Bruce Johansen: It’s June 28, 2013. I’m Bruce Johansen and I’m at Bangkok Thai Cuisine, located at 432 University Avenue West in St. Paul. This is one in a series of interviews I’m doing with business owners along University Avenue. My project is funded through a State of Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant. Today I’m interviewing Jai Vang, Bangkok Thai Cuisine’s owner. [Audio at bottom]
To learn more, read Bangkok Cuisine: “When this opportunity came up, we just had to take it,” by Bruce Johansen, listen to the audio below, and watch video here. This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
B: Thank you for accepting my invitation. We’ll start at the beginning. You’ve already given me a little bit of this background but where were you born and where did you grow up?
Jai Vang: Well, I was born in Laos, but pretty much raised and grew up here in America, here in St. Paul. Pretty much what I know as home. In Frogtown. I grew up here pretty much, so. We’ve been here 35 plus years, so that’s all I’ve known as home.
B: That’s interesting because Va-Megn who introduced me to you was born in Laos, too, right, and then grew up in the U.S.?
J: Yeah, we came here at the height of the refugee camp. I mean, the refugee. We came from Thailand even though we born in Laos, we came from Thailand. We settled here. This has always been home to us, as my dad always believed that if you settle you have no reason to move. We’ve just been here forever. It’s a beautiful state, beautiful people. And the four seasons, you can’t go wrong with that. You always have something to be looking forward with each season. It took some time for my family to adjust to the new world. But for us it was just new, because we were just kids and growing up. We’d never seen snow before. So it’s different, for my parents and older generation it took quite awhile for them to adjust and acclimate to this new environment.
B: What age did you say you were.
J: I came over when I was seven, almost eight years old. So a long, long time ago, yeah.
B: A lot more adjusting on the part of your parents with language.
J: Yes, yes, it has, it has. I always use the analogy, it’s a little bit different, but I always use the analogy, it’s almost like taking a modern day person and transporting them back in time and now they have to start planting and growing their own food. It’s the opposite for them. They come here, they have to readjust, acclimate, how do you really go from one extreme in the spectrum to another, and try to get yourself acclimated and adjust. So that’s how it looks.
B: What brought them to St. Paul?
J: Uh, families and it’s just a place that we could call home. But it’s just family that brought them we here. We did have a couple of family members that are here at the time and then we came and a few, more and more, and then hundreds of families came here.
B: How many blocks away was your childhood home from the restaurant here?
J: Oh, gosh. Less than half a mile from here. Yeah, less than half a mile from here. And I don’t live far from here, too. So I really see the changes in the dynamics that it has gone through on University Avenue here. It used to be, the Sun Foods there used to be Kowalski’s. And we used to come and buy food from there and walk back. So things change. We really have changed. If you go down there, Rainbow was, before it was Rainbow was (sigh). Gosh I forgot another name.
J: Applebaum’s, that’s it. Before it was called Rainbow, we used to live not far from Hamline there, too. And then my dad, we would walk to Applebaum’s and buy our grocery and each carry two bags because there was no means of transportation back then, but on foot, as a young child, so I could really see the changes in that. And then we moved back we used to walk over the highway to buy food at Kowalski’s here, I believe so, and then somehow the dynamic of the community has changed.
B: You have really deep roots here.
J: I do, I do.
B: Have you ever moved out of the neighborhood?
J: No I have not, I have not. I’ve always been here. But that’s why I’ve seen the changes that have come over the ages over time on University Avenue. I can tell you that before they tore down Porky’s, there was Porky’s down there, we used to go hang out with just all the cars. You know it was a time with ‘50s and ‘90s all combined into one. So it was kind of like that environment.
B: It was sad to see Porky’s go.
J: Yes, yes.
B: And you’ve seen some other things disappear. We were talking about one of the notorious places.
J: I have, I have. Notorious place. I’ve seen the Faust, which is now the Rondo Community Library, it was a really notorious hangout. The Catholic community or the larger community wanted to see that change, because it brought really bad people to the neighborhood. It was just time for a change. I think the City bought the building actually for a million plus dollars at the time. And then later, the person, the owner, was charged with tax invasion. That’s what happened.
B: There was kind of a mini red light district there. That wasn’t the only establishment, but it was the one that got the most attention.
