By Meredith Brody
The young trio that own and operate the four Happy Belly food carts, Dennis Lee, 32, his wife Jamie Rungsitiyakorn, 32, and Brent Kanbayashi, 33, got into the cart business because of their shared food obsessions. Jamie, a native San Franciscan, along with friend Brent, a designer by trade, met Boston-born Dennis, who arrived in San Francisco in 2001, working together in such restaurants as Ozumo, the Slow Club, and Bay Bread’s La Boulange. “We were always talking about food,” Dennis says, “What the city needs, what we like to eat. “
“We came across an ad for a cart for sale, and while checking out the city’s website to learn about licensing and permits, we saw that the Golden Gate Park contract was up, an RFP (request for proposal). We weren’t thinking that we could get it, but we did.”
“Golden Gate Park was not our original aim. We wanted to work downtown. And we wanted to do grilled food, but we soon learned that they don’t let you cook anything on the cart, because of state health laws.”
“July 4, 2006, was our first day. The restaurant Namu was in process at the same time – we opened in December 2006. It was a learning experience!”
Namu, which chef Lee owns with his brothers David and Daniel, is as Pan-Asian in its modern cuisine as the trio (Lee is Korean, Kanbayashi Japanese, and Rungsitiyakorn half-Thai, half-Russian Jew). The Happy Belly carts serve locally produced hot dogs and sausages (with Asian condiments such as kim chee and Japanese mayonnaise, “which people love,” Lee says) during the week, and special sandwiches, some with Asian influences, on the weekends. The original cart has been supplanted by sleek modern ones designed by Kanbayashi.
Lee still hopes to find a high-profile downtown location, ideally near Union Square, where he could introduce tourists as well as locals to more interesting food than the ordinary hot dog cart fare. “This is such a great food culture,” he says,” and San Francisco deserves great street food.”