Sixteen years ago, Sammy Lee had an epiphany. He realized he was among the few children to escape life on the streets of his native Thailand. He realized he had made more money than most street urchins in Southeast Asia will ever see in their lifetime. But he also realized he was unfulfilled in life. How could someone who had come so far in life feel so unsuccessful?
“Every day is a gift from God and I didn’t share my gift with anyone else,” Sammy said.
When 21-year-old Sammy arrived from Thailand in 1982 he didn’t know anyone, the language or the laws. But within a decade, he was making a fortune flipping properties during the real estate boom of the Northwest.
“The gift of life is to help people,” Sammy said. “I have no desire to chase money anymore. For 10 years I thought I had the American Dream but I was having other people raise my kids and all I cared about were the things I had.”
In 1993, Sammy started to find ways to help other children like him escape the sex trafficking of his homeland where 10% of all children are forced into prostitution. He became part of an international group of individuals to hold worship conferences for youth. To talk to them about the opportunities in life and provide them hope for a better life.
“It was a great project and I loved doing mission work,” Sammy said. “But I wanted to be closer to home.”
The project ended in 2008, and again, Sammy looked for purpose in his life. In 2011, Sammy returned to Thailand. Instead of trying to free others from their past, he used this trip to reconnect with his own. He spent two months living on the streets of Thailand where he grew up. He worked for food at street vendors on Hanoi Street in Singapore, with one condition – that they teach him how to cook authentic Thai food and share their traditional recipes.
“Everything is made fresh the day it is served,” he said. Fish is fresh off the boat. Noodles were made the day before and dried over night. Roots, herbs, fruits and vegetables are cut that morning to provide the strongest flavors and aromas. “The idea of Thai food is that it is fast, affordable and pretty healthy.”
He returned that summer and started his business Noodle People. Sammy decided to debut his Thai street food out of a food truck at the Fresno Fair on July 4. After one-week at the fair, Sammy had blisters all over his hands trying to keep up with the orders. He also had a viable business and a plan to help Southeast Asian emigrants to reconnect with their culture through food with a 12-step process. Step 1 was complete.
“People really responded to the food,” he said. “There are so many different types of ingredients the combinations are endless.”
In April 2012 Sammy was living in Exeter. Looking for a place near home to solidify his business, Sammy attended the Friday Night Market and Street Faire in downtown Lindsay. In just one season at the market, Sammy was able to sell his food truck in December and hold a grand opening for his Noodle People restaurant on Jan. 14.
“I love the market here because it reminds me of Thailand,” he said. “Every city in Thailand has a market like this. It brings the community together to share, trade and exchange.”
Noodle People’s menu features dishes from all over southeast Asia, including Khao Soy Noodle Soup, chicken Khao Poon Soup, Tom Yum Soup, Red Chicken Curry, Phad Thai, Phad Mee mixed with a few Americanized versions of Crispy Shrimp, Fried Calamari and Chicken Lettuce Wrap. Sammy provides large portions and great, healthy food all for under $9. The top seller is Drunken Noodle.
“Right now I am perfecting a training manual that can then be used by anyone,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to open a business, train someone to run it and then turn the business over to them. It’s like the old Chinese Proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’”
The next phase of Sammy’s 12-step vision is to open a second restaurant in a small town like Lindsay. He said he wants to keep all of his locations small, simple and easy to opearte with a maximum seating of about 24 people.
“I want people to taste God’s goodness through great food,” Sammy said. “By having small restaurants, people will have an atmosphere of conversation and sharing. Small towns like Lindsay need variety so they don’t have to go out of town to get something to eat.”
Noodle People is located at 246 N. Elmwood Ave. in Lindsay. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 559-303-7793 or visit Noodle-people.com.
“Lindsay is one of the poorest cities in the nation,” Sammy said. “I figure if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.”