J: Yeah, yes, correct, correct. At the time I didn’t really know all that. But as I was growing up reading and seeing the changes I knew that that’s what brought a lot of the social unrest in the community.
B: What else have you seen disappear?
J: Over time, I think, with the coming of the light rail, the car shows on Saturday and Friday night are gone now. They can’t just put their car show on the street and go hangout. That’s also gone, too. That’s probably, I think that’s been a strong part of the community for the last 30 plus years. I mean, I remember as a kid, growing up, we could drive by, my parents, or we would drive by on Friday night, Saturday night, there was a lot, packed, hangout, they just want to show off their car, you’d get out of your cars and just hang out, but again, it’s Porky’s time from the ‘50s back all the to the ‘90s.
B: Until very recently.
J: Until recently, so that’s what I’ve seen change. But the greatest change I’ve seen it has become somewhat safer, in the sense that back in the ‘80s you would, it was a rough neighborhood. You couldn’t walk across University Avenue from Snelling to the Capitol. I can remember. I’ll stretch it from Lexington to University. It was a really rough neighborhood and nobody would dare to walk across it. You would but, daytime maybe, but nighttime it would be really rough for you to try to get from over there to over there.
J: Well, I think just because of the neighborhood, it was really, it was not a welcoming place that you want to feel safe walking. Now, I don’t feel that way. Back then it was dirt, you could see glass all over, everything was torn down. Nothing was looked after. But I think once in the ‘80s, the middle of the ‘80s, toward 1990, what really happened, it was almost like an abandoned town here in Frogtown, on University on this stretch from the Capitol to Lexington. But then the Hmong community, they came in and they purchased all these homes and they made it a home, they stayed, they fixed it up and it became a vibrant community. And the value of the home went up and up. And others in the community bought these homes, and it became a stable community again. Because at one point, I can remember reading the local newspapers and they were talking about how can we, there were politicians and leaders talking about how can we get people to stay in, what do we need to do to really build a community here because it’s almost like an abandoned town and they have stakeholders and organizations they’re talking about it and strategizing but nothing really sticks until the Hmong community came in and just start buying and fixing up all these homes and make it a home and people actually live in them and cut the grass and care about the community. And then brought other community along. And that’s what you see now is the results of these people want to do something to the home to fix it up and stay in it so that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen. It really moved St. Paul and particularly this Frogtown area here, it really brought the, changed the dynamic that people see. If someone moved away and came back and see what’s here now they would not have believed it, so. Because this community has really changed, and I firmly believe it will continue to change because all these started out in the 18-, early 1900s and were bought by the Irish. There were others that were here. You can see the churches that were built in here. So you can see that there are still others who are in their late ages that still come to the church. I’m not sure about the younger ones. But they still come from the other communities into these churches that are still built in the 1800s, 1900s.
B: It is interesting walking the adjacent streets to see all of the nice homes that are well cared for and nice yards that may defy what a lot of people still think about the area.
J: Yeah. Yes. Yes. A lot of people, particularly the older generation, I mean they have really seen and witnessed the change in this area and when I talk about these positive changes they really have, it’s almost 180 degree changes and I think it will continue to change. With the coming of the light rail if we can build these into mini stops where culture and different ethnic places, I think that will really attract more people to come. And I spoke about the positive of this light rail is that I’m glad it’s here just because I’ve been to other parts of the world and I’ve seen what light rail can do for communities. It will move people from places to places but also brought tourists and others into the area. I always talk about if you give people food, similar things, and make it a spectacle where people will actually want to come and be a part of it, University can become part of that because we have the light rail which, and you give people different food, different culture, different things that they want to do and visit, you can have tourists here that’s going to want to be here that will be willing to say let’s to go to this place. I mean the Capitol’s right here. It’s the center of Minnesota, how could you not want to be part of something that’s so vibrant. Let’s go visit, whether you do nothing. The point is you’re there and you can talk about it. Let’s just be part of it. That’s all the excitement I like to see happen.
B: It could make it a lot easier for people in Minneapolis to hop a train, and there’s a reason to make this a destination.
