When we launched Porch Fly Clothing in the fall of 2012, there was something special happening in Raleigh that we wanted to be a part of. Young entrepreneurs were starting to call this area home, and exciting new small businesses were popping up weekly. Around the same time, owners Vansana Nolintha and his younger sister, Vanvisa Nolintha were opening the doors to what would become Raleigh’s favorite gathering place, Bida Manda. At the time, it was one of the first restaurants in the US serving authentic Laotian cuisine. Today, Laotian cuisine is as popular as ever, with restaurants like Bangkok Golden in Falls Church, VA and Thip Khao in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, gaining national notoriety. Besides being the co-owner of one of Raleigh’s most beautiful, inviting, and delicious restaurants, Vansana, or Van is one of the most inspiring entrepreneurs we know. We had the pleasure of sitting down with him for our latest installment of Raleigh Hustles Hard.
Van moved to the US in 1998, at age 12, from Luang Prabang, Laos. His younger sister, and eventual business partner, Vanvisa would follow two years later. Sponsored by a family in Greensboro, their parents sent them to the US to learn English, complete high school, and return home. Van remembers food being vital to maintaining their identity after moving to the US. Living now in this completely foreign place far from the rest of their family, cooking for his younger sister Vanvisa was the only thing Van knew how to do to ensure her memories of home were preserved. They didn’t have the option of going to a Laotian restaurant or to a family or friends home for Laotian cuisine, so cooking became a way of connecting with a family and life so far away. Towards the end of high school their sponsoring family in Greensboro adopted them, and Van received a full scholarship to attend NC State University to study chemical engineering in hopes of becoming a doctor. Along the way, Van made the switch to chemistry, then later to the NCSU Design School. After graduating in 2009, he was accepted into a graduate program for International Peace and Conflict Studies at Trinity College (Dublin). Van received his masters degree from Trinity in 2011 and returned back to the US to find a job. Unfortunately, that was around the peak of the recession, and finding employment for peace studies yielded few positive results. “This was one of the darkest times in my life. I had these degrees from these wonderful institutions, and I spent almost a year not being able to find a job. I poured my heart and everything I had into my studies and to graduate during the peak of the recession, send out over 300 applications, and get no offers was extremely difficult. It was a time in my life where nothing else made sense but to go back home to my family.”
Vanvisa and Van returned to Luang Prabang that summer, without a plan. “Returning back home to Laos was the only thing I knew how to do to center myself. I really reconnected with my family, and they encouraged me to get back to a place of happiness and sense of self. That summer was transformative for Vanvisa and I.” One morning during the summer, Van witnessed a family tradition that would soon become the catalyst for the idea that would become Bida Manda. Like most days, Van awoke very early for a morning run. “I woke up at 4:30am and saw that my mom and dad were already awake. They have a tradition where they wake up very early and cook together all morning food for the entire day. My father would pour two cups of milk, warming one in the microwave for my grandmother, and bringing a cold glass to the veranda in the garden to wait for my mother to join him to cook together.” His parents’ manifestation of love and commitment through food had a profound effect on Van. During his run, he decided whatever he and Vanvisa did when they returned to the US would be about honoring their parents. A restaurant inspired by their family’s tradition of taking care of each other through food was a natural progression of that idea. Bida Manda, a Sanskrit ceremonial term for “mother and father”, was a most fitting name.
What Van and Vanvisa lacked in experience, they made up for with passion, drive, and a willingness to ask for help. “We were young, naïve, and innocent enough to be excited about the possibility but not conditioned enough to be scared. We didn’t know enough about the risk to be intimidated.” From the development of the business plan, to the menu, all the way to the three-tons of sticks brought in from western NC and hand laid on the walls and ceilings with the help of friends (video here), Bida Manda was truly a collaborative effort. Van credits his community of friends and mentors for helping bring the idea to life. “We spent countless hours sitting at Café Helios writing the business plan and allowing our mind to wrap around why we like being in this space. My background is in design so I looked at people’s body language and how they interacted with each other in a shared space. The human experience research seems intentional now, but at the time I only knew how to approach this business plan as a designer. Before we ever thought about food, we wanted to ensure whatever we created was a warm gathering place.”
