Kristine C. Weller



When I heard our beat this semester was “the” Asian American community, I was very excited. 

Given the amount of Asian hate spurred by the coronavirus, and the number of microaggressions and discrimination Asian Americans experience on a daily basis, I knew this topic was important to cover. It is beneficial to report on beats such as this because they bring light to issues different groups face.

But I was also anxious. I felt unqualified. 

I had only published one story, and I was worried people wouldn’t want to speak with me and that my writing wouldn’t depict these communities accurately. 

This is why on the drive to the Wat Dhammagunaram temple in Layton, I did not stop when planned.

I was almost on autopilot. The drive to my hometown is one I have experienced many times. Even the path to the temple is very familiar — I admired it every day on my way to junior high. 

But as I saw the temple come into view at 10:30 a.m., I passed it. I didn’t pull into the parking lot as I was supposed to. 

I drove all the way to my childhood home and then back to the temple, 10 minutes round trip. 

After finally pulling into the parking lot of the temple, I felt the familiar pang of nerves. I had been here the week before, but that was to talk to just one monk, Phitthayaphon. Now I needed to talk to people attending the Sunday service, I needed to face a group. 

Would they refuse to talk to me? Would they be annoyed I was there?

I checked my bag for seemingly the tenth time that day. All the important things were accounted for: a small notebook with easily turnable pages, a fully charged phone and five pens. 

The five pens might have been overkill, but I wanted to be prepared. 

I walked to the front door of the temple and slipped off my dress shoes, placing them on the rack by other pairs. It had recently rained, and I was careful not to get my socks wet as I stepped toward the door and walked inside. 

I only had a second to take everything in before Arunne Chwab, who I later learned is a committee member at the temple, greeted me. 

“Are you new?” she asked. 

I breathed a sigh of relief. Right when she addressed me, I knew I would be OK. Everyone was so friendly, introducing me to others I might like to speak with, like Poonie, the oldest Buddhist in the temple, or Warunee, the temple treasurer. 

This moment reminded me why I love meeting new people. Although I’m not sure if I will ever feel less anxious going into situations like this, I am always delighted to find that people are so kind. It is a pleasure to meet and talk with such welcoming people. 

Discovering I really enjoy talking to varied people is part of why I decided to start studying journalism. 

In the fall of 2021, I was just learning the basics of journalism. Only half a year later, I am completely sure I want to be a journalist. 

While working on my story on the Wat Dhammagunaram temple, I didn’t just write because I needed to meet a deadline — I wrote because I like writing. I enjoyed every step of the process and continued editing until I felt I had a product that was my best. 

Anxiety has been a constant companion when I think of my future career. However, now that I know I can do something I am passionate about, enjoy, and is important, my anxiety has eased.

I am so glad the stories for this beat allowed me to learn so much about myself and about Asian American people and communities. Plus, I feel a little more qualified to be a journalist. 


Kristine Weller recently went through a major change. Previously studying business economics and on the path to becoming a consultant, she is now an aspiring journalist. Weller realized that she would rather pursue her passion and affinity for writing. Looking through different career paths, she discovered journalism and decided to try it out. 

Although it was something new and challenging, writing and reporting were very exciting. Weller published her first story and knew very quickly that journalism was the right path for her. She is now studying communication with an emphasis in journalism and international studies with a focus on human rights. Weller plans to graduate from the University of Utah in 2023. After graduation, she wishes to combine both of her studies by reporting on human rights-related issues. 

The Wat Dhammagunaram Buddhist temple — a peaceful piece of home


The Wat Dhammagunaram Layton temple. Photo by Kristine Weller.

The aromas of homemade Thai food wafted through the hall. A box of sesame balls, a tin pan of pad thai, a plate of fried vegetables, and lots of hot white rice were placed by the entrance to the temple. 

More dishes were added as people arrived. Beef jerky, spicy papaya salad, fish and doughnuts. 

Members conversed with each other in Thai while arranging the food neatly on a counter. Some grabbed water bottles or poured freshly brewed tea into paper cups. 

Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., Buddhists begin gathering at the Wat Dhammagunaram Layton temple. There they have created a place for community, peace, and Theravada Buddhism.

Most Sundays a woman called Poonie is in attendance. Poonie, 93, is the oldest Buddhist at the temple. She helped set up the first Wat Dhammagunaram temple and has been supporting it ever since. 

Poonie is from Thailand and came to Utah because her husband worked at Hill Air Force Base (HAFB). In fact, according to a welcome pamphlet the temple provides, most of the founders of the Wat Dhammagunaram temple are wives of American airmen from HAFB. 

The pamphlet explains that these Thai immigrants wanted a place for traditional religious services. So, they founded the Wat Dhammagunaram temple in 1975, but it didn’t look like it does today. 

It began in a small residential home in Ogden and was then later moved to a second house in Layton. Finally, the temple found its current location at 644 E. 1000 North in Layton and was consecrated in 1995. 

The Wat Dhammagunaram sign identifying the temple. The committee members for the temple wish to add a fence here too so that the temple is more recognizable. Photo by Kristine Weller.

Many immigrants who go to this temple are Thai, although there have been members from Laos and Cambodia as well. Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are all predominantly Theravada Buddhist countries, which is why the Wat Dhammagunaram temple practices Theravada Buddhism. 

Phitthayaphon, one of the monks at this temple, said the basics of Theravada Buddhism follow five precepts: refrain from killing, refrain from stealing, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from telling lies and refrain from intoxication. 

A booklet Phitthayaphon provided, “The Main Ideas of Theravada Buddhism” by Du Wayne Engelhart, explains two important things related to the five precepts. 

The first is they are not rules, they are guides. 

Engelhart writes, “We should want to follow the precepts, not because we fear being punished by God if we do not but because we understand that good effects will come from observing them.”

Second, the precepts also have a positive meaning. 

Engelhart explains that instead of just refraining from each item in the five precepts, aim to spread kindness to all living things, be honest in your words and actions and respect the rights of others, show moderation in sexual activities, be sincere in speech, and keep a clear state of mind. 

Another big part of Theravada Buddhism is the four noble truths. 

The book describes each of these truths. First is the noble truth of suffering (dukkha). According to Engelhart, this means “suffering in many forms occurs in human life because of the unsatisfactory and changing character of existence.”

Second is the noble truth of the origin (samudaya) of suffering.  Engelhart explains this means craving is the origin of suffering. 

Third is the noble truth of the end (nirodha, extinction) of suffering. Engelhart writes “getting rid of craving is getting rid of suffering.”

Fourth is the noble truth of the way (magga), which leads to the end of suffering. Engelhart explains that “the Noble Eightfold Path is the Middle Way that leads to the end of suffering.”

Buddhism also emphasizes being welcoming to everyone. 

Arunne Chwab, a committee member at the temple, said everyone is invited to come to the temple. In fact, all the members are very friendly to newcomers and make sure to include them in the service. 

“Even if you not believe in our religion, you can come,” Chwab said.

Five Red Apples

After members and newcomers take their seats, the monks begin melodic chanting. 