J: Because of the businesses, but this is so unique, in the sense that from downtown to downtown is about 11 and a half miles. And within this there’s 800 businesses. Of these 800 businesses, 500 businesses are mom and pop. Of these mom and pop are different food, culture, ethnic, so you get 11 and a half miles in your own backyard around the world. So that’s why it’s so positive that it’s going to bring great things to the area and to the city of St. Paul and particularly to Frogtown here.
B: And there’s been support for making it a cultural district. I’m guessing that you may have been a part of some of those conversations?
J: Well, some part of it, some of the conversation, I have, particularly in Frogtown, in Little Mekong, like I said they’re really trying to diversify the area, the stop here, so that when other community come here they say, ‘Ah, this is a place of great people, great food, how can we grab some souvenirs we can take, we can talk about it.’ I think that’s what I’m excited about. It can happen, it will happen.
B: There are certain organizations in the neighborhood that lend that kind of support to help make that happen.
J: Yeah, we talk to AEDA, we talk to NDC. They have wonderful individuals who work at these organizations that have brilliant ideas. I think more than anything else, you can have great ideas but you have to put those ideas into action and execute them, otherwise everything’s just great ideas. Those who are the ones that can actually execute those ideas are the ones that will actually be successful. I think we have brilliant people in those organizations so can happen.
B: I’m struck by that, too.
J: Yeah, I’ve been part of some of this discussion but I feel strongly that it’s going to happen and I think that we have good people in good places that have good ideas and that can pull resources together. When you have good resources and good people I think a lot of things can happen.
B: Going back to your childhood, tell me about your parents and what your parents did for work.
J: Well, we came here long ago, like I said, 30 plus years. My parents came here, basically they’re just agricultural people but they, now they’re retired, they don’t really do much. My parents brought eight siblings, four brothers and four sisters, and pretty much all of are graduated from college so. The first thing my dad preaches about is education, so it’s fortunate that we have the opportunity to go to school and be educated in this country because I wouldn’t have been granted the same opportunities to some extent, but I think that’s what here is really a demonstration of what education can do for all of us. So I think that’s why my dad preaches that and he’s a firm believer in education. And to this day we still bring those values to our children, that school and education is the most important thing in your lives.
B: You came from a big family.
J: I do, I do, and education be part of us.
B: You and all of your siblings graduated from college?
J: Pretty much, pretty much except my older sister, so, but I mean just an opportunity for all of us who came here at a younger age because education brings out certain values and character that you work at.
B: When you finished school were you thinking that you wanted to own your own business?
J: Well, when I finished school I guess I didn’t have much of an idea of what I really wanted to do, so I kind of had an idea to just get a little experience under my belt. I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve done nonprofits to the corporate world. As I was journeying into this a restaurant was the furthest thing from my mind. The furthest thing from my mind. I knew I wanted to own a business, but I didn’t know what kind of business. At graduate school I was thinking yeah, own your own business, yeah, you’ve got to, ah, that’s the furthest thing. I do, I do like the concept of be your own boss but not own a restaurant.
B: So how did that happen?
J: Well, I was an exchange student in Thailand, I was there for about a year. Great culture, great food, great people. So I came back here and like I said, I was just working, this was almost 15 plus years ago. My family, my wife’s family are really into the restaurant business. And my mother-in-law, the greatest mom and the greatest cook there is, in my opinion. Everything she cooks is just delicious. You can’t go wrong. So they owned restaurants in Michigan, so we go over there and start working with them, in the restaurants, and we just kind of kept at it. And then about four, almost a decade ago, 10 or 12 years ago, they said, ‘Do you guys want to run this business, this restaurant?’ We said, ‘Yeah, we can try.’ That’s how we started. We got it going and now here we are. And this is our second restaurant, so.
B: How does this compare to other work that you’ve done? You’re your own boss?
J: Yeah, you’re your own boss. It’s relatively the same. For anything to be successful I’ve learned that it’s hard work, it’s dedication, you have to be committed. But if you’re going to work—this is the true distinguishing thing that if you work for others—they give you a salary and you work and that’s all you work. You’re not working for yourself, you’re working for them, and the responsibility falls on you in terms of your work, but in here everything is a different dynamic. The challenge is much different, the work level is still twice the commitment, and at the end of the day you’re doing it for yourself. If something happens, I can say, okay, business is closed for a couple days. We’ll come back, we can still pick up and do things. Versus over there, you can’t. Understandable. These are the trade-offs you’re looking at. That’s the advantage of it. I’ve come to appreciate it. Yes, I work hard, but at the end of the day it’s still. Anywhere you go in life, don’t let anybody fool you, if you’re not working too hard you’re doing it wrong. That’s how I look at it.
