For Seattle native, Christy Innouvong-Thornton, she knows that good food often comes with good stories and that’s exactly what she and her business are bringing to the table.
“That’s why we do what we do,” said Innouvong-Thornton. “We want to start conversations and break down barriers, and we are doing it through food.”
Innouvong-Thornton, along with her partner Beatriz Aurelio-Saguin, are co-founders of Tuk Tuk Box, a specialty food retailer featuring subscription boxes filled with Southeast Asian products. (Tuk Tuks are three-wheel motorized rickshaws popular as public transportation in many countries like Thailand and the Philippines).
In these curated boxes, you find all kinds of culinary items, snacks and cooking ingredients, from green curry paste made in Thailand to Mango juice from the Philippines to Mi Goreng instant noodles imported from Indonesia. The boxes also contain special gifts and postcards featuring personal stories from people and places across Southeast Asia.
“Our products are about creating connections” said Innouvong-Thornton. “At the end of the day, it’s more than just about snacks, we want this to be a catalyst for social change.”
Innouvong-Thornton’s mission is deeply rooted in her own family’s story. Her parents came to the U.S. to the Pacific Northwest as refugees from Laos/Thailand. They were sponsored by a Mormon family, and Innouvong-Thornton said she grew up in a so-called “white suburbia”, not really knowing much about her own heritage. She did go on to become more involved with BIPOC communities in western Washington working for the city of Shoreline’s Park and Recreation Department. That’s where she hosted a program for black and brown youth focusing on the arts, and she became passionate about bringing people together through arts and culture. She said it became a mission for her to help kids and teens see the importance of keeping one’s ethnic roots alive.
A few years later, after a stint living and working in New York City, a romantic breakup led to a big life decision. She decided to book a one-way ticket to Thailand to find her own roots.
“I was teaching English at International schools in Bangkok for a while and I met people who led me to volunteer with refugee children from Vietnam,” said Innouvong. “I later realized these kids need more than just me teaching them English. I didn’t want to impose my language and western ways of life on them. I want to learn from them as well and share experiences so the classes turned into cooking lessons in English.”
In 2017, Innovong-Thornton launched a social enterprise in Bangkok teaching Thai cooking courses and hosting food tours for tourists. The sustainable project led to her becoming one of the co-founders of Courageous Kitchen, a 501-3c food education charity for refugee communities. Her goal is to shape young leaders through culinary education. Tuk Tuk Box currently gives back 10 percent to the community through Courageous Kitchen and other BIPOC community organizations.
Fast forward to today, Innouvong-Thornton and Aurelio-Saguin were able to pivot their small business during the COVID-19 pandemic with the subscription box business. They work with nearly 60 small vendors throughout the U.S. and Southeast Asia. Innouvong-Thornton said she’s proud of their women and minority owned venture and she hopes it will continue to be a vessel to boost voices of Asian communities that aren’t always heard.
“It’s been a whirlwind. At first some people were hesitant to share their stories and products, but I think we are changing that,” said Innouvong-Thornton. “We are also really proud of our ‘Spreading Asian Joy’ Campaign. It’s about taking back the narratives and telling positive stories about AAPIs during a time where we so much hate and discrimination. We are doing our part to change that.”
To learn more about Tuk Tuk Box, Spread Asian Joy and the nonprofit Courageous Kitchen, visit www.tuktukbox.com.