Each has a microphone, as does one other member who leads chants the attendees repeat back. Two large speakers project the monks’ rhythmic voices.

These are the five bowls that are offered during the service. Food and larger items are placed inside the bowls and money is placed in the trays. One bowl is offered to the Buddha and two bowls are offered to each monk. Photo by Kristine Weller.

During the service, members walk to five bowls lined up next to the counter with food. It is my first time at the temple, so I stay seated, unsure what I should do. 

One congregant then urges me to go with her. She has a whole bag full of offerings to put inside the bowls and wants to include me. 

We walk over to the bowls and she picks up a zip-close bag of fresh rice, raises it to her forehead, and places it into the first bowl. She then hands me a small red apple to offer. The last thing for the first offering is a dollar bill, which she raises to her forehead, and places on a tray in front of the bowl. She hands me a dollar bill as well, and I do the same. 

We repeat the same offering for each of the five bowls  — five bags of rice, five small red apples, five dollars each. 

Bright Orange Robes

Today, only two monks look after the temple and conduct Sunday services, Phitthayaphon and Prapatphan. 

The two monks who take care of the Wat Dhammagunaram temple: Prapatphan, left, and Phitthayaphon. Photo by Kristine Weller.

Phitthayaphon was born in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and started his monk training after primary school. He was 12 years old. He originally started his training because he wished to follow one of his friends. 

However, after going to the temple, studying the Buddha’s teachings, and practicing meditation, he said he felt peaceful and happy. That’s why he continued his training and is still a monk today. 

“This is my own decision,” Phitthayaphon said. “In Buddhism, we don’t force people to be ordained as a monk.”

He also said if he wanted to disrobe and not be a monk anymore, he would be free to do so. 

Phitthayaphon came to this temple after another monk he knew here invited him. He said the process to come to America is quite lengthy, which is partly why there are only two monks at the temple. He first got a tourist visa and after a few months, he applied for a religious visa. 

This is now Phitthayaphon’s fifth year at the temple. 

The other monk, Prapatphan, has only been at this temple for about nine months. He can’t speak English, but that doesn’t matter much.

Monks have a fairly structured day, and a lot of the time they are around Thai-speaking people. 

Phitthayaphon said he rises at 6 a.m. every day but Sunday and chants until 7:30 a.m. Breakfast is at 8 a.m. and once he has eaten he cleans. 

Three buildings are connected to the temple grounds. The temple where services are held, a smaller building to the northeast side of the temple where food is sometimes offered, and a house behind the temple where the monks live. Phitthayaphon cleans and helps take care of all of these buildings.

After cleaning, Phitthayaphon said the monks will usually study until 11 a.m. Then they must eat lunch because monks cannot eat after noon. They can still have drinks, though. Phitthayaphon said his favorite drink is tea, especially Thai orange tea and green tea.

During the week, Phitthayaphon said they will typically cook food for themselves, sometimes with ingredients the Buddhists have offered. He said his favorite is northern Thai dishes because they remind him of home. 

Buddhists will also offer lunch to the monks, so they do not have to cook, but that is usually on Friday or Saturday.  

When Buddhists do offer lunch, the monks are occasionally taken to restaurants. Phitthayaphon said he and the other monk once drove three hours to bless a new restaurant and have food offered to them.

This is actually unusual for monks, Phitthayaphon said, because in Thailand monks don’t drive. 

This is one of a few differences between Buddhism in Thailand compared to Buddhism in the U.S. Another is when the holy day is celebrated. 

Buddhism follows the lunar calendar, so its holy days will fall on different days of the week. However, because the U.S. is dominated by Christianity and the workweek is structured accordingly, Buddhists must practice on Sundays instead. 

This doesn’t seem to bother the members of the Wat Dhammagunaram temple. Chwab, the committee member, says she goes to the temple because she finds peace and can meditate there. The focus is less on the mechanics of what is traditionally done and more about finding peace and honoring the teachings of the Buddha.

“We come together because we love this peace and happiness,” Chwab said. 

Buddhist holidays also correspond to the lunar calendar. The two biggest holidays in Thai Buddhism are the Thai New Year and the Kathina (robe) Ceremony. 

Although the new year is celebrated in Thailand on April 13, 14 and 15, it is not always possible to celebrate on those days in Utah. The celebration must be on the weekend since people need to work, so this year the temple held the Thai New Year festival on April 16 and 17. 

This is Chwab’s favorite Buddhist holiday. During the new year, people ask for apologies from monks and elders, but there is also a big celebration. 

The Wat Dhammagunaram temple, she said, has a food fair every Thai New Year. A small stage outside on the temple grounds hosts traditional Vietnamese, Laos and Thai performances as well. 

Chwab said there will also be kickboxing and a Miss New Year contest. 

The other big holiday is the Kathina (robe) ceremony, which is essentially a ceremonial presentation of new robes to the monks. 

Phitthayaphon, the younger monk at the temple, said monks typically stay in one place for three months and it is no different for the monks at this temple. 

According to the BBC, the historical reason for this is that during the Vassa, or monsoon, period, monks were journeying together, intending to spend Vassa with the Lord Buddha. However, Vassa began before they reached the Lord Buddha, and they could no longer continue their journey. 

The Buddha then awarded cloth and told the monks to sew a robe and give it to another because “there was nothing as uplifting as generosity and sharing.” 

The BBC also explained that a Kathina is the frame used to make the robes. 

So, after the rainy season, monks are offered new robes. They are a striking orange and Phitthayaphon said the robes have three pieces. 

According to “The Buddha’s Robe” by Barbara O’Brien, the main piece is a large rectangle, about 6-by-9-feet. It is usually wrapped to cover the left shoulder and leave the right shoulder and arm exposed.

The second piece is worn under the first. O’Brien explains it is wrapped around the waist, covering the body from the knees to the waist. 

The third piece, O’Brien writes, is an extra robe. It can be “wrapped around the upper body for warmth” or is “sometimes folded and draped over a shoulder.”

Phitthayaphon occasionally wears an orange sweater under his robes, but this is only because it is cold in Utah. In Thailand, he said he would not wear a shirt underneath. 

Phitthayaphon in the main temple area. He wears a sweater under his robe because it is cold in Utah, but in Thailand he would leave the right shoulder and arm bare. Photo by Kristine Weller.

He also said monks used to take robes from dead bodies. According to O’Brien, this is because the Buddha taught monks to get their robes from pure cloth, meaning cloth no one wants. 

O’Brien describes a cloth no one wants as the shroud the dead were wrapped in and soiled cloth. 

Today, monks no longer get their robes this way. Phitthayaphon said his now comes from a factory. However, the robes have always been the same bright orange. 

Wednesday Night Buddha

After making offerings to the first five bowls, I walk with the woman over to a table with eight more. These bowls each have a statue above it with the Buddha in different positions. Each corresponds to a day of the week, with two for Wednesday. 

She said Wednesday night is her favorite bowl to make an offering to. The Wednesday night statue is the Buddha standing with an elephant and monkey at its feet.

Below the bowl is a short explanation of the Wednesday Night Buddha. 

