Cathie Anderson: Mai Pham soon will have nearly 20 Star Ginger eateries nationwide

Sacramentans gobble up chef Mai Pham’s noodles, banh mi and curries at her Star Ginger restaurant on Folsom Boulevard, but the region’s appetite for Pham’s Asian delights pales next to that of patrons at some of her other Star Ginger eateries.

Pham now has 13 locations across the nation, and she’ll open at least six more in the next six months. Some readers might be surprised to learn that the local Star Ginger was actually the third to be constructed, not the first. Pham introduced her fast-casual concept at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 2003, after an administrator there saw her on television and invited her to serve students on the campus.

More than a decade later, she inked a deal with food services giant Sodexo that has rapidly expanded her empire to college and corporate food courts around the nation. Pham, for instance, soon will be serving thousands of Mickey Mouse’s co-workers at Disney World and Disneyland.

“(The Sodexo partnership) allows us to grow our brand and take our passion on a national level without having to open a street location and weather all the challenges,” Pham said. “They are already there. They have the customer and the wherewithal. They’ve got the infrastructure – the buildings, the electricity, so for them, it’s much more doable. We’ve found them to be a really good fit for what we do.”

Many local residents know Pham best for Lemon Grass, her fine-dining restaurant on Munroe Street near Fair Oaks Boulvard in Sacramento, and that’s where she does much of the development for her Star Ginger menu items.

“We’re trying to keep our flavor profile very dynamic and a small percentage of the menu ever-changing,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing with this (Folsom Boulevard) location, so we learn a lot from here, and we use this restaurant as a place where we experiment on some of these ideas.”

What ’07 weaved

Before the recession, Mansour Yaghoubian would find thousands of Oriental rugs to choose from as he traveled the Far East on buying sprees for his showrooms in Sacramento and Roseville.

These days, Yaghoubian told me, he often laments to rug manufacturers that he has more product at his Mansour’s rug galleries than he typically finds at individual warehouses in India, Pakistan, Iran and other stops.

“They don’t have the inventory,” he said. “What you do is you have to order the piece. You have to pay money in advance. They make the production for you, and they ship it six months or a year later, after the rug is woven.”

Yaghoubian explained that the 2007 downturn sharply reduced demand for showpiece rugs, and rug weavers had to find work elsewhere. They moved into the cities and became comfortable with their newfound employment. Now that demand is picking up, they don’t want their old jobs in the villages.

“They say, ‘Why should I work as a rug weaver, to break my back, to make my eyes weaker? I get more money. I can work in construction. I can work in the computer factories in the big cities like New Delhi or Calcutta,’” Yaghoubian said.

It means that Yaghoubian must pay a higher price for the handmade rugs he finds and orders. But, he said, it will also make the rugs he can get more valuable in the future.

A cocktail’s cocktail

Trust a college student to try to dream up a way to make a cocktail healthier. No, scratch that, trust three of them to try it.

Ron Alvarado Jr., Matt McDonald and Mike Williamson were seniors and roommates at Santa Clara University when they came up with the idea of injecting vitamins, nutrients, electrolytes and antioxidants into their alcoholic beverages. Now they’re trying to get it into bars and homes.

“When you metabolize alcohol, you lose these things,” said Alvarado, a Sacramento native and 2006 graduate of Jesuit High School, “and so what Ficks does is it fortifies your cocktail with things you’re going to lose while you drink to help prepare you for the next day and also to help with your liver health while you’re ingesting alcohol.”

Alvarado and his partners are using IndieGoGo to raise enough money to pay all the people necessary to produce their first 5,000 bottles of Ficks Cocktail Fortifier. With 15 days still to go on their campaign, they already have surpassed their goal of $28,000.

One of Silicon Valley’s largest marketing firms, Liquid Agency, is partnering with the three college buddies to get Ficks off the ground. The liquid fortifier comes in three flavors: ginger, lime and lemon.

“Each bottle is 8 ounces, and we recommend a half-ounce serving, and so there’s 16 servings of Ficks in each 8-ounce bottle,” Alvarado said.