By Alix Wall | Photos by Rachel Stanich
The story of how a Cambodian immigrant took her food business from pop up to food-court kiosk to a brick-and-mortar spot named one of America’s best restaurants within a few years has made food entrepreneurs with big dreams take notice.
The journey is that of Nite Yun. Her award-winning restaurant, Nyum Bai, is located in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. But go one step back in that journey and you’re at a humble kiosk in the Emeryville Public Market (EPM). This elevated food court with communal tables offers everything from burgers and pizza to Peruvian street food and all sorts of Asian food delights. A sweet tooth finds satisfaction in macarons and cashew-based ice cream.
As a stall set on a quieter side of the market, the kiosk looks pretty much like all the other food vendor spots, but it serves a special role here. It was conceived as a partnership between EPM and La Cocina, the San Francisco–based incubator that assists aspiring food entrepreneurs—mostly low-income, women, people of color, and immigrants—in starting their businesses. Nothing guarantees success in the food world, but trajectories of the EPM kiosk’s first two tenants suggest that the spot would be coveted as a launchpad.
Thus far, the kiosk has been “a great propeller,” says Geetika Agrawal, program director at La Cocina.
Yun was the first La Cocina chef to step onto the launchpad and Fernay McPherson was the second. During the year and a half that McPherson’s Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement occupied the kiosk, the African-American chef became known for her rosemary-marinated fried chicken and cornbread made rich with the not-so-secret addition of brown butter. Now graduated to a five-year lease in another EPM spot, McPherson has made room for the kiosk’s next occupant, Lamees Dahbour of Mama Lamees.
A Kuwait-raised Palestinian chef, Dahbour cooks traditional Middle Eastern staples like mujadara, a dish of spiced lentils and rice accentuated with deeply caramelized onions. Dahbour serves hers topped with a piece of sumac-dusted chicken and accompanied by a chopped salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce.
Yun says of her time at the kiosk, “It helped me with the foundation of having my spot with low risk. The Emeryville Public Market offered the space at below-market rent, and that gave me opportunities to take risks with the menu and hiring a team. I also made a lot of mistakes and was able to learn from them without the high overhead.”
According to Agrawal, Yun, McPherson, and Dahbour were offered the kiosk opportunity because they were ready to move to the next level. “Our incubator has people at all stages, and Nite was already a bit more established,” says Agrawal. “Her food had impressed us from day one. She had been with us since 2014 and had already done plenty of farmers’ markets and pop ups. Operationally, she was ready to take this next step.”
Of course, Yun set the bar rather high for those following in her footsteps.
“Nite couldn’t have done any better,” says Mark Stefan, co-founder and president of City Center Realty Partners, which owns and manages EPM. “Not one of us ever guessed she would skyrocket to fame as high as she has, but she did with the kiosk exactly what we wanted it to do.”
Stefan says that he and his partners envisioned EPM’s food court as “a gathering place for the community with unique food offerings.” The single kiosk for an emerging entrepreneur was part of that vision, so they approached La Cocina for help in designing the opportunity and selecting an appropriate chef.
The terms Agrawal and the La Cocina team thought suitable would be offering a shorter lease and some equipment already installed to reduce upfront costs. The idea has been that once a kiosk tenant built up a following, they would feel capable of moving to a more permanent space.
“Having the space already built mitigates risk and reduces upfront costs for the entrepreneurs,” says Agrawal. She explains that people read about a new restaurant, but might not realize how long it takes to build up the kind of following that ensures success.
For McPherson, the decision to come to Emeryville was a tricky one. For years, she had hoped to open a restaurant near her home in San Francisco’s Fillmore district. “But a space there never presented itself,” she says, expressing her hesitancy to try out the East Bay. “I prayed about it, and talked to other people about it, and decided to do it.”
It turns out her decision was a sound one. “A lot more people started to learn about us, and we even have people from San Francisco traveling across the Bay to come eat here,” she says. Now there are customers like Cheshi Ashikaga, who travels by public transportation from her home in Richmond, drawn by that hint of rosemary in Minnie Bell’s fried chicken and the fact it’s not the least bit greasy. “I don’t eat out a lot, so when I do, it has to be really exceptional,” Ashikaga says.
When McPherson moved to her permanent spot in the public market, some of her regulars panicked until they found her new location. “We’ve become a destination for people, which is good for us and good for the market. Being here has really helped us put our food out there. People have learned about us, loved our food, and have come out to support us and continue to do so.”
Stefan describes Minnie Bell’s tenure in the kiosk as “a great home run” like Nyum Bai. “Her food is fabulous. She has some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted.”
McPherson just signed a five-year lease at EPM. She hopes to grow her catering business and is developing a roasted chicken recipe since fried chicken doesn’t work well for catering.
Dahbour was still settling in at the kiosk at the time of this interview. A single mom (like McPherson), she’s a survivor of domestic violence, and has worked her way up from serving her delicious Feast from the Mideast at farmers’ markets and Off the Grid as well as catering out of La Cocina’s San Francisco kitchen. “We are so excited,” she says, speaking for herself as well as for her children, who have helped her grow her business. “I have a dream that this opportunity may take us to a bigger one by growing our sales on a daily basis, so we can grow our catering, too.”
Adds Stefan, “We hope to continue helping these entrepreneurs realize their dreams. This benefits everyone and we’re really happy to be part of it.” ♦
Freelance food writer Alix Wall is the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals. Find her at alix-wall.com.
Rachel Stanich is a fine-art photographer based in Port Costa. Intrigued by the stories of others, Rachel explores cultural texture and landscape in her work. rachelstanich.com