It says: “Buddha spent the rain retreat on his own in the Palilayaka (palelai) forest because he was tired of the monks of Kosambi who had split into two groups and were not in harmony. While in the forest, the elephant Palilayaka attended to him, and monkey offered him a beehive.”

I place a dollar she hands me in a different vessel and we stand in contemplative silence for a moment. 

We take our seats again as the previous five bowls are presented before the monks. Two bowls for each monk and one for the Buddha. 

The monks then begin their lyrical chant once more.

A Changing Landscape

The Wat Dhammagunaram temple has been at its current location since 1995. Although it has stood stable and strong in the ensuing years, the surrounding environment has been changing drastically since its consecration. 

An open field once surrounded the temple. However, residential buildings have sprung up in the last few decades. 

Previously a noticeable landmark, the temple is now easy to miss. 

The committee for the temple, made up of volunteers like Poonie and Chwab, is concerned about this. Warunee, another member, said the group wants to build a fence in front of the temple. 

“We want to make something in front to show people this is a Buddhist temple,” Warunee said.

The committee meets monthly to discuss temple activities and finances. Warunee is the treasurer, so she keeps track of money and bills. Every two weeks she counts the money that has been donated to the temple. 

At the end of the service I attended, she counted $968. 

Warunee counts the money collected from the service. Photo by Kristine Weller.

All the members cheered when Warunee announced this number; they are happy to support their temple. 

Warunee said the donations are divided into three parts. One part goes to the temple, which pays for utilities or gas. The other two parts are for the monks. She said they work for free, and they need some income for themselves as well. 

You Like Spicy?

A woman rings a gong. 

The chanting has stopped, and the gong reverberates into silence.

Now, about 30 minutes before noon, it is time for the monks to have their last meal of the day.

The monks sit at a table toward the back of the temple. Steam drifts from the homemade Thai food that has already been set out before them. 

As they eat, the rest of the members converse enthusiastically. 

At noon the monks are finished eating, and the service comes to an end. The congregants then gather to have their fill. 

The same woman I made offerings with urges me to get food, as does Warunee, the treasurer. They point out different foods displayed. 

A box of sesame balls, a tin pan of pad thai, a plate of fried vegetables, and hot white rice. 

We begin to fill our plates. Beef jerky, spicy papaya salad, fish and doughnuts.

Poonie, the 93-year-old member, points out the spicy papaya salad on my plate. 

“You like spicy?” she asks. I say I do, and she nods and smiles in approval. 

Asian American Student Association: providing community and support


She remembers the incident because it was so out of the ordinary.

It happened at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. She was going about her day as usual at the pharmacy. She loves working there because she can empower patients with their health and form connections with people. 

Then one day, a white man walked in and told her he didn’t want her to help him.

She couldn’t breathe. 

Lehua Kono said she has faced discrimination and microaggressions her whole life, but never like this. The man was forceful in refusing her help. She had never experienced such overt racism. 

“Just knowing that I can be as helpful or as empathetic as I can and still be told ‘I don’t want you to help me’ hurt a lot,” Kono said. 

Although this was the most extreme experience of racism Kono had ever encountered, she has been impacted by many other instances of discrimination. 

Examples of bigotry similar to this are why organizations like the Asian American Student Association at the University of Utah are important. AASA provides a community for minority students to gain support and talk about their experiences in a safe space. 

Lehuo Kono was the president of AASA during the 2021-22 school year. The previous year she was the external vice president of AASA. Before she was the external vice president, Kono was the director of social justice. Kono said this is no longer a position in AASA because they believe everyone should be social justice-centered. Photo courtesy of Lehua Kono.

Kono is currently the president of AASA and a senior at the U, planning to graduate in May 2022. She joined AASA her first year because she wanted to find community on campus — something she wasn’t able to do earlier in life. 

Growing up in Farmington, Utah, Kono said she was one of the few people of color at her school. As early as first grade, she started to notice that she was treated differently from her white friends. Kids would make fun of her eye shape and would call her “that Chinese girl,” although she is Japanese and Filipino. 

Many members of AASA have endured the same thing, Kono said. Together, members can share their frustrations. 

One place where productive conversations are held is member meetings. Each Friday at 2 p.m., usually on Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic, AASA members gather. 

Students make origami fish during a weekly member meeting. Photo courtesy of Lehua Kono.

They go through announcements, which could include service or fundraising opportunities, and also discuss different topics each week. The topic may correspond to an Asian holiday, so members will learn its history and traditions, or it could be something like learning how to do origami. However, other times the topic is heavier, such as discussing the model minority myth and microaggressions. 

The model minority myth is based on stereotypes. Kono said Asian Americans are the “standard” for minorities. She said Asians assimilate very well into white American culture, and that many believe every incoming culture should too. 

Part of the reason Asian Americans are labeled a model minority is that they were taught not to speak up, Kono said. However, she explained that her generation is trying to disrupt that practice. 

Compared to the model minority myth, microaggressions might not seem as big of a problem, but the fact that they happen all the time is cause for concern. Christine Yun, the graphic designer for AASA, said she didn’t even realize she was experiencing microaggressions when she was young. It was AASA that helped her understand why.

Christine Yun is the graphic designer for AASA. As such, she creates graphics to promote AASA events. Photo courtesy of Christine Yun.

“I didn’t realize being eight years old that I was facing microaggressions,” Yun said, “and that’s why I felt uncomfortable if I wasn’t with Asian people.”

The discomfort caused by microaggressions is what makes communities like AASA so critical. The organization brings light to what Asian Americans are feeling and experiencing, Yun said. 

Further, Yun explained that because Utah is a more conservative, majority-white state, it doesn’t leave much room for productive conversations. 

Discussions about microaggressions and discrimination Asian Americans face are important for widespread understanding. Predominantly white areas make those discussions difficult to be heard. 

To let Asian American students know they have a place to have meaningful conversations, a place where people listen, AASA hosts a high school conference. At this annual conference, Asian students all around Utah are invited to the University of Utah. The conference showcases unity and lets Asian students know that there is a supportive community for them at the U.

The attendees of the high school conference gather for a group photo. In front you can see Thien Nguyen who was the director of high school conference for AASA. Photo courtesy of Lehua Kono.

The conference usually has a keynote speaker, workshops on social justice, a student panel, traditional singing and dancing performances and more.

Yun said the conference lets incoming students know that AASA is a safe, friendly environment.

“You’re experiencing these things and so are these other people in your community, and you feel a lot less alone,” Yun said.

Similar to Yun, Saya Zeleznik said she didn’t know microaggressions were bad. Zeleznik is the director of service for AASA. She said microaggressions seemed normal because she experienced them all the time. 

Zeleznik said if she got a bad grade, other students would say she was a “bad Asian” or call her “fasian” (fake Asian). She would also get negative comments on the food she ate. 

Microaggressions against Zeleznik did not originate only from other students, though. 

Saya Zeleznik is the director of service for AASA. Her duties include setting up community events for AASA members to gain service hours, volunteer hours, or experience. There are usually events every month. Photo courtesy of Saya Zeleznik.

