Italian fare. French cuisine. Soul food. Artisanal cheese. Handmade chocolates. Artist installations. Live music. Pop-ups. A truly inventive destination for intriguing dining, entertainment and gathering is set to open in 2019, and the driving force behind Salt Lake’s upcoming Food Alley is Mai Nguyen, CEO of Sapa Investment Group.
Ms. Nguyen, who helms the family-owned restaurant and development company, cultivated her vision for Food Alley during trips to Asia. Particularly in Japan, she was inspired by urban alleys lined with a dozen or more small family-operated restaurants, all serving just a few items. “At night people would walk to these areas, families enjoying themselves, it was all part of a vibrant night life. There’s nothing like that in Salt Lake now. Salt Lake needs a place for gathering, a place to come late into the night and enjoy cuisine from all over the world,” she said.
About four years ago, Ms. Nguyen set the vision in motion. Sapa Investment purchased property on the corner of 800 South and State Street—adding gravitational pull to a downtown scene that has been slowly expanding south.
Food Alley already boasts a promising line-up of restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and partners who will collaborate to bring Food Alley to fruition. In total, there will be about 17 small restaurants on the ground floor offering specialized menus. On the second floor, 21 artist lofts will feature the work of professional artists, coordinated through a partnership Nguyen has helped forge with the Utah Arts Alliance.
Perhaps most unique—and inspiring—is the work Ms. Nguyen and her team have done to partner with Spice Kitchen Incubator, a program of the International Rescue Committee that creates food business opportunities for refugees and disadvantaged individuals. “Some of Spice Kitchen’s entrepreneurs will be coming in—Indian, Venezuelan food—a lot of different varieties,” said Ms. Nguyen.
“We are immigrants from Vietnam,” she continued. “Our family came to America back in ’83. Being immigrants, being entrepreneurs, we know what it’s like to be in this new country without a lot of money. You want to share your culture. That’s why we want to partner with Spice Kitchen, to give others an opportunity to do what we did here.”
In addition to the restaurant space, Ms. Nguyen is developing optional business mentoring and support services for Food Alley’s up-and-coming chefs. “The food industry is one of the most challenging industries there is, with a 90 percent failure rate for startup restaurants,” she said. “One of the things we’ll provide is a corporate team, human resources, marketing, payroll, providing help for those who want to focus on what they do best, cooking the food.”
Ms. Nguyen is happy to pass along what the family has learned since their mother opened her first restaurant in Utah in 1992. Today, the family business owns four restaurants across the Salt Lake Valley, including Sapa Sushi Bar & Grill downtown. At 48,000 square feet, Food Alley will be their biggest undertaking to date, and Nguyen is excited about the opportunity.
“We love Utah—it’s been extremely welcoming, and we’ve found a sense of success for all our restaurants. We have a great following, and now Utah is becoming an emerging urban community. People are ready for more diversity in food and culture and experiences. Food Alley is bringing that world culture to Utah.”