By Doniphan Blair
Behind a nondescript facade and a modest-demeanored woman, who is also exceedingly pregnant of late, lurks West Oakland’s most recent addition to the foodie revolution.
Previously in a time-share kitchen in San Francisco, she has been at this location since 2010. She now has ten employees, a bunch of interns and her products in Whole Foods, Berkeley Bowl, Cal-Mart, Rainbow Grocery and Piedmont Grocery, among other stores.
Nona Lim started her company, (Nona Lim) named after herself, six years ago, shortly after moving from London, where she was in software and management consulting.
She also married an American and “after eight years he had enough of Europe and wanted to move back to the States to work in technology,” Ms Lim told me, in her near-perfect but still accented English—she’s originally from Singapore.
Ms. Lim in her bustling kitchen. photo: D. Blair
When Nona first arrived in the Bay Area, she noticed all these wonderful farmers markets with great ingredients but also that the people didn’t have time to put together a nice, healthy meal. So she started making “meal kits” with all the ingredients prepped and ready to cook, testing it first with friends. For the first couple of years, she did all the chopping, dicing and even delivery herself. Now her self-titled operation has established itself as a thriving food enterprise.
“If you think about the celebrity chef on television, where everything is prepared for them and they are only doing the last bit—that’s what our meal kits do,” Ms. Lim continued.
After showing me around the office and bustling kitchen and chatting in a storage area, we settled in her front waiting room while her miniature husky, Cleo, played at her feet.
“Two and half years ago, we started off with some soups. By the end of this year, we will have rolled out to Seattle and Portland. It’s all about economy of scale. We are going through an exciting growth stage but it’s challenging because you need to get to the tipping point.”
Another aspect of that rapid growth, she just won an Oakland Youth-Friendly Business Network Award for mentoring Oakland youth.
“We didn’t know we were nominated, actually. It was for work we did with the non-profit organization Spark that gets teenagers attached to companies for an eight-week period. One of the students was interested in becoming a chef, so they reached out to us.”
As it happened, one of her employees, Megan Stariha, is very passionate about youth, so much in fact she just left Nona Lim to become the program coordinator at Sparks.
“I love Oakland,” Lim gushed. “It’s nice; parking is easy; everything is more affordable.” In fact, she and her husband recently moved to Oakland.
More importantly, perhaps, her company got grants from Oakland’s Jobs Now Program in 2010, a Tenant Improvement Grant and help from Inner City Advisors, which works with corporate leaders to help entrepreneurs create quality inner city jobs.
Ms. Lim and her associates win an award for helping to create quality Oakland jobs. photo: courtesy N. Lim
From the beginning, Lim has been dedicated to creating foods that work as cleansers. In addition to working with a medical advisory board of doctors and nutritionists for the last five years, she is matriculating in the nutrition program at Bauman College, Berkeley (main campus, Santa Rosa), which specializes in holistic nutrition and culinary arts.
“I found that if you have a sensitivity to gluten or diary, it doesn’t matter if you are eating organic bread or drinking organic milk, you are still going to have a problem,” Lim explained. “So I designed a meal program that is much more allergen-free. It takes out all the standard allergens like gluten, dairy, soy, yeast and nightshade.”
“We really like our detox product, so different from the juice or detox cleanses out there. They are powder or juice based but you can use food to go on a natural cleanse. We teach people how to eat and portion control. A lot of clients end up losing weight and getting rid of a lot of their allergy symptoms—better skin, more energy. It’s pretty transformational.”
“But it also has a quite high price point. We would like to create products that are a little more accessible but still fulfill our three elements: healthy, convenient and taste.”
“Everything is really clean—no preservatives, made from scratch in our facility here. For the soups, we make the broth from scratch, which is unheard of, most people use a concentrate—no citric acid, no hydrolyzed yeast.” They also use olive oil instead of butter, organic chicken, sustainable seafood low in mercury, grass-fed beef and other good ingredients.
“Singaporeans are big foodies,” Nona said, smiling broadly. “I learned how to cook from my dad when I was seven. I have always been interested in all these [Singaporean] hawkers and street food. I love all kinds of Asian cuisine but living in Europe and traveling all over has given me a more global influence.”
“What is the best Asian cuisine?” I asked her, admitting it was a trick question.
“I really like Japanese food,” she said. “I like the emphasis on the quality of ingredients, letting it speak for itself. It is not overdosed with sauces. It is clean and healthy and they have a dedication to perfecting their art.”
“I also like Singapore street food,” she added, not just tactfully but with enthusiasm. “Because it is an immigrant society, we have a lot of Chinese, Indian and Malay food—just all over the place. You can go to a hawker [food court] and there will be 20-30 types of food.”
“Singaporean food has some commonality with Malaysian and is very similar to Indonesian as well with its curries, and with Thai cuisine in terms of the stir fry, although Thai has a little more fish sauce. Then there are some uniquely Singaporean foods.”
“[Recently] there was an international food festival and [the celebrity chef] Gordon Ramsey was there challenging some street hawkers to make some traditional Singaporean food. He spent a couple of days learning how to make the dishes and then there was a throw down. People were queuing up for 12 hours. He won on one but lost on two.”
“When I go back to Singapore, I don’t go to the restaurants; I spend my whole time eating street food. The hawkers make just that one dish, often a family tradition, running that little stand for decades and decades. People will drive for an hour and queue for an hour just to buy it. That’s how crazy Singaporeans are about their food.”
And now Nona is bringing this same dedication and mastery, the best of both worlds—her cuisine but you home cook it—to a store near you. If only she had a retail outlet where West Oaklanders could go for lunch, now that would be perfect.
Read more from the original publisher, West Oakland Works.