Zeleznik said teachers loved to “play the ethnicity game.” They would see her and then start naming countries, trying to guess where she is “really” from. As soon as she was sitting at a desk with the roll being called, Zeleznik said she experienced discrimination. 

She has even faced discrimination from a teacher at the U. 

Zeleznik said her Japanese professor is very passive-aggressive and demeaning toward her and another woman in the class who is also half Japanese. Some students in the class think Zeleznik has an easier time because of her Japanese background, but she said that’s not the case.

“It’s hard to explain to people, especially the white kids in the class,” Zeleznik said. “You have an advantage even here.”

Zeleznik explained that it’s frustrating when people don’t take what she says seriously. Those experiences already are tough to deal with and when people don’t understand or believe her, it makes it even harder.

 “It’s hard to be kind of angry all the time,” Zeleznik said. “I would just like to be around people who understand.”

AASA helped her realize that what she experienced was not only not OK, but that others like her had gone through the same thing. AASA is where Zeleznik found people who understand and support her. 

One example showcasing the support and community AASA provides was the Tree Utah event Zeleznik organized. 

The event was in October 2021, by the International Peace Gardens, where a Japanese sculpture had recently been vandalized with spray paint. 

At 8 a.m., 20 AASA members carpooled to West Jordan to plant trees for three hours. Tree Utah provided the plants and equipment, which Zeleznik said included willows, oaks, and shrubs and a “pile of shovels, a bunch of crowbars and gloves.”

The team was ready to start planting after some instruction on how to use the tools and how far to space out the plants — three feet. Everything was going great, although the piercing cold and the pouring rain were not part of the plan. 

“Everyone got really, really muddy,” Zeleznik said. “It was really nice because the holes were easy to dig.”

Despite the rainy weather, Zeleznik said it was great to see everyone together. Even Jada Kali, the external vice president of AASA, wanted to help out. Zeleznik said Kali was sick, so she couldn’t help with the planting. However, Kali still drove out to the site, bundled up in three parkas, and brought the team Banbury Cross Donuts. 

The spirit of collaboration evident at this AASA event is part of its core beliefs. 

AASA fosters collaboration not only within the association but between associations. AASA wishes to support and work with more than just Asian Americans. Zeleznik said the organization cooperates with other groups, including the Pacific Islander Student Association. 

“It’s for all minorities,” she said. AASA is “creating a community where minorities support each other.”

Prin-Ya Custard: an Asian American dessert can hide more than just sweetness

Asian American chef Naomi Larsen opens up about her custard business in Salt Lake City. In step with the times, she brought a popular Japanese dessert here, to the place she fits in and calls it home.

Story and photos by LEYRE CASARIN

A long way has already been done, but a long way still needs to be done. Women in business have often had to struggle to reach important positions.

Today, many companies can boast gender diversity within them, but the pink power is still not enough, especially within minorities. This is a demonstration of how much the business world has to work to achieve true equality.

There is still a lot to do to enhance females in business even if in the past years it has grown, from 77,800 in 2015 to 80,092 in 2019, according to The Salt Lake Tribune article published in 2021.

And what about double-minority? Female and Asian Americans, for example.

Asian American female chef, Naomi Larsen, tells her story and her business.

She was born and raised in Japan and came to the U.S. when she was only 21 to study. Her dream was to go back and open an import retro business. “I love American retro style, especially the 1950s and 1960s,” she said, and laughing she added, “but this dream disappeared.”

With time, perspectives changed, and Larsen is happy to call Salt Lake City and Utah her home. She identifies herself as an American since she got her citizenship about 25 years ago, and an immigrant. 

The transition wasn’t too bad for her. “There were some minor cultural shocks, but I am fitting here much better than in Japan,” she said in a Zoom interview. “I never felt Japan was my home. Is it terrible to say? I never fit in that country,” she added in an email. 

Larsen said she suffered the fact that Japanese people say one thing and you have to know nine other meanings for that thing, and she couldn’t do that. It’s easier for her here, even if at the beginning her biggest struggle in the U.S. was the language. 

“I remember one time, after three months I was in the U.S., I had a breakdown and just cried. I was at a friend’s house and I just locked myself in the bathroom and started crying for hours because I didn’t understand what they were saying,” she said.

Besides the new language, different culture, and different food, Larsen made her way and her impact in Salt Lake City.

About eight years ago, Larsen and her Japanese friend, Ai Levy, started a Bento business.

“Both of us had been working in the restaurant industry for a long time but that was the first time we started our own,” she said in the interview over Zoom. And she added, “We were getting sick of working for others.”

But when her friend moved out of state, she couldn’t keep Bento by herself. So, she thought, “What is the one thing I can keep doing by myself?” The answer is the Japanese-style custard and her business, Prin-Ya Custard.

Vegan Custard, Mango Vegan Custard, Cocoa Vegan Custard, Matcha Vegan Custard at Jade’s market. Larsen’s products are very appreciated by customers, who can’t believe they are vegan.

But what is the Japanese custard? Do you know about it?

Japanese custard is an intriguing dessert, simple to prepare but really effective. It is characterized by the classic flavor of the combination of simple ingredients such as eggs, milk, sugar. Ideal for an original snack or as an elegant end to a meal, Larsen’s Japanese-style custard offers a dense and creamy consistency that is truly irresistible.

“I decided to offer the Japanese-style custard because we have flan here and it is different. I couldn’t find the same thing here, so I thought I would make it and introduce it here to Salt Lake City,” she said.

It is one of the most popular desserts in Japan and, there, they could combine it in fancy ways too.

Larsen remembered the custard as a treat to herself when she was young. “In Japan, when I was going to cafés or restaurants, I was just getting the custard arranged in a fancy glass or with fruits.”

As simple as it might seem, the traditional baked custard has a silky soft texture. That caramelized sugar at the bottom is a must, but in a lot of places they don’t have that, Larsen said. It has a mild sweetness and her favorite flavor is cappuccino because she loves coffee. “My husband eats it almost every day,” she said.

The difference between the Japanese custard and the one she makes here is the texture, but ingredients are really just milk and eggs and they are not really “Japanese ingredients,” she said.

She selects local eggs and fruits from the market and other vendors and she tries to use as many local ingredients as she can. 

Cocoa Vegan Custard at Jade’s market. Customers are never tired of this flavor.

“It all started with one traditional custard and vegan version because the veganism was growing fast here and with that, it became easier to have different flavors, so I kept making them,” she said.

She also said she packages the dessert in jar containers, so the customer can flip it and put it on a plate and garnish it as they please. “Customers get surprised when they tried the vegan one, because of the creaminess. They can’t believe it’s vegan.”

Larsen humbly doesn’t recognize herself as a real chef, but as a person who was confident enough to make this dessert and decided to just do it.

She is a hope for a lot of Asian Americans and females who want to live in the US or open their own business, or startup company. 

“I never thought it was difficult to start a business, as a minority. Although I never applied for any real jobs, I learned that there are many business loans, grants, and aids available for minority people who want to start a business. I am especially grateful for Spice Kitchen and IRC (International Rescue Committee) for providing us the help we need,” Larsen said.

