Food cart offers look at small-business success

I visited Portland several weeks ago, conducting some work at Portland State University. And I ran across an entrepreneurial venture that was most interesting. Rika Hammond owns a small food cart, Krua Bangkok, which translates as “Bangkok Kitchen,” serving Thai cuisine to the lunch and dinner crowds in town.

A fixture situated in a small parking lot on SW Fourth Avenue, just a few blocks from the PSU campus, Krua Bangkok is just one of several dozen carts lining the sidewalk. You’ll find other immigrant entrepreneurs as well, from Vietnam, Hungary, Turkey, Mexico, China and elsewhere, conducting business as they offer up a smorgasbord of cultural cuisine.

Picture Taste of Edmonds or Bite of Seattle, but on a smaller scale. The big difference for these business owners is that their operations run year-round.

Hammond came to the U.S. from Thailand about ten years ago as a student with a little money and a big dream. She understood the ethic of hard work and sacrifice. She was also a believer that in this country there is greater chance of building a better life.

When her studies in photography and graphic design didn’t fully provide a steady career, Hammond broke out with a different strategy. With the help of a loan from her parents in Thailand, she invested in a small business that caters mostly to university students, tourists and local business folks.

I was curious to learn of her take on take-out, and the business opportunity that she envisioned when she invested in the cart business. I was curious to know how things differ compared with starting and running a business in Thailand.

“I really liked the idea of working for myself. There are no guarantees when you work for someone else and so I really wanted to have a sense of control,” said Hammond.

She purchased Krua Bangkok five years ago and quickly paid off her loan. The business has made a very comfortable profit and Hammond likes how the community embraces the rich cultural diversity of the carts.

And the more we spoke, the more I sensed a genuine appreciation for the simplicity of getting an enterprise off the ground here in the U.S. There are many who feel we have too many barriers for small business owners, but from a global perspective, comparatively speaking, we still seem to be a land of opportunity in the eyes of many immigrants.

Perhaps we’ve come to take for granted the fact that business startups and weaving dreams into reality are still possible.

Here’s what Hammond had to share about her competition. “We all get along quite well since there are plenty of customers to go around. I am most concerned if there is a customer who is not happy with our food; we want our customers to return,” said Hammond.

After owning Krua Bangkok for five years, a competitor who owned an adjacent cart spoke of selling their business. Hammond was quick to make the purchase.

Her business logic reminded me of the simple game of Monopoly where economies of scale tend to accelerate profitability. Hammond thought that another vendor next door would be fine; but owning two locations with slightly different menu choices was even better.

Hammond says that staffing is not a problem. There are plenty of friends and family who love to be a part of both enterprises.

These carts operate with special licenses from the city and are required to follow the county Health Department codes.

Hammond does think that she may own a storefront restaurant someday. It all depends on location and the continued growth and success of her current kitchen.

I am intrigued by the appreciation I’ve observed by immigrants who started their businesses here in the U.S. In the coming weeks I will be interviewing local owners with their perspective on small business and entrepreneurship.

I’ll be having conversations with first-generation, immigrant small business owners in Snohomish County. Send me a note if you have a thought on just such a business.

Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to entrepreneurship@everettcc.edu.

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