"Our goal wasn’t to be wealthy"

We’re working on our second book, and one of the interviews is with Van Nolintha, owner of Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant in Raleigh, N.C. Here’s an exchange that has stuck with me since he and I spoke last May…

It’s well-known in Raleigh that the level of hospitality at Bida Manda is phenomenal. What are you doing to provide that kind of atmosphere consistently?

“I think the consistency is difficult and especially providing an intimate, meaningful, personal experience each and every time. I think it’s very difficult in any restaurant. At Bida Manda, for example, we serve more than three thousand meals a week. So 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 it’s that authenticity to what you love and allowing that to be the beginning of every decision-making process. I think it will always be something that’s organic and true. And 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. I think food is such a basic life offering. And I think 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. And that is our basic principle at the restaurant. We try to care for our friends and family and community.”

How have you been able to find people on your staff that were able to also share that same passion and provide the kind of experience that you and your sister would?

“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 frontend 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 to 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 last year 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 that 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 that takes a lot of pride and meaning in what they do and love 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 co-creating that team is very important to us. A good example is we take our annual 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 and last year we went to Wilmington. 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.”

Do do you close the restaurant for a few days when you do this?

“Yes, we do. It’s always a few of the best days of the year, especially for back of house and front of house to coexist in one home. 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. I think it really is about being present and intentional together. I think 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 you are with your team and you are with your family, I think it helps with the operation of this.”

I’m not going to take away from the beauty and brilliance of Van’s philosophy by offering my thoughts. His words say it all. Bida Manda is without question one of the best restaurants in Raleigh. And now you know why.


P.S. We are excited to launch or new book this spring. In the mean time, you might enjoy our first one if you haven’t read it.