Spice Kitchen Incubator, a project of the IRC that provides help, guidance and support for those who want to start a business in Utah, talks about Prin-Ya Custard: “She strives toward less waste and an ecologically friendly business model. Custards come in a reusable glass jar that can be returned for credit at Hello Bulk Market.”

The onset of the pandemic surely affected her business negatively. Before the pandemic, she had seven retail stores and restaurants carrying her products, but after that, most of them had to shut down their business.

In 2020, food sampling was prohibited in farmers markets where she had a booth. “Due to the pandemic, it was difficult to sell products without having customers to taste them,” she said.

The pandemic also caused a lot of problems regarding major supply chains. All small businesses suffered. “Even now it’s still hard to find certain ingredients and containers,” she said.

On an ordinary day, without us expecting it, life has changed. The simplest habits, like having a coffee with your friend, going out with your partner, hugging someone you love, have become forbidden. And so, we found ourselves living in the present and in a bubble, uncertain about the future but sure of only one thing: moving forward.

And chef Naomi Larsen, even if she doesn’t refer to herself in that way, kept going.

One way of doing that was taking advantage of technology to connect with customers and spread the love for her custard.

“I learned several tricks to post as effectively, like what time to post, what hashtags to use, which photos, etc., but being an older generation, it takes a lot of effort for me,” she said.

Simple to say, difficult to do. It is difficult to create yourself as a female Asian American entrepreneur, especially during the pandemic. If it is true that change is the only certainty in life, it is just as hard to get used to it.

Rethinking in a new perspective, however, is the only possible way. At least now, at least until this war against coronavirus is won. And this is what Naomi Larsen did with her custard business, Prin-Ya.

Kristan Ehorn



I have realized through the beat this semester that there are so many things to learn about within my community that can help me to grow. I learned very quickly that it doesn’t take much to learn ways to be involved or to learn about someone’s business. All of the people I interviewed were very eager to talk to me about their work. They all seemed very passionate about it and were excited that someone was interested in them. This in and of itself was very inspiring to me. It was heartwarming to feel their love for their work through many conversations with them.  

My community involvement was the most eye opening when I got to hear people’s personal stories. I had a specific moment when interviewing one of the directors of The Asian Link Project. I felt like her desire to help other people was so selfless. It was very humbling to hear about the hardships she has helped with over the last two years. The volunteers do all their work for free and spend a lot of hours on their projects and that was incredible to learn about.  

I feel like I am more aware of social injustices due to this semester’s beat. I know more about what has been happening in our community and the struggles that people have had. I really didn’t know that people were being attacked as much as they are for being Asian. I was able to talk firsthand with people who had gone through these attacks, and it gave me an entirely new perspective on how hard that must be. I didn’t realize how close to home these issues are. I learned that finding this awareness about what is going on is the first step to being able to advocate and to get involved to help. I have been able to connect with some incredible people throughout this journey and I also learned a lot about their perspectives. I have a greater empathy for them, their culture, and their community.  


Kristan Ehorn has been studying for two degrees at the University of Utah. Her first degree is Family and Consumer Studies and Human Development with a minor in Spanish. Her second degree is Communication. After she graduates, she plans to continue her career serving people in corporate wellness. She also plans to continue her career path with hospitality and design. She plans to implement her new skills with both of her degrees. Kristan’s primary interests consist of helping her community through volunteerism and assisting with personal wellness to corporate employees through offering onsite classes. Kristan is also able to offer support to others via her knowledge of digital design systems.  

Kristan has experience in many different fields. The first being corporate wellness. She has taught over 3,000 yoga and meditation classes to date and is ERYT-500 hour certified in her field. She has been teaching onsite for employees across the Salt Lake Valley for over a decade. Kristan plans to continue her journey along with expanding herself in other directions as well. She loves to use her high regard for other people’s feelings and wellness in other aspects of her professional journey. 

Kristan has overcome many trials in her life starting from an early age. She spent a year living in Mexico and has been able to use her fluency in Spanish to help communicate with others even further. Kristan found herself in very difficult situations and didn’t have much support, so she learned very quickly how important it was to empathize with others. Kristan has spent many hours volunteering in her community. She was voted as volunteer of the month at the YWCA in Salt Lake City, April 2022.  

The Asian Link Project may be small, but its impact is large   


When Asian hate crimes began to rise around the country during the 2020 pandemic, Carrie Shin knew she had to do something about it.  

Shin took a trip from Utah and ended up volunteering in Oakland, California, at a place called Compassion in Oakland. This group helps empower and support the Asian American community. Compassion in Oakland does community service projects, provides companionship, and supports those who are being affected by hate crimes.  

It was at this place that Shin felt especially inspired and motivated to do more when she returned home to Utah and within her own community.  

“Utah is greatly in need of an organization like this,” Shin said in a phone interview.  

So, she started the Asian Link Project in Salt Lake City in late 2021. 

The Asian Link Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The group links the Asian community and volunteers for group assignments to help those in need. Its mission is to promote real connections and unity through partnership, sponsors, events and news.

The group Compassion in Oakland inspired Carrie Shin to start The Asian Link Project in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of Carrie Shin.

The team consists of five directors, a digital marketing manager, a Vietnamese community coordinator, an event manager, and two Chinese community coordinators. The nonprofit also has a long list of volunteers as well as a youth leadership team.  

The organization was inspired to help with a response plan for all of the surge of Asian-American hate crimes during the pandemic. As Asian Americans themselves, they knew just how important this type of work was at that time and will forever be.

Shin, the directors, and the rest of the staff are proud of their recent project called The Chaperone Project. It was created to ease the burden of senior and younger Asian Americans who do not feel safe being alone in the community. Free chaperone services are provided to residents in the Salt Lake Valley so they can feel safer. 

The Asian Link Project provides chaperone services to Asian American residents in the Salt Lake Valley to prevent hate crimes. Photo courtesy of Shin.

Another initiative the group was able to be a part of was The Window Project. A local Asian restaurant had its window vandalized. The profanity was etched into the glass, so it wasn’t even able to be cleaned. It had to be physically replaced so the team joined up with some local glass companies to have it paid for and fixed. 

The restaurant owners told Shin the business was barely making ends meet and because the vandalism happened during the pandemic they couldn’t afford to pay for the new window. The news wanted to air the story, but this type of hate crime is so shameful for the Asian community, and for them personally and their business, the owners declined to air the story at the time that it occurred.

“We are able to hear these stories that have brought pain, anger, and sadness, and try to give our community something positive to do with that,” Shin said. 

The Asian Festival is the current venture that the staff works on tirelessly. This festival is being held July 9, 2022. It is being held to showcase speakers, performers, and food culture across the board for the Asian American community. This is a daylong event that takes at least six to nine months of planning, but Shin said in a phone interview, “It is all worth it in the end.”

Utah’s 45th annual Asian Festival will be held July 22, 2022. It will host hundreds of local businesses. Photo courtesy of Shin.

The festival is filled with beautiful displays and vibrant colors. The warmth and smells are all-encompassing, and it isn’t a day anyone would want to miss.  

