Bida Manda, a Laotian restaurant in downtown Raleigh, is often full with diners enjoying crispy pork belly soup or caramelized ginger pork ribs. It is a place buzzing with conversation, and its bar has become a popular late night spot.
The restaurant has been so successful that it’s hard to imagine how difficult the first day was for Vansana Nolintha, the NC State alum who owns Bida Manda. Nolintha and his restaurant are featured in the upcoming fall issue of NC State magazine.
“It did not go well,” Nolintha says of the first day last year. “We spilled wine on one customer. We dropped a lot of plates and glasses. Food came out the wrong temperature and food took forever to come out. Some of the dishes were too salty, the ice machine wasn’t working right, the music kept cutting off and some of the staff did not show up.”
It was so difficult, in fact, that Nolintha finally couldn’t take it. He left the restaurant midway through dinner service. He walked to the nearby bus station and sat down and cried.
“What am I getting myself in to?” Nolintha says he asked himself. “I can’t do it. I’ve never operated a restaurant. This is not what I do.”
But Bida Manda was Nolintha’s dream, one that he arrived at after traveling the world following his graduation from NC State in 2009. Nolintha, who was a Caldwell Fellow at NC State, decided that he wanted to run a restaurant that honored the culture and traditions of his native Laos. And he wanted to do it in Raleigh, close to the friends he had made during his years at NC State.
So after catching his breath for about five minutes, Nolintha willed himself to head back to his restaurant.
“I had no choice,” he says. “When you’re in a situation that could impact so many people, it’s not a choice anymore. You just react. You just know that’s what you have to do. You have to be a good role model for the people who work for you.”
Nolintha said he took some lessons from his time at the College of Design, and broke the challenge of running a restaurant down to a series of small steps.
“It was the simple act of, the shift is over, the next day we do it again,” he says. “The next day we do it again, and again and again. We just learn to do a better job of doing it again.”
It also helped that Nolintha had the support of a community, many of them friends from his days at NC State, that wanted to see him and his restaurant do well.
“One thing that was so important that first couple of months — that I think really carried us through — we knew that people in this community wanted us to succeed,” he says. “We knew it didn’t matter how many mistakes we made. We were already forgiven and we were already loved. Once we reminded ourselves of that truth, the problems were no longer problems. They were just things we needed to address and get resolved.”
And now, more than a year later, Bida Manda is a thriving part of the Raleigh restaurant scene.
“I think people in Raleigh are genuinely curious about our story, about this cuisine they have never heard of,” he says. “We have been busy since day one.”