B: What year did you open the restaurant?
J: 2011, so two years.
B: And how did you end up in this particular location?
J: Well, I guess I’m from this neighborhood, this community, and when this opportunity came up we just had to take it. So we’ve seen all the businesses and this one came about. I guess some time, like the old saying, it’s time in life sometimes, the opportunity’s about time in life sometimes. And that’s how it came about. When we started, people were like, ‘Are you nuts? The light rail’s going to come here. You’re going to have grand opening, grand closing. The light rail’s coming. What are you doing opening a business?’ I said, ‘You know, there’s great potential. I realize that for a couple months it’s going to hit pretty hard. But just like in life a storm hits, you weather it, and the sunshine comes through.’ That’s what you do, that’s where you make your opportunity. It’s good to have a certain conviction, a belief that it’s going to have a positive outcome. But with that said, if I hadn’t been in the restaurant business I probably would not have done it, so, but just given the experience I’d done and the experience I had, and the experience I’d developed over a lot of Fortune 500 companies, I could say, ‘Yeah, construction’s coming through but if you do things right, you work hard, you work at it, as anything else, you’ll survive, you’ll be fine.
B: So you were able to think long-term?
J: Yes. You have to think short-term and long-term. That’s what I always say when I talk to these organizations. Drive traffic to the area, get people to come. Just drive traffic to the area. A lot of the businesses just need traffic. Because they have good food, good services. Just go out there and continue to support them. For the businesses, if you’re good enough, you’ll be around. That’s just how business works.
B: You opened in 2011 and then when did the major portion of the construction begin?
J: 2012, April of 2012. I can just recall it like it was yesterday. When they start digging up. It’s a history in itself, too. There are layers and layers of concrete here and tracks on University piled on top of each other and you can see each layer constitutes certain periods of time on University. There was a trolley going along at one period of time. There’s red bricks laying on top of the concrete so, on top of the tracks, so that’s another history level. So you can really see the changes that come through here on University. And finally the last layer is just blacktop that just lays on top. Again, it tells a history of periods of time that was happening on University Avenue.
B: That must have been fascinating.
J: It does tell a history in time, so. When they’re doing that I was saying, ‘Dang, why are we wasting so many resources? We should have just kept the trolley. It’s still very firm, very good design. That’s a waste of resources right there.’
B: How many months did the construction last?
J: It started in April and ended in October, so that’s a good six or eight months. They said six months, but it was a little bit more than that. Each day we come here it’s different. But boy, the earth movers that were here, wow, it shakes the foundation all around University here quite a bit. Customers would say, ‘Hey, is your building falling apart?’ just because construction was going on. That’s how much of an impact it has.
B: What did all of that do to your sales?
J: Well, it hit pretty hard. For a good four months there we did a good amount of business and from there it just, just the access to come here was really driving a lot of people away from the area. And on top of that, people just didn’t want to deal with the construction, the headache, and that’s the biggest challenge and I think that will be to some extent until we can start promoting and telling people construction’s done. Come look at how beautiful it is. When they see how beautiful it is even now, they say, ‘Wow.’Even in the ‘90s you wouldn’t think. When they get this thing done you’re going to think, ‘Wow.’
B: It has been challenging.
J: It is, because it’s a new normal now. For people like you and I who grew up in this area, it’s a new normal now, in the sense that if you’re going to go somewhere, you’ve got to think, where am I going to go, because I can’t just drive across University like I used to. Now you can’t. The major intersection here, if I want to drive east, I have to drive west a little bit, or if I want to drive west, just so that I can make the turn. So it’s a new normal, I will say, but in time everyone will adjust to the driving.
B: What was your first year in business like (outside of the construction)?
