Sunday, July 31, 2011

Small Business Winners of SF Street Food Festival Contest Announced

Rau Om receives its award from Alec Hughes of Wells Fargo
A packed ballroom was on hand at Fort Mason Center as the winners of the 2011 San Francisco Street Food Festival Vote Your Vendor contest were announced on Friday evening. With Off the Grid's usual massive crowd dining mere yards away, Wells Fargo Senior VP Alec Hughes announced that Pinx, Seoul Sausage Company, Rau Om and Making a Difference Abroad took the top spots.

As the winners of the competition, each vendor will receive shared booth space at the festival on August 20, as well as the ability to prepare its food in La Cocina's commercial kitchen. Not only that, but Wells Fargo Advisers will provide assistance to help get each small business off the ground.

"Our Vote Your Vendor contest this year—this is the first year we've done it—has summarized so deeply what La Cocina is about. It's about driven entrepreneurship," Caleb Zigas, Executive Director of La Cocina, told the assembled crowd. The organizer of the festival, La Cocina has a mission to help small food businesses realize their dreams of self-sufficiency. "But that the Vote Your Vendor contest exceeded every single expectation really spoke to the entrepreneurship and energy of small businesses."

Jessica Shain, MAD-Abroad
(Courtesy of Jessica Shain)

Jessica Shain, the owner of Making a Difference Abroad (MAD-Abroad), was delighted when she received the call confirming her spot among the winners. "I was just thrilled," Shain said. "There were so many great contenders, and it was literally neck and neck the entire competition. So I was just really excited."

"This is a humongous chance to get a lot of exposure," said Rau Om's Oanh Nguyen. She and husband Dang Vu are reviving the lost art of making nem chua, a Vietnamese cured meat snack, by eschewing the chemical cures found in modern recipes for a natural technique that took a lot of research, trial and error to perfect.

"We look forward to introducing nem to a lot of people," Vu said. Rau Om currently only sells their nem chua from their online store, but he concedes that "we are actually going to need physical interaction with people because it is so new that not a lot of people have tried it."

Pinky and Craig Cooper of Pinx, who jumped out to an early lead in the voting and never looked back, are excited for the opportunity to introduce their sweet potato pie waffles to festival patrons. "Rich, decadent, heavenly," is how Pinky described the treats that come topped with bourbon caramel sauce. "It's the best waffle you will ever have."

Craig (left) and Pinky Cooper, Pinx
(Courtesy of Craig and Pinky Cooper)
In addition to carts, trucks, stands and restaurants from the Bay Area, the San Francisco Street Food Festival will feature invited vendors from six other cities across the United States, as well as many special guests. It will be followed by the Second Annual National Street Food Conference at Fort Mason Center.

The timing of the Street Food Festival and their presence in it couldn't be better for Pinx, whose full menu includes Southern specialties, including a Cap'n Crunch-coated fried chicken. "This is incredible," Craig Cooper said. "Literally two months ago we had a brunch, and a lot of people came over. And at that brunch [Pinky] had all her creations, and people were saying afterwards, 'So when are you opening the restaurant? You gotta do something! I will eat Top Ramen for two months until you start something.'"

Vu knows that all the new people sampling their nem will be the kick start Rau Om needs. "We're still trying to secure places at the local farmers' market, so the SF Street Food Festival would be our first real venue to showcase our products," he said. It will "let people have a sample of these dishes that most likely they haven't had before, and we're betting that like us, they wouldn't be able to forget the dishes afterward."

Dang Vu (left) and Oanh Nguyen, Rau Om
For start-ups used to cooking for smaller gatherings, satisfying the hunger of seven city blocks worth of festival guests is a welcome undertaking. "I'm really excited because this is the first time I've ever cooked for this many people, and this is just going to be my launch at this festival," said MAD-Abroad's Shain, who previously has cooked dinner for a maximum of 150 people. "This is going to be a lot more. It's going to be a challenge, and I'm really excited."

MAD-Abroad, who we previously profiled, will be working with the Touch a Life Foundation to support underprivileged children around the world. "This is going to be a great event to just sort of make an impact and make some great food—to make a difference, no pun intended!"

Using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, as well as more conventional means like holding special promotions or even calling relatives on the phone, contestants solicited votes in many different ways. Rau Om took a scientific approach to getting to the top. "I have a friend who is a computer scientist, and he studied the Network Effect," Nguyen said. "He told me, 'Don't just target your close friends. Target your friends you talk to less often because their networks are less likely to overlap with your networks.'"
Seoul Sausage receives its award from Hughes

Votes were cast all over the country and world, with Rau Om securing some pledges from Michigan, where Vu is finishing his degree in Cancer Biology.

Seoul Sausage Company, who makes Korean BBQ sausages, actually hails from Los Angeles, but owner Chris Oh grew up in Cupertino and until last year lived in San Francisco. According to their Facebook page, Seoul Sausage entered the competition two and a half weeks after the start of the contest but were determined to have "Seoul Sausage get back to the city we luv, San Francisco!!!"

Oh isn't the only one on his team with Bay Area roots, though. "Another thing is that the staff as well is all originally from the Bay Area, and we all went to the same high school," he said. "Expanding to the Bay Area is definitely high on our priority list because we love the city, and we love the people and culture, and I will always call the Bay Area home." Due to a prior catering commitment, Oh could not be present at the awards ceremony.

Using Facebook's social plugin, over 5000 votes were cast among 62 different vendors during the month-long contest, with each tally reviewed by La Cocina for accuracy.

Pinx secured their place in the top four with 605 votes. "I have a really close friend that works for Wells Fargo," Pinky Cooper remarked. "She said if I don't enter it, she would do it for me." Craig described the fervor with which their supporters rallied for Pinx as "tenacious. The support from our friends was tenacious."

The assistance provided by Wells Fargo Advisers will let the winners stay in command of their businesses without having to cede too much to outside investors. "We don't want to have to give up control, and that's the key," Pinx's Craig Cooper said. "You will enjoy our cooking. You will enjoy our concepts. Get out of the kitchen and stop telling me how to cook."

Pinky Cooper receives Pinx's award from Hughes
Seoul Sausage's Oh has his eye on keeping his business growing. "We are in the process of expanding by looking into a brick and mortar in the next few months," he said, "and Wells Fargo Advisers could definitely help us with our finances and maybe a small business loan to help us achieve our goals."

And for Shain, who has a Masters degree and a business background at a Fortune 500 company, having a partner like Wells Fargo can only help MAD-Abroad get started. "That's going to be incredible, just to have a different perspective. They're so intelligent and know exactly what they're doing," she said. "I know these guys. This is their living, and they're the best at what they do. I'm pretty excited just to get some advise from them and hear what they have to say for small businesses trying to take off and what I'm trying to do with it."

For La Cocina's Zigas, a small business cooking from a street cart or stand captures the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit. "For us at the end of the day street food has always been about hustle," he said. It's "about people making a living doing what they love to do, about making and sharing one great thing. We feel so lucky to be able to share this passion with so many of you all."

Pinx's Craig Cooper, though, sums up the feeling of a food entrepreneur earning this chance for success with a few simple words. "Self-determination: it's the greatest nation in the world."

Entrance to the Third Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival, to be held August 20, 2011 from 11 AM until 7 PM in the Mission District, is free. Discount passports may be purchased online.

See previous coverage of the festival.

San Francisco Street Food Festival (@streetfoodsf)
Making a Difference Abroad
Rau Om (@rauom)
Pinx (@pinxcatering)
Seoul Sausage Company (@seoulsausage)

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