I didn't have the balls to ask her, but I thought about that.

But the food cart was even better because I can operate it on my own and I own it. Even though it's tiny. I wasn't sure if it was going to work, but [working at] Pok Pok, I gained confidence from there to see what people like, what people think, and how to be different. It's like finding yourself or finding your style. Besides that, I found that if I do khao man gai it's going to be unique, but your food has to be good. Your chicken has to be good, your ingredients have to be good.

You do everything from scratch right?
Yeah, everything.

So how long did it take you to perfect?
It took me like six months. So every day I went and I bought chickens. I know every chicken. I'm a chicken queen. I buy every chicken in the grocery, everywhere. And the chicken I use, I can make double or triple money by buying a bigger chicken, but I didn't do that because it tastes like plastic to me. I mean, it has more meat. So if I have a bigger chicken, I can make more food [and] I can make more money. But it wasn't the flavor I wanted. Little things like that pay off.

[Photo: Dina Avila]

No kidding. I mean, obviously your food is super popular now, but how was it when it first opened? Did it take awhile to get to that point?
It took awhile. I think it took like three to seven months. Before that, on the slowest day I would make $70. And then I asked myself, am I happy with $70? And I'm like yes. Because if I waited tables all day I'd make $70, but I [would be] miserable. I was looking for an opportunity for myself. I didn't want to be waitress forever. I want to break out from this and it was hard as an immigrant. Super hard. So I was like, okay, I want to exchange my work with this chicken and rice. And I'm proud.

It's easier to be making $70 when you're at least doing something you love.
Yeah. I put numbers together and I was like okay if I can make $70 even on the slowest day I would be happy. It took seven months and then it kind of like blew up.

What changed it?
The media. I had no idea about the power of it. [The Oregonian reporter] told me [after] the first interview, "You know they're going to come." I had no idea. That day the newspaper came out, I opened at 10 and at 11 I ran out of food. I didn't make enough. I didn't know how it works.

How long did it take you to adjust to it?
A year and a half. Every day, I just stumbled [through] how to produce more. Every day of my life, I go home pretty much dead, wake up, and do the same thing. And then one day, a year and a half later, I was in my apartment and I was like, "Oh wow, I can afford my own place. I don't have a roommate. This is a success." But I had nobody to share [it] with. I would go eat every day by myself.

How did you build a community here?
All of a sudden people sent me invitations for parties. I never got to go at all the first year because I only did chicken and bed. I would like peel garlic in front of the TV every day. My hand always smelled like garlic. I can buy everything peeled, but it's not the same. But now we have a little help. We bought a machine.

So every waking moment basically was work for you.
Yeah, because being lazy won't be good. I didn't have a big team or a kitchen or a manager. It was just me and some help. But they would come in at like 7 a.m., [and] it's like bam because we cook everything in the morning and it's a slow cook. Everything has to be ready in the morning.

Before you mentioned that it's especially hard as an immigrant opening here. What were the particular obstacles?
I think the language.

How much English did you speak when you got here?
I thought I was pretty good, but I had to read lips. You guys don't really open your mouths much when you talk. You've got too much mumbling. My first year, I had to read lips and I learned English from the restaurant, commuting from work, what people talk about on the bus, on the train. People would say, "What's up?" and I wouldn't know what to say back. But I'm okay now.

So then after you became successful with the first cart, you expanded and opened not only a second cart but the takeout window. So how did you decide to expand?
I wanted to make sauce. That's the main reason. I thought about how can I do this nationally? How can everywhere have a taste of khao man gai? Of course, I can't have a cart everywhere. I thought the sauce would be good. To pay for [the sauce-making] facility, I needed another cart and to sell from that kitchen too in order to pay for the facility.

Nong's sauce. [Photo: Facebook]

That's a lot of foresight. Also a lot of balls to take that nationwide. How early on did you say, yes, the sauce is the direction that I'm going with this?
I always had a dream to have some product in the grocery store. I thought that I was just going to do [the cart] for one year, but I realized that oh wow, people come every day, I cannot quit. Plus the sauce, we needed a lot of money to get it going. So I've got to keep doing what I'm doing and then start the sauce and then hopefully it takes off. I eventually had to keep all three [khao man gai locations] in order to have a sauce business. Even right now, the lunches pay for all the sauce. The sauce wouldn't make money unless it's nationwide. I went to New York because I want to go national and take my brand out there. It's the most ambitious goal. The hardest one. But it will help my sauce.

