Racine Restaurant Promotes Philanthropy and Laotian Culture through Food
The discourse surrounding the Vietnam War has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. During the ‘60s, the conflict, both overseas and at home with anti-war protesters, was framed as a battle between America and communism thanks to the influence of the Red Scare.
Twenty years later however, society began to look towards the true result of the war—displaced refugees and homeless, traumatized veterans. One person helping bring awareness to these issues is Alex Hanesakda, owner of the Laotian restaurant Sap Sap. The son of Laotian immigrants, Hanesakda started up the eatery in 2016, holding pop ups and events that offered a varied menu of cuisine from his home country such as homemade eggrolls and Kaffir lime sausages.
Proceeds of the meals sold are donated to the Veteran Outreach of Wisconsin. The popularity of his business continued during 2020 as he set up a pop up at the event space, The Branch. The success and community engagement led Sap Sap to finally find a permanent Racine home at the former Italian restaurant Totero’s in June. The business is also expanding its horizons with the establishment of Thum Puk (“cheers” and “chopping”) brewing. I met with Alex Hanesakda to discuss the restaurant’s success, his activism, the link between cooking and heritage and his future plans.
What brought you to Racine?
I kind of lived all over from Burlington to Milwaukee, and to Madison. When my son was born, we were in Madison and had family in Racine and Burlington. We wanted him to be around family more so we came back to Racine.
Describe what cooking and cuisine means to you and your family.
My earliest childhood memories revolved around food. My mom used to sell eggrolls to her work and our neighbors to buy us school clothes as a side job. Food literally fed us, it made us money, it was pretty much everything to us.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I never planned to be a chef. It was always being in the kitchen with my parents growing up. Laos wasn’t very popular, it was off the radar with everything. I felt it was my duty to explain to people, through food, why there was a Laos refugee exodus from Laos to America. I thought we could tell our story through our business.
What do you hope Sap Sap will bring to the community?
Right now, an understanding of what happened in Laos and why it’s important that refugees are woven into the fabric of America. We also offer help with our programs that feed families who are in need and homeless veterans with free meals. We donate a proceed of our product to a non-profit that helps war victims.
In your view, how do cuisine, heritage, and politics intertwine?
For us, they intertwine by being one thing—our heritage is cuisine and our cuisine is our heritage. As far as politics, it’s only on our minds as a last resort. Our goal with our business is to help others with what we have and to help others with our success.
What are your future aspirations for your business?
We want to have more than one location, we want to have a food truck and overall, a wholesale business. We want to do more philanthropy with what we do and spread our culture through food. The more people we reach, the better.