A Conversation with Thai Cafe owner Ya Poophakumpanart
Late on a Monday afternoon, I dropped by Thai Cafe and spoke with owner and chef Ya Poophakumpanart. With translation help from Mai Vang, we had a conversation about the pleasures and difficulties of owning a business along University Ave in Saint Paul.
In 2008, Ya Poophakumpanart moved to the United States from Tak, a province in Northwestern Thailand that borders Myanmar. Just three years later, in 2011, Ya opened Thai Cafe (371 University Ave W, St Paul, MN 55103) and started serving inexpensive high quality Thai cuisine. According to Ya, her unique sour pork ribs and Thai papaya salad are both her and her costumer’s favorite dishes. Situated along University Ave in Saint Paul’s newly established Little Mekong District, Thai Cafe has some stiff competition from much larger and more well-known restaurants within walking distance of her simple six-table cafe.
Ya’s success appears to be in large part due to her excellent food and her incredibly humble, warm, and genuine personality. My favorite moment in our interview was when I asked her if she liked American food, and a wide smile appeared on her face while she responded that very much enjoyed pizza. More importantly Ya spoke casually and simply about the pleasures and difficulties of owning a restaurant. For example, during our conversation she frequently mentioned her loyal customers, for whom she clearly has a deep appreciation. While Thai Cafe is small and managed by only a few employees, Ya is often the only staff member at the restaurant. She waits tables, cooks, cleans, and does whatever else needs to be done. Although Ya enjoys this cozy, manageable atmosphere, like any successful restaurant owner she would love to expand, grow bigger and hire more staff.
Ya is a recent immigrant to the United States. She has only lived in the Twin Cities for five years and (quite reasonably) hasn’t yet mastered the English language. Despite the language barrier and the fact that she has endured a year of heavy light-rail construction in front of her small restaurant, Ya is a successful businesses owner and ambitious entrepreneur. For these reasons and more that I wanted to visit Ya and understand how she keeps those loyal customers coming back.
Small Business Marketing
Marketing and branding is a multi-billon dollar enterprise and affects nearly every facet of our lives. Further, research on marketing strategies overwhelms academic journals and corporate businesses departments. Yet, “the overall marketing literature has paid little attention to the marketing strategies adopted by the ethnic minority enterprises.”1 As a small minority-owned business, Thai Cafe is an excellent case study for exactly the type of research that is missing.
The construction of a light-rail line along University Ave in both Saint Paul and Minneapolis and its impact on surrounding businesses has been a common topic of conversation in the Twin Cities over the past few years. As we enter into final phases of light-rail construction, understanding how the hundreds of small and minority owned businesses utilize various marketing strategies is essentially to helping these business and others succeed.
Mitigating the effects of light rail construction such as loss of revenue and property damage is a full time job for many organizations and individuals. One of the many organizations in the Twin Cites working on these mitigating efforts is the University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative (U7). An initiative of the Neighborhood Development Center, U7’s mission is, “to help strengthen existing small businesses, one by one, along University Ave before, during, and after the construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail project.”2 One of U7’s contributions to small businesses along University Ave is to provide marketing and branding assistance, in particular designing websites and logos. U7 has worked with a wide variety of businesses along University Ave (you can see a sample of their work here).
Ya and Thai Cafe was a recipient of U7’s marketing and branding assistance. The nonprofit provided 120 hours of support, including designing the restaurant’s logo, business cards, flyers, menu, website, creating a Facebook page, Twitter feed and more. These marketing strategies sound like they would be very helpful for a relatively unknown business dealing with extremely obstructive construction soon after it opened its doors. Yet, when I asked Ya about the help she received from U7 she was rather nonchalant about the whole experience—even slightly confused about what I was talking about. In particular, when I asked Ya if she liked the logo U7 designed for her, she shrugged her shoulders and gave a less than resounding yes. Ya also went on to explain that because of the website, it had become more difficult to track where her costumers are coming from, that is, how they ended up at Thai Cafe. Because Ya is busy both cooking and waiting tables, it is often hard to interact with her costumers at length to ask them how they found out about her little cafe. The last thing on Ya’s mind during the day is updating the restaurant’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, which Ya leaves to her high-school aged daughter to manage. Of course, Ya is grateful to U7 for providing her with marketing and branding assistance. In particular she says the website has significantly increased online orders.
U7 is offering an important service to small businesses along University Ave who were deeply affected by construction. I applaud their efforts and their work, and recognize that without their help and without the help of other similar organizations many of these small business wouldn’t be in existence today, or they would be an unknown building whizzing by the eyes of future train commuters. But I wonder how important it is for small business owners like Ya to have a brand, an online presence and well-designed social media pages, especially when they don’t have the time to update that online presence? Having a website may seem like a standard business practice—and for the most part, it is—but Thai Cafe shows us that there is conflict between cutting edge marketing strategies and what a small business like Thai Cafe thinks is worth their time and effort.
As far as Ya is concerned, she is successful because she cooks good food that her costumers like well enough to keep coming back. This attitude appears to be common for many small minority owned businesses. Levent Altinay and Eser Altiney, writing about use of costumer-focused marketing strategies or what they call “relationship marking,” state that “the use of…relationship marketing [produces] a range of relational benefits including acquiring and retaining costumers, generating positive word of mouth, and increasing the client base… ethnic minority business…place emphasis on identity relations in business and build long-term relations with costumers.”3
Costumer-based marketing also plays an important role in intercultural relations. According to Altinay and Altiney, “relationship marketing not only facilitates the transactions of goods and services between a buyer and the seller but also constitutes a platform for a cultural exchange between the ethnic entrepreneur and the mainstream customer. It is this culturally embedded platform of ethnic entrepreneurs which engages mainstream customers with the ethnic products and services.”4 The moment of interaction between Ya and her non-Thai costumers, no matter how small, is more meaningful than any website.
Ya opened up Thai Cafe along University Ave because she believed its high rate of traffic was a promising place to own a restaurant. Two years later, in spite of her success, she remains humble about what her business has accomplished. While I no doubt believe U7’s assistance has helped Ya and Thai Cafe remain profitable, I think it is her absolutely delicious sour pork ribs, papaya salad, and genuine personality that will truly decide her future.
1Altinay, Levent & Eser Altinay. 2008. Marketing Strategies of Ethnic Minority Businesses in the UK. The Service Industries Journal 28(8): 1183-1197.
2University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative. n.d. Our Mission. http://universityseven.squarespace.com
3Altinay, Levent & Eser Altinay. 2008. Marketing Strategies of Ethnic Minority Businesses in the UK. The Service Industries Journal 28(8): 1183-1197.
4Altinay, Levent & Eser Altinay. 2008. Marketing Strategies of Ethnic Minority Businesses in the UK. The Service Industries Journal 28(8): 1183-1197.