J: When you’re in business, the first year is always a challenge. But with the challenge always comes opportunity. I think there were a lot of resources along the way to really help promote our business, and we did a lot of marketing to help, but then again, there are just challenges that we look at from a short-term perspective and long-term perspective. We looked at the short-term just to keep the business going. But then we did things that once the light rail is done or about to be done would hopefully garnish long-term returns. So we’re always doing short-term things but have the long-term in mind, that, okay, this is what’s going to happen, so. This marketing firm, you’ve probably heard of them, they did a wonderful job, too, and I’ll give you an illustration. They have this huge poster of our business, of myself, and they didn’t know what to do with it, so they brought it in. I said, ‘You know Met Council owns the airport. How could we—’ It basically promotes the Green Line, but they didn’t know what to do with it now, so I had said, ‘Listen, let’s call them, let’s have this picture hanging at the airport, promoting the Green Line.’ Why throw something of this magnitude, this resource, away? I think it would be positive, I think it would be good. It would be really good for all the businesses here on University, but also to promote the Green Line, so I look at in the sense that it’s a really positive spin to the whole picture. So I that it can happen, so we’ll see.
B: So that’s one resource that’s been helpful. What other resources are helping you remain positive?
J: Well, I think it’s just neighborhood housing and AEDA and Va-Megn, and Isabella (NDC), about how to really just talk to all the businesses about the issues that they deal with and just to get them to say, ‘How can we help your business?’ And we talk about ideas about small businesses networking or just getting the word out and talking to stakeholders such as the Met Council, bringing people in, hearing our issues, our concerns. It’s minute, but to us it’s big because it means they’re actually listening, and it’s getting the word out that University is actually open for business.
B: I don’t know that all communities are fortunate to have so many resources available when there’s a big development project like this.
J: I’m sure if you talk to others they’re not going to be as enthused as I am. I can only talk from my own perspective. You can talk to others and they might rip into these organizations, but I don’t look at it that way. At the end of the day, the light rail is coming, it is changing. Regardless of how you look at it, it is going to have a positive impact. A lot of people haven’t seen the world. I’ve been to Europe and I’ve seen what it does for commerce. People, goods and services, all across, in different parts of the U.S. I’ve been to Washington, DC, they’ve got a good Metro system. I like it. I don’t have any problem with it. I go there, I don’t need a car. I was just there visiting my brother. He said, ‘Do you want me to pick you up?’ I said, ‘I’m catching the Metro, don’t worry.’ I’ve been there many times. If you have a car you have to try to park and everything? No. You get off the plane, you walk across and catch the Metro, pay a couple of dollars to get on the Metro, it takes you exactly where you want to go. It’s easy to get around. It’s very convenient. So my perspective is different from others who have not seen that. I’ve been in Philadelphia. I’ve ridden on their light rail, too.
B: Change can make people nervous.
J: But change is always good though. I think change is always good. It’s those who are in their little comfort zone that, we’re in Minnesota, I just talked about, we’re so comfortable. We want to drive our car and park in the front, not just us, but we’re so used to that. If you’ve been to other countries, it’s not like that. I’ve been on trains that are going 300 miles per hour to get from point A to B in a couple hours, versus we’re going to drive six, seven hours. I’d rather get on this train that takes me two hours to get to where I want to go versus trying to drive myself in seven hours. I just imagine we can put a bullet train here to Chicago in two hours. I’d be on that, no problem. I would go there for two hours and then come back. I mean why wouldn’t we do something like that? But it can happen. If you go to Europe you can go to places and timewise you can travel. Just to do stuff like that, it would cause so much commotion. It’s not really advanced thinking, progressive thinking. As we continue as a nation, as we continue to grow, there will be more people. I remember when we first moved here, there weren’t that many cars, there wasn’t that much traffic. That’s what I see. If you’ve been to different parts of the world, that’s what you see. If you’ve ever been to Berlin, and to their Central Station, there are four levels, three levels of people going to all over. Just imagine in Minnesota. It’s different. In terms of our thinking we’re not there yet. We claim to be advanced. My brother’s in Virginia, Fairfax, Virginia, he just moved there a month and a half ago, but I’ve got nephews that were there at Georgetown, George Washington University, so I’ve been going there 20 plus years. We go there for conference sometimes soon, too. If people just traveled, they’d see that there are other ways to get around. It really is inconvenient if you’re in a major metropolitan area just to find a parking lot. If you’re in DC, you don’t need a car, I can tell you. That’s a whole change for a lot of people.
B: Who are your customers here?
