For years, Mai Pham had the dream of selling packaged foods in grocery stores around the nation, and it finally came true in late 2016. Now Pham has six entrees being sold in the frozen-food aisles of 2,000 stores.
Target, Safeway, Raley’s and other stores are stocking her Lemon Grass Kitchen products. The Sacramento-based chef developed recipes for pad thai with shrimp or chicken, beef or chicken with broccoli and noodles, lemon grass chicken and Korean chicken. The family-size meals have a suggested retail price of $7-$8.
“If I weren’t a restaurant chef, I would be what we call in the business an R&D (research and development) chef,” Pham said. “I’d take ingredients and turn them into something. Then someone at the other end takes them and packages them. I’ve always been like that, and it’s always been a puzzle for me.”
Pham, who owns Lemon Grass on Munroe Avenue and licenses her Star Ginger restaurant brand, said she likes the idea that consumers will get the same consistent results at home. Her focus on consistency began more than 15 years ago when she was at La Bou. The chain had about 27 locations at the time, Pham said, and there were great chefs in each. But each of those great chefs made the restaurant’s signature Thai soup differently, she said, so customers couldn’t get the same taste.
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She teamed up with Campbell’s and produced a spicy Thai chicken soup recipe for the restaurant industry, and she went on to do the same with her pho and green curry. When Campbell’s introduced Pham’s pho in its food-service line, national media took notice. Pham was invited to talk about it on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
Her sister began asking her when she was going to make something that she could buy in a grocery store, and Pham began a quest. She produced a line of sauces that are still sold at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, she said, but she didn’t have the kind of money to ramp up production.
To get the frozen entrees off the ground, Pham teamed up with Seattle-based InnovAsian Cuisine. She met the owner while teaching a class at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, she said, and they hit it off.
Earlier this month, Scott Syphax quietly began telling friends and business colleagues he was stepping down as CEO of The Nehemiah Companies, a post he has held for 16 years.
“In my new journey, my primary occupation will be spending my days ‘as a good-deed doer,’ contributing my small efforts in making this world a better place,” said Syphax, who will remain as chairman of Sacramento-based Nehemiah’s board.
Nehemiah, a nonprofit that helps first-time buyers and low- and moderate-income families acquire homes, sold off the vast majority of its interest in the development of Township 9, an in-fill project in Sacramento’s River District, to First Capital Real Estate Investments in February 2016. While that real-estate investment trust is based in New York, it is led by Sacramento native Suneet Singal.
Syphax told me that Darrell Teat, Nehemiah’s president for almost two years, will take on the role of acting CEO as the corporation disposes of its other major real estate investment: a portfolio of homes it bought out of foreclosure.
These homes will be renovated and sold to families or first-time home buyers in keeping with the organization’s mission of helping disadvantaged people attain home ownership. Teat anticipates that he will be done with this work by the end of summer, and then he has begun considering options for his next position.
“We’ve always identified market solutions to solving community problems,” Syphax said. “Our goal is always that we make a 10 percent return on the money invested (to reinvest in Nehemiah programs). If we couldn’t, then only as a last resort would we look for government or anybody else to come in and help us out. That was really the social enterprise vision of Nehemiah.”
The world is evolving, Syphax said, and there are no longer as many distressed properties to buy and resell. Nehemiah will continue to look for other market opportunities, but for now, the nonprofit will focus on the Nehemiah Community Foundation, which works to ensure that all people have the tools to become financially self-sufficient.
The foundation, led by former Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Rhonda Staley-Brooks, is perhaps best known locally for its Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program, a leadership development program that grooms young business people to advance in management or ownership of regional companies.
Syphax said, at 54, he’s ready to start the next chapter of his life, whatever that may be. Even if Nehemiah returns to work in the real estate market, he said, he will not return as CEO. He has begun work as an executive coach and is producing and hosting “Studio Sacramento” on PBS affiliate KVIE.