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A Recipe for Success at SEA

March 5, 2024

The Port of Seattle is celebrating Women's History Month by catching up with entrepreneur, Katherine Lam, CEO and President of Bambuza Hospitality Group, which owns and operates Embarque Whiskey Grill, Ninth and Pike, and Bambuza Vietnamese Kitchen at SEA.

Today Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) eatery Bambuza Vietnamese Kitchen serves some of the more than 15 million passengers traveling annually through the airport. But its beginnings stretch back to a much smaller audience.

Co-owner Daniel Nguyen grew up cooking cherished family recipes with his mother in their home kitchen in Camas, Washington. His family had arrived in the Pacific Northwest from Vietnam in 1975 following the fall of Saigon, and the family kept their food traditions alive at home. Nguyen’s mother, Mama Lan, later opened her own restaurant, serving their recipes to their community.

Mama Lan working at the family restaurant.

Decades later, Nguyen and co-owner and wife Katherine Lam are keeping the family legacy alive. They started small, selling their fried rice and spring rolls at local markets like Fremont Market, Ballard Farmers Market, and Bumbershoot, before opening their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Bambuza Vietnamese Bistro at Ninth and Pike in Seattle.

Over the years they have set up shop and expanded their presence at SEA Airport, Portland International Airport (PDX), and John Wayne Airport (SNA); a location at Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) is coming soon. Today Nguyen and Lam own and operate 16 restaurants and counting as Bambuza Hospitality Group. In 2023 Bambuza Hospitality Group celebrated 20 years as a family-owned business.

For Lam, CEO and President of Bambuza Hospitality Group, the successful family-owned business is a dream realized. She wanted to be an entrepreneur since she was a child, immigrating to the United States with her parents from Vietnam. 

A memorable experience

This year, Bambuza opened its newest restaurant at SEA, Embarque Whiskey Grill in the N Concourse, joining Bambuza Hospitality Group restaurants Bambuza Vietnamese Kitchen in the N Concourse and Ninth and Pike on the C Concourse. Bambuza also operates retail stores New Stand, Seattle Made, and Swarovski in partnership with Stellar Partners in SEA. 

“We believe the journey begins at home or at the airport. When we developed the concept for Embarque, we wanted to create a memorable and pleasant experience,” Lam said. “I want people who visit Embarque to think back to that unique special cocktail or that comforting meal they had at SEA Airport, before their flight or during a layover.”

Lam remembers the recent ice storm, when many people were stuck at the airport for 48 hours. When you’re traveling, you want something to make you feel happy and good, she said. So she and her team have packed Embarque’s menu with fresh, made-to-order entrees and apps that will make any day better — even after a rough landing or long layover. Dig into the short rib melts, paninis, pasta, salads, or the Pacific Salmon Chowder.


In addition to feel-good comfort food, Embarque offers over 35 whiskey selections and creative cocktails. For Lunar New Year, the team created a spicy lychee margarita — made with a whole lychee, with hints of evolving red color that swirl as you stir. The drink is designed to be an experience from start to finish. Lam also worked to create an ambience that is bright and inviting with large chandeliers and a beautiful bar. 

To celebrate the restaurant's opening and honor airport employees and passengers, Bambuza and SEA kicked off the Year of the Dragon with a lion dance performance from the Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon & Lion Dance Association. Lam said she hoped to offer something interesting and memorable for passengers, an opportunity to learn about Asian culture. 

“The lion dance is so happy, vibrant, and unique. Many people will stop to watch, and will later remember seeing it at SEA,” Lam said. “For us, celebrating the Lunar New Year marks a time for renewal and reunion. It’s a time to stop everything, cook certain dishes, play cards, and kids get lucky envelope money. We’re ending a year and welcoming the new year with happiness, choice, peace, and prosperity.”

Taking flight


Bambuza Vietnamese Kitchen opened its first airport location in 2014 at Portland International Airport (PDX). Lam and Nguyen had moved from Seattle to Portland to be closer to family and had just completed their Masters of Business Administration. They attended a Port of Portland small business outreach event for prospective airport shops and restaurants. 

“We decided to give it a try because we never imagined we would have this opportunity,” Lam said. “We saw other restaurants in the airport with busy and captive audiences and thought ‘We want to learn. We want to do this.’ We took a chance to see how far we could grow.”

They submitted a proposal as part of their MBA capstone project, and the rest was history. Bambuza operates as a 100% Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, which is a small for-profit business that

  • is at least 51% owned by one or more individuals who are both socially and economically disadvantaged or, in the case of a corporation, in which 51% of the stock is owned by one or more such individuals; and
  • is managed and operated daily by one or more of the socially and economically disadvantaged individuals who own it

In 2019, Lam and Nguyen opened their second Bambuza airport location, returning to their Seattle roots at SEA Airport. Operating airport businesses has been life-changing for Lam and Nguyen, and their employees. “We have been able to create more good-paying wage jobs. The airport environment provides a volume that allows us to do that,” Lam said. “We have been able to change lives and create more opportunities. With each store, we create 10 to 15 opportunities.”

She is grateful for passengers who budget an extra half-hour before their flight to stop by and have a bowl of pho. “Their commitment to supporting us adds to our successes today,” she said. “It's also about the partnership with the airport. We went in not knowing anything, but we kept coming back, learning more, and asking questions. If we make mistakes, we come back and do it again.”

A culture of learning


From the moment they opened their first airport restaurant, Lam and Nguyen were determined to learn as much as they could. When they open in a new airport, they get to work learning about their new environment. They arrive as early as 4:00 a.m. and leave as late as 11:00 p.m. to study passenger flows, flight schedules, and the impact on their business. Another key ingredient in Bambuza’s success has been building relationships with people they can learn from and go to for support.

Lam said it takes some time to understand how an airport operates. “It’s a very complex, high-stress environment,” she said. “You have to go in knowing this new challenge also requires faith. It requires a different level of patience, knowledge, and commitment.”

Now that Bambuza operates restaurants in multiple airports, Lam and Nguyen have more opportunities to observe and learn from what’s working.

“We look at what people are people buying, how are they making their decisions, and observe airline passengers in terminal concourses. Different airlines have different target audiences,” Lam said. “We ask ourselves, what is it the airport doesn't have yet? How can we create and fulfill that demand? Observation is really the key to creating a concept to fulfill demand if there is a need.”

She has worked hard to create a culture of learning for her team and an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes. “If you make a mistake, we’ll figure out how to fix it. You will always have somebody to support you.”

Her advice for other female entrepreneurs: “If you want to open your own business, you’ve got to believe in yourself. You have to surround yourself with people you can ask for support or help with ideas or thoughts. You need to encourage others to take a chance on you, have faith that you can do it, and know that you can always continue to refine it.”

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