Lessons from the Queen of Carts

A ten dollar bill, a two dollar bill, a Presidential dollar coin and a half-dollar.

That’s what I got in change after paying for my meal. It was, as I posted on Twitter at the time, like “winning the Superbowl of change”.


Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a food cart in downtown Portland. Khao Man Gai is an authentic Thai street dish made up of boiled chicken, rice and a pungent sauce made of soybeans, garlic, ginger, thai chilies, vinegar and sugar.

Trust me when I say it will hook you instantly. I eat there at least once a week.

Nong, whose real name is Narumol Poonsukwattana, is a 30-something whirling dervish of a woman. Always friendly, she welcomes you, rain or shine, with an infectious smile that beams from ear to ear.

Her cart, which she opened in 2009 and operates five days a week until the food runs out, is always crushed. It was recently named one of the top 10 places to eat by the Guardian and among the best destinations in the world for street food by US News.

All this success has led Nong to a burgeoning empire with two new locations, a growing catering business and a line of bottled goods that recently hit the shelves of local retailers. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

So what can we learn from her?



Nong serves only one dish. Her chicken and rice. But she’s mastered it. As a result, she effectively owns her market and word of her product spreads like wildfire.

Even the Cooking Channel has taken note of this and recently did a deep dive into Nong’s signature dish.

Too often we find companies and brands reaching for every opportunity that’s perceived to be out there, and in the process they lose themselves, their identity and, too many times, their customers.

Nong, on the other hand, has found ways to grow her business (new locations, ancillary businesses like catering) but she’s never strayed from what made her successful in the first place. That one dish.

So. Master your dish.


Ordering at Nong’s is easy. You can order Chicken and Rice or a “big” Chicken and Rice. That’s it.

What are you doing to make things as easy as Nong’s for your clients and customers?

Real estate is a big messy transaction, but the rough edges of the customer experience can be sanded down to a much smoother flow.

Embrace technology (when it makes sense)

Nong’s chicken is a timeless recipe. Her wooden cart is a little on the rustic side. But the experience is decidedly modern.

Hers was among the first food carts to embrace the Square card reader and the Pay with Square app for mobile payments system. Open a tab and walk up – your food will be waiting for you and you don’t even have to reach into your wallet to pay.

Technology can often be a distraction, but when it becomes core to the experience it can be marvelous.

Are you keeping up with what’s new out there?

Deliver a memorable experience

Most importantly, Nong’s cart didn’t settle on doing just those three things. They had to go one step further…

A ten dollar bill, a two dollar bill, a Presidential dollar coin and a half-dollar.

Getting those coins and notes in my hands stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s not everyday that you see that combination of currency. I told my friends and laughed about it with my family.

There are dozens and dozens of food carts on the blocks around Nong’s, but they made something as simple as the change they returned to me out of a $20 bill into something memorable. In short, they stood out.

What are you going to do today to do the same?