So where do local Asian restaurants get ethnic ingredients? They call Panda Trading Co.
Supplier sources hard-to-get fruits and vegetables
Grace S. Yek | WCPO contributor
10:00 AM, Jun 13, 2017
LOCKLAND, Ohio -- Who do you call when you need cases of Chinese fragrant pears (xiang li) or pounds of Thai basil or snow pea leaves delivered? If you're like many Asian restaurants in Greater Cincinnati, you have Panda Trading Co.'s number on speed dial.
Panda Trading is a food-distribution company specializing in ethnic ingredients and supplies.
"We focus on a niche market that has been under-serviced for as long as we know," said majority owner and operator Kam Siu.
The company primarily services Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, along with some Chinese and Korean places. It handles a long list of products, including Chinese eggplant, Asian greens (yu choy, bok choy and water spinach), exotic fruits (Thai guava, rambutans and longans) and a wide variety of herbs, sauces and spices.
"When fragrant pear was in season, we did a couple of thousand cases in a four-month time span," Siu said. Historically cultivated in China, fragrant pears are crispy, intensely sweet and floral.
Panda Trading works directly with Vietnamese and Thai companies based in the United States. It also imports certain produce -- such as jackfruit -- directly from Asia, which helps to keep its prices competitive.
In addition to ethnic food, the company also handles mainstream ingredients like yellow onions, meats and seafood.
"If you give us an opportunity, we'll source it," Siu said.
Siu was born in Fuzhou, in China's Fujian province. His family migrated to the United States when he was 5 years old and settled in Rochester, New York. He grew up in the restaurant business: His uncle owned a Chinese restaurant, where Siu and his older brother spent their weekends.
"My brother and I worked on the weekends, polishing silverware, wiping down menus, busing tables," he said. "We got paid 10 bucks for the whole day. It was a ton of money for us at that time."
Growing up, they were always aware of what was in store for them: opening their own restaurant or going to college. Siu chose college.
"I liked the business side more," he said.
He then went to the University of Dayton and double-majored in finance and entrepreneurship. Siu met his wife there and decided to stay in the Midwest, moving to Cincinnati when he took a job as a financial advisor.
It didn't take long for Siu to miss his restaurant roots. After three months, he moved on to manage the front-of-the-house at Trio Bistro and followed that with management stints at the Holiday Inn and Marriott.
Then he did something that would lay the groundwork for his future venture: He joined Jungle Jim's as international purchasing manager. He dug deep into the wholesaling business and even helped set up the wholesaling department at the Eastgate store.
Siu saw an opportunity in the marketplace: He noticed a swath of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants that weren't adequately serviced by mainstream distributors. There's typically a deficiency in product knowledge for particular ingredients like rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), Asian produce, herbs and spices. Distributors that cater to Chinese restaurants also weren't meeting those restaurants' needs, he said.
"There's a language barrier," Siu said. "Their sales reps speak Chinese but not English."
The realization spurred his decision to strike out on his own.
"I got the papers filed, called my vendors and got inventory in, and we're off the ground," he recalled.
It's been three years since Panda Trading launched. Today, the company services roughly 100 accounts in Greater Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville, primarily growing by word of mouth and in some cases, good old-fashioned cold-calling.
Siu attributes the company's growth to its product expertise, competitive pricing and willingness to problem-solve on behalf of its clients. That sometimes means helping clients find goods in just the right kind of packaging, rerouting deliveries to help a client in crisis and even absorbing unexpected spikes in food prices.
Siu said he is mindful about not growing too quickly.
"We don't want tens of thousands of accounts where we lose touch with the (restaurant) owners," he said. "We want to know the owners, the operation, and do what we can to help them grow."
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.