Van Nolintha owns Bida Manda in Raleigh, NC, with his sister, Vanvisa. The term “bida manda” is ceremonial Sanskrit for father and mother and honors their parents, who instilled a love of food in Van and Vanvisa and taught them that food can bring people together. Opened in 2012, Bida Manda brings tons of people together every day and has become one of the most loved and celebrated restaurants in the state. I’ve visited Bida Manda personally, and I can attest to the incredible quality of the food, service, and atmosphere. It’s am amazing restaurant with an amazing story, which Van shared.
Tell us a little about your background.
We never really intended to open a restaurant. I went to North Carolina State and studied design and chemistry. I had a graduate degree in international peace and conflict studies from Trinity in Dublin. I never thought that we would be in the food industry. But it’s amazing the journey your life takes.
So, after Trinity I came back to Raleigh and I was really just looking for jobs in international peace and conflict studies, in community building in general. It was right around the time of the recession. I applied to about 300 jobs in what was probably the hardest, most difficult year of my life. I got zero job offers. None. So Vanvisa and I took a summer off that year and went to Laos and spent that summer with Mom and Dad. We just really reconnected with our roots.
When Vanvisa and I came to the U.S., I was 12 and she was 9. The rest of our family was still living in Laos. We left home at such a young age, so it was easy to assume that Laos was a long distant past. But what we realized now that we were older was that we are a direct part of that Laotian community. And looking back, food has always been so centered to my life. When Vanvisa and I arrived, we lived with an American family and the only way to make sure that her memories of home, of Laos, of mom and dad, were preserved as a small nine-year-old child was for me to cook for her. We couldn’t just go to a Laotian restaurant; we couldn’t just go to a Laotian temple. There’s no Laotian community center anywhere. So, knowing all of that I knew I had to do something to make sure that she remembered home, and food was the most direct and most meaningful tool I had. Growing up with Mom and Dad, I always cooked. I think as a culture in general, cooking is almost a sacred, spiritual experience. It was such a privilege and honor to be able to share that experience with my sister.
Looking back now, it kind of makes sense that we are in this industry. But at the time of career choices, that was not the most obvious one.
Did I hear you correctly … you applied to 300 jobs and got no offers?
Yes. Even with all of those degrees and experiences, I got zero offers. It was everything from applying to the U.N., to applying to small NGOs working on educational empowerment in Guatemala. I got so desperate, I remember applying to work at CVS to be an assistant clerk. I think my resume can be perceived as a very distracted person. But it has definitely led into a wonderful journey.
Considering you now have one of the best restaurants in Raleigh, it’s quite an amazing journey.
I try to be sensitive to what it means to have a “best restaurant.” I think we are definitely learning a lot. And I think the most fascinating thing for us is that what we do at Bida Manda really is just an extension of who we are. Our menu is nothing more than the dishes we remember eating growing up, the kind of dishes that I cooked for my sister to make sure that she remembered home. It’s not a creative process. It’s just a genuine offering from our family to our community here. It has been a very empowering journey to see that what we do is meaningful to the community and the community celebrates our narrative and authenticity to our food.
How did you begin the process of opening your restaurant?
When we came back to Raleigh I went to Barnes & Noble and I bought a phenomenal book called Starting and Running a Restaurant for Dummies (laughs). It really was that fundamental. We did not know anything. We did not know how we were going to look for space. We didn’t know how we were going to look for funding. How were we going to find a chef? What is the legal complexity of it? We didn’t know anything. So, we really started from scratch. I remember coming back and being shocked about the kind of resources in the community that were lacking at the time. How do you open a restaurant?
We were fortunate at that time to have the kind of relationships in Raleigh that really allowed that to be a positive journey. I remember emailing Ashley Christensen [Poole’s Diner and other restaurants] and saying, “I would love to learn from you. Can you please mentor us?” I remember reaching out to Chris Powers at Busy Bee and Trophy Brewing. I remember emailing Angela Salamanca, the owner of Centro and Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria. She’s from Colombia and one of my closest friends now. I said, “These are my hopes and dreams and passion and heartbeat. I would love to learn as much as I could from you.” And surprisingly, all of these successful, meaningful leaders in the food community said, “Yes!” And it all started with saying, “I love what you do and would love for you to be a part of this journey. Please train us. Teach us all you know.”