“So many volunteers have come forward to make this event possible,” Shin said with gratitude. It is because of the efforts from the people in The Asian Link Project that help those being affected by hate crimes, feel seen. Their efforts show that someone is available to be there to support them and that they aren’t alone. They also ensure that the needs are met for those in the community not able or willing to speak out.

Shin received a bachelor of science degree from Southern Utah University in 2002. She is currently a paralegal in criminal law. Her domestic partner and co-founder of The Asian Link Project has an MBA from Westminster College and is the director of finance in his current career. Her partner is also a martial arts teacher in Salt Lake City.

The board of directors at The Asian Link Project all have personal experiences with being harassed due to their ethnicity and came together to find ways to end the toxic behaviors.

Carrie Shin is the director and founder of The Asian Link Project. Photo courtesy of Shin.

Kate Forth is among some of the volunteers for The Asian Link Project. She got involved with the group to help contribute to safety in her community. Forth has spent time helping and donating her time when at all possible. She was able to be a part of The Window Project as well as The Chaperone Project. “I am grateful to be a part of such a wonderful organization,” Forth said in a phone interview.

Shin added, “To help chaperone our Asian senior Americans in need, to help fix damaged property to innocent Asian-owned businesses, to help empower our Asian community to join and be a part of something better than the sad stories on the news. We take a proactive approach to try and get positive results.”  

Authentic Japanese desserts in Salt Lake City 

Story and photos by KRISTAN EHORN  

In the heart of downtown Salt Lake City sits a quaint one-of-a-kind bakery. Customers who enter see Japanese-style floor seating, electronic futuristic ordering and plenty of artistic treats to choose from. The hustle and bustle of workers will instantly fill your ears as employees shuffle around making authentic Japanese desserts. Laughter and conversation permeate the walls as many locals enjoy something you cannot get anywhere else in the entire state of Utah.  

Doki Doki is the only Japanese bakery of its kind in Salt Lake City. It is owned by Irie Cao, who is a young entrepreneur and self-taught baker.

Doki Doki is a Japanese bakery and is owned and operated by Irie Cao. She is a 30-year-old self-taught baker and entrepreneur.  

Cao was born and raised in Vietnam and moved to San Gabriel, California, when she turned 15 in 2006. She said she would often visit local bakeries with her friends and family growing up to enjoy Japanese specialties around the city. California has a higher population of Asians and Asian Americans, so with that comes more options for authentic foods. 

Cao started baking on her own at an early age at home and continued to do so as she grew older. Her passion for baking only got stronger once she moved to Utah. She wasn’t as satisfied with the options that Salt Lake City had to offer regarding Japanese desserts. She enjoyed all the options she once had at her fingertips in California and wanted to bring that availability to Utah.  

Cao remembered thinking, “I wish I could just open my own Japanese bakery.”  

After little convincing, Cao made her dreams become a reality by opening her very own bakery, Doki Doki. In Japanese this means, to feel your heartbeat. She chose this name because she feels this type of connection to her work. She always thought to herself, with the amount of time it takes to bake Japanese desserts at home, it made more sense for her to mass produce her goodies instead. Also, this way she was also able to share her passions with others. 

Japanese treats are well known for their decadent and distinct tastes. The Japanese culture prides itself on using no refined sugars or artificial flavors. Japanese desserts do contain less sugar than most American desserts. However, they are still perfectly sweet.

Taiyaki is a traditional dessert that is sold at Doki Doki, 249 E. 400 South. It is a wafer-like batter that is shaped into a fish shape or a cone. Taiyaki is then accompanied with ice cream that comes in many flavors and fresh layered toppings. 

Strawberry is a popular flavor at the bakery. It is strawberry ice cream with Oreos, raspberry rosé sauce, fresh strawberry bites, Taiyaki with custard filling, topped with wafer sticks and strawberries.  

Fluffy pancakes are also quite common while exploring treats across Japan. They happen to be Cao’s most popular and time consuming menu item. Fluffy pancakes get their special texture by using a soufflé technique. The egg whites are whipped up with a sugary gloss, then they are mixed with the batter that is made with the yolks. It leaves the pancakes light, jiggly, soft and so delicious.  

“They are so delicate and are like eating a cloud,” said Joseph Cox, a regular Doki Doki customer. “Her fluffy pancakes are like air.”

Crepe cakes are another menu item. They are made of 20 layers of thin crepes placed together like an architectural masterpiece with flavors that melt in one’s mouth. Other popular handcrafted desserts that Cao offers are butter cookies, and mille-feuille. 

These delicate and detailed desserts do not come without a cost, which is many hours of practice and skill to get them just right.  

Cao said the hardest part of opening her own bakery was the extensive training she implemented to get it so her employees knew how to bake properly. They shadowed her for many hours as she trained them in all aspects of baking. It was hard to teach her employees something she had been practicing for over a decade. 

The business side came easier to her than the training she did for her employees. She also said that it was much easier to open a business in Salt Lake City than to do so in California because it costs a lot more money.

One of Doki Doki’s most popular desserts is the Japanese crepe cake. It is made from 20-plus light golden brown crepes layered with homemade creams. The passion fruit flavor is shown here.

You might think that with all the recent Asian hate crimes we have seen, a young Asian woman opening her own business may have many trials. But for her, it flowed naturally. Like fate.  

Cao said, “I am very lucky.”  

In 2020 the pandemic struck the world. The coronavirus devastated local business owners as hundreds of owners were forced to shut down. Many businesses have still yet to recover, and some were forced to close permanently.  

For Cao, it had the opposite effect. The community was forced to do takeout only so it gave Cao free marketing across all of the food delivery sites.  

As a new business owner, marketing can be one of the most expensive aspects of opening.  

Customers became more aware of her bakery after it was listed on food ordering platforms such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates and DoorDash. All of a sudden everyone knew who she was, and that Doki Doki existed.  

“It’s like I blew up overnight,” Cao said in a phone interview.  

Cao said she is also forever grateful for the many influencers and foodies in Salt Lake City who blogged, posted and continued to share her work. They helped and continue to help spread her passions of baking and all of the hard work that goes into it, all across every social media platform.  

Black artists bringing #Blackjoy to Utah

Story by NINA TITA

Utah Black Artists Collective is a nonprofit of professional Black artists from across Utah who are building a community of acceptance and love for their art. The Collective includes graphic designers, poets and classical ballerinas.

Jayrod Garrett, co-founder of UBLAC, said the mission is to create Black space, a place where Black people are the majority.

“Things I learned as we went about putting this together, I found out that I was not alone in that idea that I felt isolated as a child. Many of the Black people I’ve spoken to who live here in Utah felt isolated because the state’s 2% black,” Garrett said in a Zoom interview.

Working as a teacher full-time, poet and storyteller, Garrett’s passion is about sharing stories of the lived human experience. His written collection of poems titled, “Being Black in White Space,” captures the essence of what Black artists have gone through. Garrett is aware of the difficulty his audience has relating to the Black experience.

“You can go up in front of an audience and share like one of these really vulnerable poems that talks about what it feels like to be Black in that space and then afterwards you get superficial clapping because they’re like ‘we don’t really know what you just said but this what we’re supposed to do right?’” Garrett said.