Were you also looking for spaces for khao man gai in New York?
With the sauce business, I have to go to trade shows and talk to stores about selling my products there. But I feel like khao man gai and the sauce come hand in hand. If I have the khao man gai there, I know that customers will come. And the sauce comes together [with that]. In order for people to know the sauce, they have to know the food first. When they know the restaurant it's an easier approach.

So tell me about the status of your New York expansion then post-trip.
It's not sure. I went there basically to calculate everything. I went there to learn the subway. I found a couch that I can stay on for six months to start my business. But I have not a lot of connections there, so it's going to be a harder goal. I finance this myself. Can I afford it? How much money [do I need]? In New York, I need a lot of money to establish. I want to go for the win, I don't want to lose. So it might not be my next move. It might be another city. But maybe in five years I'll have a Nong's Khao Man Gai in New York. We always come back later.

So you're also looking in Austin?
We will be at SXSW 2014 at the Paul Qui food pod. We have a lot of customers from Austin. Paul Qui and his team [approached me last year] three weeks before SXSW and I couldn't execute it. I had just put a lot of money in the sauce and my operation wasn't ready. But this year we're ready. And then hopefully we'll do SXSW, get a good response, and then we open [in Austin]. Maybe I'll make some money [there] and then I can go to New York. But the next one has to work.

But are you also considering opening a brick-and-mortar or a food truck there?
Maybe food truck first. I'm going in November to look at the space.

And you're also looking at expanding to Hawaii.
Yeah. I have a place to stay, I have a car to start with there. I know some connections. My manager is from there. So we have like a good potential. I want to do them all. I want to do Hawaii, Austin, New York. Crazy. I don't know if it's going to happen. Hopefully it will happen within five years, but it's [moving] in that direction. I hope that's not too crazy.

[Photo: Dina Avila]

I know your next thing is outside of Portland, but would you still expand within Portland and do a brick-and-mortar here?
We're going to try to open dinner [at the kitchen]. We're shooting for November 1 to open dinner. But I think we're going to keep it like that. I'm looking to go out from that kitchen space as well. I think I want to buy my own building in Portland. So we're just going to be moving if we find a building. But it's going to be awhile and I don't know when. But this is it. I want to go outside of Portland, so I'm just focused on that. Go out of comfort zone. Maybe it's not the smartest thing. We'll see. You never know, but I have to make it right. I don't want to fail because I can't afford it. It has to be right.

You have a bigger menu at your second cart. If you open future carts, are they going to be just khao man gai?
Yeah, one dish only. But it has to be good. Khao man gai is a lot of work, you know. Do it good. I kind of learned, too, that I'm not good at everything. If I focus on something, I can be good. Make a good khao man gai. And it's not just the food. It's the team. People that are happy to be there working. When people come to Khao Man Gai, they expect big smiles. They pay $7, but they expect like million-dollar service. Sometimes you go to a restaurant, you pay $100 and you get shitty service and it ruins your meal. I'm sure everybody does it, but it's not my concept.

Does that worry you about expanding if you can't always be there in New York to ensure that?
I think I have had a good experience on that but, of course, in a different city it's going to be hard and the team is always going to be a challenge. But it's all about creating the team. In every brand, they say you translate your idea and then you create the team and the team will carry on your brand or your message. It's all about the team.

What's your philosophy for creating a team? Do you look for people with culinary background?
I use energy. I use instinct. I want it to be a happy place. When people come to work, it's a lot of hours of their life each day, it's very important. We want to create a great working environment. We want a happy place. Maybe I don't have to be rich today, but these are people's lives, and I come from the bottom. My mom from the bottom. I see the struggle. This is my chance. So you don't have to be perfecto, but if you want to be a part of my team then there has to be harmony.

Did you imagine all this when you first moved to Portland?
I always had big dreams when I was a kid. I always read about successful people on Earth like Napoleon, Einstein, Thomas Edison. I found one thing in common was one word in that book that said those people come from struggle. And I struggled as a child, so I felt like, oh, maybe one day I could be that. I connect with that word. They all come from a poor place. So I always had big dreams. But I didn't know how I was gonna be that. It just kind of all came together. But when I was a kid I thought, oh, one day I'm going to have something in a store. It's really happening. It's crazy. But I learned that you can do it. You just have to do it.

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Nong's Khao Man Gai

SW 10th & Alder St. Portland, OR 97205