Luckily, their timing was right. “This was around the time when Ashley (Christensen) really started to develop a wonderful way of telling stories through food. We had Angela from Centro telling her story through her food, as well as the Neomonde family cooking their grandparents’ recipes for 15+ years. This type of celebrated leadership in Raleigh’s emerging food scene helped make what we were about to say, possible. So at the time, all I knew to do was to reach out to them for help.” Van explains how instrumental the community of Raleigh chefs and restaurant owners like Centro’s Angela Salamanca, 18 Seaboard’s Jason Smith, Trophy Brewings’ Chris Powers, and of course Ashley Christensen were to bringing Bida Manda to life. “I remember sitting at my house watching Ashley on the Food Network. I emailed her that night telling her how I studied and admired her, and I had this idea for a restaurant so I asked her if she would be my mentor. Amazingly, she emailed me back right away and asked me to meet her at Fox (liquor bar) for a drink. I treasure what Ashley is doing in this community right now. She inspires us to approach and think about food and hospitality from such a simple community based level. How do we tell stories, create memories, and connect with each other through food.”
Van and Vanvisa’s humility and willingness to ask for help was key in their success. There was so much they didn’t know, and having the courage to say “will you teach me?” made all the difference, something that Van sees as an underutilized virtue for entrepreneurs. “In the western way of thinking, independence and confidence are such highly held traits, that many times we don’t put enough emphasis on mentorship and humility. For us, mentorship happens organically within the restaurant. When we hire someone, it’s not to fill a specific role. We’re more interested in developing and maintaining relationships that we want in our life, then seeing how that manifests during our journey. There is something about creating a space where young people co-exist. With the right type of collaboration, it creates a life for everyone that might not have existed.” As an immigrant himself, Van understands the need to use his position to benefit others in a similar position. To that end, Bida Manda partners with US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), and currently employs seven refugees on staff.
Like most creative entrepreneurs, Van has countless ideas and side projects he’d love to bring to life, but assures me that expansion has never been a primary consideration. “What I have come to learn to pay attention to is what kind of relationships are in my life that are meaningful that I want to be a part of. A lot of what is exciting for me is looking at the team we have in place, and building a business plan around that.” For the past few months, Van and Patrick Woodson have been developing plans for a brewery in downtown Raleigh. They don’t have a name or location yet, but are actively working to bring this idea to life. We were lucky enough to get Van to share some exclusive news about a new concept he’s planning. “I’ve been thinking a lot of creating a shared marketplace concept housing a brewery, cafe, library, and flower shop. The collision of people and ideas sparks creativity, so I want to create a shared space where people, who are coming for different purposes, collide, interact, and collaborate. We have this emerging local political community, a wonderful family driven community, a growing downtown residential community, and a huge influx of young, creative professionals and artists. Our hope is to create a space to allow all of those communities to interact and have a shared experience.” Van is shopping locations and hopes to open the doors to this concept in the next year.
From emigrating from Laos, to traveling and living in over 30 countries doing service-learning work during (and after) college, and bouncing between Greensboro and Raleigh, the idea of “Home” has always been a fluid concept for Van and Vanvisa. However, after three years, Bida Manda has established itself as a powerhouse in Raleigh’s emerging food scene. It’s hard to imagine downtown without it. Bida Manda is more than Laotian cuisine. It’s a family restaurant, even if the inspiration is over 8,500 miles away. Although they have never stepped foot in the restaurant, Van and Vanvisa’s parents’ influence and tradition is felt throughout. “We hope they can eventually make it here to share in our journey and be a part of this place that means so much to the community we call home.“
Here's a few of our favorite dishes at Bida Manda:
- Crispy Rice Lettuce Wraps
- Chicken Wings
- Crispy Pork Belly Soup
- Caramelized Ginger Pork Ribs
- Baked NC Whole Fish
- Green Papaya Salad (with duck)
All cocktails are made using fresh juices and modifiers created in-house daily.
Learn about some of Van’s favorite places around the area:
- Alexander YMCA (Exercise/Meditation)
- Neomonde (Lunch)
- NC Museum of Art (Outdoor Art)
- NC Farmer’s Market (flower shops)
- Buddha Raleigh Temple
Thanks for stopping by the porch,
Porch Fly Clothing