Garrett founded UBLAC in July 2020 at the start of the pandemic when organizations were forced to move to virtual platforms. Black artists are using the opportunity to share their work and collaborate on social media, such as Instagram. The current project Garrett is directing is titled #BLACKJOY, a means of breaking barriers.

UBLAC artists gather in front of art that inspires them to continue to showcase their talents and bring #BLACKJOY to the community. Photo courtesy of Jayrod Garrett.

“We started talking about the idea of what Black joy sounds like and what does that look like. Is that praise community the only place you see Black people in joy? And it’s not, but like that’s the only way people seem to think about Black people having joy, is in that faith-based community,” Garrett said.

Changing stereotypes has been a challenge other Black artists are passionate about. Daney Lin, an acrylic painter, recalls being the only Black American in his class growing up in Ogden, Utah.

“Being a Black American in Utah, I feel like we are bound to a certain stigma, let’s break down those barriers, let’s knock them down. Let’s be everything, let’s be bank owners, let’s be grocery owners,” Lin said in a Zoom interview.

As a teenager, Lin found art to be his comfort while he was trying to pursue an athletic career in basketball and track and field. He struggled with his mental health and said he was diagnosed with bipolar, ADHD and depression.

“[Art] helped me relieve my stress, it helped me relieve my depression and kind of just showed it in different ways I couldn’t speak it,” Lin said.

He also struggled with the fear of getting better and losing his artistic ability, he said. Utilizing therapy and medication, Lin discovered his talents were not dependent upon his mental health, but provided him relief from stress.

After submitting his artwork on a whim to UBLAC, Garrett immediately saw all of Lin’s potential. Inspired by colors, peace and love in Japanese and Chinese cultures, Lin’s paintings capture emotion.

“I find myself feeling colors,” Lin said.

One of Lin’s paintings in currently on display at the Hogle Zoo’s World of the Wild Art Show. He cried when he saw it in the gallery. “Growing up I didn’t know any Black artists,” Lin said. Now he is honored to have his art out for all to see and be inspired by.

“I want other Black artists to not be afraid and not feel like they have to live up to a certain stigma. You don’t have to be an athlete, you don’t have to be a rapper, you don’t have to be a singer,” Lin said. “If that’s what you do, hey hats off to you, do it, please do it, strive to be better.”

Schkyra Morning, known as Wynter the Poet, co-founder and executive manager of UBLAC, echoes Lin’s sentiments, acknowledging how racial stereotypes can be detrimental to artistry.  “Being an artist can already be challenging at times because you are asking someone to essentially love who you are and what you are creating. So that can already be a lot. You’re a Black woman and an artist and it kind of makes things a little harder,” Morning said in a Zoom interview. “It makes the road a little harder for you, and that’s OK, I’m not afraid of hard work.”

Morning said that many of the UBLAC artists are fueled in their work by racial injustice that is being seen across the country. Her recent poems are about her personal experience of having police guns drawn on her.

It fuels me. The things that I go through fuel me to write about them to share my experiences with other people who are probably going through, who may not even know how to even express it,” Morning said.

UBLAC artists have started to collaborate on projects regarding racial injustice and rewriting what #BLACKJOY looks like. Lin, Garrett, Morning and other artists created their first YouTube video dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, which will be posted to their YouTube Channel soon.  

Looking forward, UBLAC is expanding its community impact with youth mentorship programs. The goal is to provide Black youth of all ages with Black role models in the artistic industry to help cultivate talent.

“It’s being able to be in Black space on a regular basis,” Garrett said.

The UBLAC community is excited for the future of the organization. There are plans for in-person galleries, more social media artist collaborations and #BLACKJOY art pieces coming.

Filipinos confused about where they belong

Story and photo by MCKENZIE YCMAT

Logging into to view the results of a DNA test, Robert Ycmat wasn’t quite sure what he was going to discover. Once he got the results, they confused him even more.

“The results were interesting,” Ycmat said. “Everything seemed pretty standard, but what confused me the most was how they defined me as South Asian/Pacific Islander. I always just considered myself Asian!”


Robert Ycmat at home in his study.

This question is one that many have wondered themselves. Are Filipinos considered Pacific Islanders?

Even when searching for Filipino news on the Pacific Citizen website, hundreds of articles appear talking about politics, food and even Hollywood news in the Philippines.

Rumors have spread that the U.S Census Bureau has officially decided to classify Filipinos from Asian to Pacific Islanders, but according to the Census Bureau’s official website, “The Census Bureau has no current plans to classify Filipinos outside of the Asian race category.”

According to the Bureau, the Philippines are legally concerned to be a part of Asia. So doesn’t that answer the question?

The Philippines consists of 7,000 islands and it was Spain that officially tied them all together into one country in the 16th century. The islands start from the north, by Asia, and slowly slant downward toward the east, closer to the Pacific Islands.

Because of this odd gathering of the islands, many Filipinos from the north classify themselves as Asian, whereas those who live in the southeast islands will sometimes classify themselves as Pacific Islander.

“Although I always considered myself Asian,” Ycmat said, “Filipinos have created a culture that is much closer to the traditions of the Pacific Islanders than Asians.”

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, said, Pacific Islanders consist of Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Chamorros, Fijians, Marshallese and Tongans.

What really brings all these different nationalities together are the unique cultures of the Pacific Islanders.

“We believe in the tradition of family,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “Sacrifice yourself for the good of the family.”

Ycmat agrees with the fact that family was always a staple in the Philippines growing up. It’s one of the main reasons that he decided to learn more about who he is through the services of

Although Ycmat only lived in the Philippines through his childhood, moving to the United States in his teen years, he remembers his mother holding onto family traditions throughout his life.

“She always put herself first for our family,” Ycmat said. “Our father was no longer involved with me and my siblings once we moved to America, so my mother put it on herself to keep us close and to keep the traditions alive.”

Just like with most cultures, Filipinos hold onto their traditions tightly. They can find ties in their traditions with Asian culture but also with the Pacific Islander culture as well.

Ycmat’s oldest daughter, Danielle Jansson, recently lived in a small city within the Philippines called Iloilo City for a religious mission.

Jansson discussed the importance of the Filipino culture through food, family and tradition. After some reflection, she finally came up with an answer regarding her thoughts on how Filipinos would identify themselves.

“Probably Asian,” Jansson said. “But, they don’t care and they don’t ask. They just know that they’re Filipino.”

Jansson said the Philippines have taken a lot from the Pacific Island culture like their belief of family and celebration of food. They’ve also taken values from Asians such as individuality and their sense of independence.

“They care about their family, but they also want to take care of themselves,” Jansson said. “They have a personal dream and they want to accomplish it on their own, not just for their family. They’re known for being hard workers and they have no shame. They’re just Filipino.”

Religion plays a big role in culture for both Filipinos and Pacific Islanders.

“Religion, especially the Mormon and Catholic church, teach values of pride and family,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “We naturally gravitate towards these religions because of the teachings of love and community.”