J: Most of my customers here are, I’ll take anyone, I’ll take all of them, but most of my customers, about 70 percent, are Caucasian. I know a lot of people are surprised when I say that. And then the rest are Asian, African American, Hispanic.
B: Right now, is it mostly people who live or work in the area?
J: Yeah. For lunch, they’re particular to the area. Dinner time and weekends it’s people who come as far as Golden Valley, Forest Lake, Hudson, Woodbury. I do have some hardcore followers, for which I’m happy and I’m proud that they come all this way. And Eagan, too. So people come not just from here but from all over the Cities.
B: How do people discover you?
J: You can go to school and find out what the most effective marketing tools you can get are but they find out by word of mouth. But what we did, we ran some ads, too, but it’s mostly through friends and family, a few through social media. That’s how we established that relationship. It just kind of takes off from there. It’s never easy but we build from that with the short-term for now and then the short-term has go into long-term. That’s how we built everything is with, what is it going to do now and how is now going to help us down the road. Like I talked about the picture, that I mentioned, running, putting it at the airport. It’s not really going to happen now, but that’s going to be happening down the road. If we can get that. These are the things that I’m talking about. Doing things in the short-term that also have long-term implications. Hanging something there. But yeah, when people see it, the light rail’s going to come, they’re going to come. So that’s what I’m talking about. You build certain things, but you always have long-term goals and results and implications in mind. It’s going to happen to you. That’s what my thinking is always.
B: And do you have conversations with neighboring businesses about this?
J: A few of them. A few of them. Some of them are positive about it. Some are in between.
B: What kinds of things are you hearing?
J: Well, some of the things that we’ve talked about, worrying that the people might not come back. Because the traffic here, even though you see it flowing, we’re not sure whether it’s going to be the level it was before the construction. So we’re really, to really get a good gauge, we had to almost do a study to find out the level of traffic that’s here and what kinds of things that have done to promote the area to say, ‘It’s done.’ Come check it out, come ride the train. Get a feel of what University’s like. Things like this. That’s what I’m always concerned, that’s what a few of the businesses talk about. Hopefully we can do something like that. I’d like to see something like that done, but these are questions, a discussion for others to see what happens.
B: I know that you have ideas.
J: Yes, I do. I do have a lot of ideas. But like I said, an idea without action is just an idea. An idea has to lead to action to make things happen. You have to have people to execute those ideas. If you don’t, it’s just a vision.
B: It’s good to have people with visions though.
J: It is, it is.
B: What are the biggest rewards of owning this business?
J: I think the biggest reward is that you actually own something, you should do something, you should have something that you can say, it’s like part of the American dream. You can work for somebody, but if you own it, it makes you feel, it’s reality. You work hard, but nothing’s achieved without hard work. That’s what my dad always said. He worked a farm, he worked hard. But he said, you always have to work hard. Nothing successful comes without hard work. Those who worked hard, the more successful they are the harder they work. In American society we’re such an instant gratification society. We always want to gravitate toward, but then when we see the work that people put behind the scene. I’m a big sports fan. I listen to Michael Jordan. He always talks about, they always see him as this great player, ‘They see me as the great player, but they never see me, the eight hours I put in at the court when nobody’s around. I shot this ball thousands and thousands of times. I do this over and over and over and nobody’s around. And that’s how it works. And then when they see me, the two hours, they only see the final product. But they never see the hours and hours behind the scenes,’ and it’s kind of like that. That’s why you see very successful people. They weren’t just a success, they did something that nobody’s there to see them, the hard work, and that’s how I look at it.
B: How many people on staff here?
J: Just myself, my wife, just all my family that are helping us right now. In terms of staff, we have a lot of people working but not officially anybody.
B: So a true family business.
J: A true family business, a true family business. We have families that work second shift, third shift, and they come in here and they just want to help the business be successful. So they just give up their time and they help us. So we’re all in one shape or form, we’re a family. Family’s big for all of us, it’s kind of like a foundation. On holidays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, we’re all just here.
B: When I met your wife, she was on her way to work.
J: She works in the airline industry.
B: Any changes that we can expect at Bangkok Cuisine?