Creating a team culture
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Those are very well-respected, successful restaurant people in Raleigh. It says a lot that they offered to help.
The response was, “We are so excited that you’re passionate about Laotian food and your family narrative and your love of people. Let’s make sure this happens.” And I think that positive seed, that supportive tone, really changed how we approached the process. Instead of it being a business journey, it really was about relationship building.
From not knowing anything about the industry, we were granted so many relationships with people who know. I think the humility of saying, “I don’t know” and “I would love to know more” really opened a lot of opportunities and positive relationships in our lives. And that is something that we will forever treasure. That’s how it all how it all began.
I was also fortunate to have a very supportive and loving group of friends. A lot of things from the construction of the space to legal help to graphic design were donated and volunteered by our friends. We always use the visual image of our sticks on the wall that were completely hand-tied by our friends. We had about 50 of our friends working on that. We didn’t have much funding so I gave all of them a Miller Light and we really just built the space together. I think our guests can see a lot of the passionate hands that were involved in the making of the space, that are still important and meaningful to us today. Bida Manda is nothing but a reflection of what a tremendous, positive, loving community we have in Raleigh.
The service at Bida Manda is phenomenal. What are you doing to provide that kind of atmosphere consistently?
I think the consistency is difficult, especially providing an intimate, meaningful, personal experience each and every time. That’s very difficult in any restaurant. At Bida Manda we serve more than 3,000 meals a week. How do we create that kind of consistency? It’s an ongoing challenge. But our goal wasn’t to be wealthy. Our goal wasn’t to create the best restaurant in Raleigh. Our goal was to make sure that we share our narrative, food and culture with our community the best that we know how.
I think “hospitality” is an interesting word because for us it really is us hosting and welcoming people into our home. It doesn’t get any simpler than that. Food is such a basic life offering. When we overcomplicate that experience, that’s when it gets tricky. For us it really is about how we continue sharing our story and welcoming our guests to our home, and caring for them like we were caring for our friends. That is our basic principle at the restaurant. We try to care for our friends and family and community.
Your approach is very personal to you and Vanvisa. How do you share it through your staff?
I think sourcing the right team is probably the most important ingredient in what we do. How do we create a team that’s cohesive and creative and fires all together to yield this experience? We spend a lot of time on the front end of the selection process. We put a lot of attention and resources into that beginning phase of training and recruiting. It is so important to us that it doesn’t matter if that person does not even have service industry experience. What we are looking for is always someone who’s capable of caring—someone who is genuinely passionate about life. And that doesn’t have to be food. We have a lot of artists. We have a lot of “makers” in the world. We have a yoga instructor. We have a lot of students who are waiting to go to medical school. We have law school students. We are looking for people who are passionate in what they do, and in turn, they bring that aliveness to what we do and it adds a level of complexity and meaning to what they do.
“Intention” is the big word in our training process. And intention is actually really hard to train someone who doesn’t already carry that sense of pride in what they do. How do we make polishing glasses as meaningful of an experience as talking to a guest as a table? What we have learned is that when we find someone who takes a lot of pride and meaning in what they do and loves what they do, that translates directly to our guests’ experience. We have such a phenomenal team and community at the restaurant that I’m so grateful for.
I think a lot of our success comes directly from that team. Developing and cocreating that team are very important to us. A good example is we take our a staff retreat once or twice a year. We take three or four days off from the restaurant, and we , spend some time somewhere else. The first year we went to Asheville, in the mountains, and last year we went to Wilmington on the coast. It’s just really allowing our team to go through a shared experience, setting intentions and goals, and showing them how to work for each other’s development. We are just a community of passionate people who are just absolutely in love with what we do, and wanting to care for our guests.
We usually rent a big home and just cook together. Last year we had Tim leading a yoga class. And we have massages. We share common readings and reflection times. I do my cooking class. It really is about being present and intentional together. When you have that seed, it’s really easy to develop at work. This restaurant is an extremely aggressive and intense environment. So for us to go into a shift feeling that we are with a team and with family, I think it helps with the operation.
Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.