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The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked ingenuity throughout the nation, particularly among small food businesses which have been forced to dream up interesting new ways to keep their doors open.
It’s been an interesting journey for Alex Hanesakda, owner of SapSap, a food-based business through which owner Alex Hanesakda has introduced the food world to both food products and experiences that underscore both Lao flavors and traditions.
The business, which has hosted numerous pop-up dinners over the years, spent weeks gearing up for a highly anticipated pop-up at the East Side’s Crossroads Collective. The pop-up, which took place March 12 through the 22, started off with a bang.
"Our first day there, we got nailed. We expected to be busy, but not that busy. Everyone was excited, and we were prepared for a great ten days."
FoodCrush co-host Matt Mueller and I even dropped by on Thursday, March 12 to film our first-ever mukbang, tasting ALL the dishes on the pop-up menu – from Lao beef jerky and eggrolls to papaya salad, Lao sausage, Lao BBQ and kha tee, a fragrant coconut curry soup – all in 23 flavor-filled minutes.
But five days in, as the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin began to demand further attention and the Shelter at Home mandate went into place, business slowed.
"We did alright," says Hanesakda. "But business definitely slowed down after the first few days."
To make up for lost profits, they created an online ordering system and put bottles of their Jeow Som hot sauce up for sale. Those sold out in less than two weeks. At that point, Hanesakda says, they began thinking about new ways to keep business operations going.
Ultimately, he says, it became a no brainer to head back to their Racine-based commercial kitchen at The Branch, 1501 Washington Ave., and launch a curbside pick-up operation from there.
"After giving it some thought," he says, "We decided we should just try it out and see what happens."
What happened was a complete sell-out on the first day of business with support from customers who came from a variety of markets including Burlington, Chicago, Milwaukee and Racine.
"It was crazy," he says. "We implemented an online ordering app, and everyone pre-ordered food… it got to the point where we had to shut the pre-ordering system down. We sold out of all of our product for the week in one day."
Among SapSap’s most popular items is their fried chicken and bacon banh mi, which showcases beautifully crisp fried chicken made with Korean-style rice flour and tapioca starch batter. That's layered with smoky bacon, sweet and zippy jeow som mayonnaise and crisp jeow som infused pickles and vegetables (including daikon, carrots and jalapenos).
"It’s completely ridiculous," says Hanesakda. "But it’s really delicious. It’s like Southeastern Asian meets State Fair food."
This week’s SapSap menu includes charred skirt steak seasoned with lemongrass, garlic and palm sugar and served with sticky rice and Jeow Som ($13); SapSap sausage seasoned with kaffir lime, Thai chilies and galangal and served with sticky rice and Jeow Som ($10); fried chicken banh mi with bacon, Lao pickled vegetables and spicy Lao garlic chili mayo ($9); and Mama’s Eggrolls filled with pork, potato and vermicelli noodles ($1.50 each or $8 per dozen).
Moving forward, Hanesakda says he’ll be rolling out a number of new dishes including rice bowls, Lao BBQ selections and a variety of new dishes making use of seasonal produce.
"We’ll keep this going indefinitely," he says. "The reception has been so amazing. It’s really, really great."
Looking to the future
Despite uncertainty about the weeks and months ahead, Hanesakda says he has a few plans in place for the coming months.
First, he says, they will be pursuing a second run of their Jeow Som hot sauce, which will be available for online ordering in the weeks ahead.
"The prices for ingredients have really gone up," he says. "But we’ve made some connections and should be able to resume production next week."
He’s also planning a pop-up concept in collaboration with Sweet Basil, the new Lao and Thai restaurant at 6509 S. 27th St. in Franklin, which opened its doors on Friday, April 10.
"My cousins own Sweet Basil, so we’re talking about hosting pop-ups there this summer," says Hanesakda.
For now, you can get your SapSap fix curbside. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Orders can be placed online for pick-up.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.