J: This is not definitive, but something we have kicked around is the name change, so we’ll see, because there’s a Royal Bangkok, a Bangkok Deli, there’s us here, so we’re kind of working a little bit about the name change, so we’ll see. We’ve thought about a couple names. We had a customer, a group that came in today, who said we ran an ad for a $3.99 lunch special, they want that. We were all confused. As they were talking it turned out that it was the one down there, another Bangkok, so definitely something’s got to be done, so that’s probably the only thing, and then you always want to tweak your business. What I learned from Fortune 500 is that it’s not the companies that just sit around, it’s the companies that make the little changes to the business. They’re always doing things to grow and thrive their business.
B: Are there things that you’ve done to tweak your business in the first couple years?
J: We have, we have. We always listen to our customers, that’s always the biggest thing. We always listen to our customers because nothing’s always perfect. We always change to meet the need of our customers, whether it’s a product or whether or not our services are up to par. We always continue to improve and strive to better or business. That’s how we look at it.
B: Do any come to mind?
J: Yeah, yeah they do. They always want us to hang more pictures and we don’t have room for that. What we’ve done is, what comes to mind is that we’re a family business. And they feel that this is a very close knit, a very kind of like a home business, and they feel like they can, they get a atmosphere like they’re at home getting food. More like we’re family. My wife and I think of it, our business as an extension of family. There’s always lots of kids and their families eating here. That’s how we look at it and we try to change. Our customers always tell us you should do that and that, but we try to stick to our core. We believe in family and in giving good value to people, your product, your services, at a reasonable price.
B: What is this spot prior to you?
J: It was another Thai business, too, that was in here. But when we came, we changed everything, the menus, everything, it’s all new, everything’s new here. The previous business, it was 15 years at this location. The business behind us, she’s been here 14, 15 years, too.
B: So you’re the new kid on the block.
J: Yeah, I am, I am. And like I said, opportunity, it’s the time in life sometime.
B: Anything that distinguishes Bangkok Cuisine from the other Thai restaurants in the area?
J: You know, like I said before, what distinguishes us, I think the food we serve is different from the other place. I talk to them, but unless you actually sit down and eat it you probably wouldn’t. Royal Thai food, it’s still different. It’s the texture of the food itself. And I think that we have the best fried rice in food. We have a lot of good dishes. I talked with Va-Megn about putting a promotion and marketing and trying a fried rice competition. That’s unique. I don’t know if he talked to you about that, if he mentioned that. We talked about putting a competition to drive traffic to the area.
B: Do you think that will happen?
J: I hope it will, because I think it would be really good. Again, my goal is to promote the area. To give something on an annual basis because people will come to the area for something like a fried rice competition. I talked about having Andrew Zimmern being the judge. Because then we’d get a lot of lot of people walking up and down University. You see, I have a lot of grand ideas. People will come, eat, walk around, buy some souvenirs, walk down to the Capitol. I have a lot of ideas but it takes people who can put them into action because my time is here, my focus is here. If you get Andrew Zimmern here, get his whole crew here, why wouldn’t he come? That’s all it takes. Because everybody does fried rice on the block. All these dishes are different.
B: How far would it go along University? How many restaurants would be a part of it?
J: From Lexington down. Everybody would be welcome. Get everybody to come. Let the people decide.
B: As you look to the future, what are your main concerns? Hopes? What would you like to see this area like in 10 years?
J: I think, ten years from now, I hope that this area particularly from Dale to the Capitol here will become a thriving, almost, they call it a little Mekong, I call it a little diversity community, where, when they come, when they enter this place, they will see statues, they will see replicas of diverse, that will represent diverse communities so that they feel the flavor, they feel the taste. They’ll feel like we’re almost in a different time zone when we go into this place, even though it’s right in our backyard. You can feel the atmosphere is different, the food, the culture, the people, is so different that people will gravitate to it. In ten years that’s what I want to see because I always give the analogy, when I go to Toronto, I want to go to Chinatown. I want to get the food, walk around, get my souvenir. It’s the vision. People want to be a part of something. That’s how I look at it. It’s just an idea, a vision, and that’s what I’d like to see happen here. You do it, you build it, and people will come. That’s what I really, really want to see. Because we have the means of transportation. It will be here, and why not. We have the State Capitol right by us. You can walk to it. It’s the center of Minnesota. I think a lot of things can happen. I hope it can happen.
B: Thank you very much.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.