According to the Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project, “Catholicism has been the cornerstone of Filipino identity for millions in the Philippines. Catholicism rapidly spread during the early years of Spanish colonialism.”

After a bloody war called the Philippine–American War in the late 1800s, Americans migrated to the Philippines and even pushed their way through to the Pacific Islands. Because of this, the teachings of the Catholic Church became a common belief among these two countries.

“I kind of like that there’s no clear answer to this question (about identity),” Ycmat said. “It makes Filipinos even more unique than they already are. It almost describes Filipinos perfectly — we do what we want because we want to do it, not because we belong to either.”

Kirby Araullo, who is the program coordinator for the Asian American Studies undergraduate department at the University of Califonia Davis, discusses this question, “Are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders.”

Originally raised in the Philippines, Araullo found that this question was only asked in America. He answers by saying, “It’s up to you. We the people have the power to define and redefine ourselves, as long as we respect each other. ”

Food trucks serving up a crowd in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by DAVID FISHER

See what food trucks are serving up on the streets of Salt Lake City.

Korean barbeque, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, slow-roasted barbeque and delectable cupcakes are only a few of the options available during Food Truck Thursdays at The Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City. Hundreds of customers rally in from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. between 200 and 300 South every Thursday afternoon to purchase endless amounts of street food during a weekly local gathering of food trucks.

Creating a social scene, food truck-goers interact with one another as they wait in line for their food. This is a unique dining experience; the diversity of the dishes and the à la carte style of eating is not something that can be found at a typical sit-down restaurant.

Three years ago, food trucks were required to follow a strict set of laws that prevented them from gathering within private properties of Salt Lake City. However, in April 2012 this law was changed to permit food trucks to gather in these areas and serve a wide variety of customers. This has created a totally new scene, and a plethora of newly successful businesses on wheels.

What started as only four food trucks in 2012, has increased to more than 40 trucks that roll through the streets of Salt Lake City.

One such food truck is Cupbop, a truck known for its Korean food in a to-go cup. Beef, spicy pork, chicken, or a meat combo are options available for customers to enjoy over rice, noodles and vegetables. All meat is slow roasted and marinated in a delectable homemade sauce that owner Junghung Song learned to make on a church mission he served for three years in South Korea. Each cup is covered in a savory sauce that ranges from mild to spicy. Song uniquely named the mild seasoning “baby spice” (level 1 spicy). For those who like a spicier dish, he recommends the “melt your mouth spice” (level 10 spicy).

Cupbop’s motto is “Shhhh, just eat,” which Song describes as not asking what Cupbop is, but rather just trying it for yourself.

Song went to a Salt Lake City restaurant convention in spring 2013 and noticed there were not any Korean food restaurants. This was when food trucks were starting to appear within the city. He wanted to start his own unique Korean barbeque food truck to serve his homemade recipe to customers.

Song quit his job working for an advertising company and decided to pursue running his own local business on wheels. It only attracted a few customers at first, but now Cupbop is one of the most popular food trucks in Salt Lake City. A large line of customers always gathers up the steps of the Gallivan Plaza every Thursday afternoon.

Waiting in line for food can be boring, but Cupbop makes it an experience.

Song is known for having his employees who work within the truck come out and sing and dance with the people waiting in line. Korean pop music echoes through the plaza as customers attempt to sing along to tunes that they are hearing for the first time in a language they may not understand.

“If I’m not having fun, I cannot smile to my customers,” Song said. “A bad experience would make you want to leave, and never want to come back. This is your lunch break. I don’t want you to stress out during an already busy day.”

Song always serves Cupbop with a smile, and hopes to bring a smile to all of his customers’ faces. He wants them to come back for more.

“Sometimes the other food trucks find us annoying because we are so loud,” Song says while laughing.

Song communicates with all of the other owners of food trucks because they are beginning to become their own community. Song runs and operates Food Truck Underground, which allows people to vote on locations for food trucks to gather. Food Truck Thursdays at the Gallivan is just one of many gatherings that occur throughout the week.

One truck that participates in Food Truck Underground is Heidi Cakes Utah, a food truck specializing in gourmet cupcakes made from scratch with fresh ingredients. Known for the eye popping, spotted bright pink motorhome, Heidi Cakes Utah has been serving customers for a little more than two years.

Owner Janine Lestwich wakes up every morning at 4 o’clock to start baking hundreds of her cupcakes in the commercial kitchen attached to the back of the motorhome. All cupcakes are loaded and ready to be sold for $3 apiece by 9 a.m.

What started as a bake sale to raise money for an annual anti-drug and alcohol rally is now a large-scale business. Ten percent of profits that Lestwich makes from selling her cupcakes is given to, which educates youth about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

With sales and donations combined, Lestwich has raised more than $10,000 toward since the start of her business.

“We are one of the few food trucks which only sells desserts and donates profits to a good cause,” Lestwich said. “We have no competition. Our customers want to keep coming back to support the cause and my business. I really appreciate everybody coming together.”

When the Heidi Cakes Utah truck is not at Food Truck Thursdays, it can be found in downtown Ogden or at local car dealerships.

One of the biggest challenges that both Cupbop and Heidi Cakes Utah face is when the truck decides not to work. This includes engine failure or oil leaks and problems within the kitchen.

“Truck issues are extremely difficult to deal with,” Song said. “It can completely shut down our business and decrease profits, especially in the winter. But it’s worth it because it creates a challenge.”

Both Cupbop and Heidi Cakes Utah inform customers of these problems through social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Because both trucks do not have an official website, this is their means of communicating to the public.

For Heidi Cakes Utah, Lestwich posts a daily menu and schedule on Facebook and Instagram as to where her truck will be located and what she will be serving that day. She listens to her customers’ words. If they are requesting a specific flavor of cupcake or for her to be at a certain location, she will respond.

“I share a lot of my personal life on my business Facebook,” Lestwich said. “People don’t get angry when I have to take a week off from my truck because they know I am visiting one of my daughters in Tennessee or Texas. Sometimes you just need to put family before business.”

Lorna Balfour, 21, is a customer of Heidi Cakes Utah who has been following the business for the past few months on social media platforms.

“I try to come down to Food Truck Thursdays as much as possible during my lunch break,” said Balfour, who works at the University of Utah. “It’s a place where the community comes together to try new foods that they may not have tried before. I go to Heidi Cakes because of the cause she supports and her red velvet cupcake.”

Balfour follows a multitude of food trucks on Instagram and Facebook so she can stay up to date as to where they are located. Sometimes she posts photos on Instagram of the food she gets from the truck and her friends always ask her about where she got the food in her photographs. She describes it as being a part of a community that is unique to Salt Lake City.

Song explains that with Cupbop, most of his new customers come because they saw social media posts from friends of theirs. Free Cubop is offered to customers who share images of their food on social media to an abundance of followers or give a great review. It is a type of reward that Song likes to give as a thank you for marketing for his truck.

The food truck community within Salt Lake continues to grow as more food trucks are beginning to gather in public places. This creates a village of a melting pot of different styles of food for customers to enjoy. There’s always something new to enjoy, and a new favorite food truck to be discovered.

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