The first time Tina Nop was inspired to open a food truck in Portland, she was 16 years old. Nobody at City Hall knew what she was talking about.
The year was 1996, and Nop had recently moved to Maine from California with her mother, a Cambodian immigrant. Out West, Nop was frequently used to seeing 10 or 20 food trucks clustered together. In Portland, she also frequently saw hot dog carts parked on Commercial Street, so she thought her family could easily secure a permit for a food truck.
Instead, as she tried to translate for her parents and explain what they wanted, the city employee looked at her “like she was crazy,” Nop said. She was told Portland only had food carts.
“We left all dejected,” she said last week, “but 24 years later I might walk out with that license.”
Westbrook resident Nop, 40, last week became the first recipient of Fork Food Lab’s Entrepreneurial Empowerment Scholarship. The $4,300 award will help fund her plans to launch a food truck called Sok Sabai, which will serve a mix of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian comfort foods.
Fork Food Lab is a nonprofit that in exchange for paid memberships provides local food businesses with shared commercial kitchen space, equipment, and resources.
Corinne Tompkins, Fork director of member services, said her organization was inspired to create the scholarship, which aims to address “the racial-economic gap that inhibits Black, Indigenous, and people of color from starting businesses in Maine,” after the death of George Floyd on May 25 in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Tompkins said Fork has traditionally been silent in the face of what she called “major political waves,” but wanted to make “some positive action” and provide some “equity and sustainability” for local people facing systemic issues.
The scholarship will cover the cost of a six-month membership at Fork, as well as licensing costs, access to free legal, tax, and business planning, and additional marketing and brand support from local digital marketing agency iBec Creative.
The scholarship was made possible through a combination of private donations and a $2,500 sponsorship from Atlantic Federal Credit Union.
Bill Seretta, Fork’s executive director, said while this is his organization’s first Entrepreneurial Empowerment Scholarship, it will not be the last.
For immigrants in a new community, Seretta said, food is often “the window by which they enter.”
“When that (food) becomes a new item in the community, folks who are interested in food and trying different stuff are right there,” he said. “That becomes the window by which they learn about that culture, that person, that they would never have ever found out about before unless they had a chance to work with them in their environment.”
Tompkins said while Nop was the first person to approach Fork who fit the scholarship’s criteria, she is also the perfect first recipient because she has a business plan.
In thanking Fork for the scholarship on Nov. 12, Nop said while her path forward is a “little hazy,” she is very grateful to the team at the lab for helping her with the business side of making her truck a reality.
“I know how to work, I know how to cook, that’s it,” she said. “I figure I can pick people’s brains along the way and I’m willing to learn.”
Nop is currently employed full-time at Lake & Co., a Portland-based catering company that is a Fork member.
She said her hard-working spirit was built during her teenage years when she would help her mother pick sea urchins on the waterfront after her classes at Portland High School were finished.
She also worked at Portland Public Market as a teenager, which is where she said her love of baking began.
Her work ethic is clear. Prior to the event in her honor last week, she was rushing around preparing lunch for all of the attendees: a cold noodle salad with egg rolls and marinated chicken and pork skewers called a Ban Soong Bowl.
Nop became emotional while accepting her award from Tompkins last week, and said “things like this don’t happen to people (like her).”
She said making her food truck a reality will require more funding. She has her truck but still needs to install the kitchen equipment that a friend is leasing to her. She said she hopes to have the business on the street by early 2021.
The pattern of other people extending kindness to her, Nop said, has been an instrumental theme throughout her life, and she would like to pay homage to that with her food truck.
Her mother was one of only four members of her family to survive the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s that led to the deaths of more than 2 million people. Her mother was the only member of her family to make it to America.
Throughout Nop’s childhood in California, there were times when she, her mother, and her siblings were homeless.
“Without the kindness of people that took us from the homeless shelters, or let us rent a room, or helped us buy groceries or my sister’s baby formula, I don’t know where we would be,” she said.
In the same vein, she said the reason her food truck will have Vietnamese and Laotian cuisine in addition to Cambodian food is to honor the cultures of all the people who have helped her family.
Without aunts or uncles in the United States, Nop said, neighbors of all backgrounds filled that void in her life and often came over to cook food and socialize. With her truck, she wants to share recipes from “all the cultures” that shaped her.
“When you come to eat at this truck, I’m going to feed you like you came to my house,” she said. “I’m going to treat you like you’re in my tribe because that’s what it’s about. Without a good community, without a good tribe, I probably would not still be here.”