Vas Pamploy is a former computer science technician and local banker, originally from Thailand. Peter Harrison, originally from Ireland, is a health care consultant in New York most days of the week. A little over a year ago they were cruising Palm Coast together, looking for a place to grab lunch. As they rounded Cypress Point Parkway, they were hit by what’s become a chronic sight in this town: the shuttered doors of yet another restaurant. This time, it was the seemingly popular Pasta Pasta. Popular with Pamploy and Harrison, too.
There’s an old myth that nine out of 10 restaurants close within their first year. The myth was peddled with the certainty of fact in an American Express commercial in 2003 and has defied correction since, though in reality the rate at which restaurants close or change hands in their first year is one in four. It rises to three in five after three years, but that’s the normal rate for all new businesses. In Palm Coast, most chains seem to be doing well, with a new Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Wendy’s opening in the past year (the Wendy’s just inside the Bunnell city limit on State Road 100) and a Panera Bread on the way. Perkins is in bankruptcy, but it’s keeping its Palm Coast restaurant open so far.
The smaller, independent operations are having a harder time. In the last year alone, according to Peter, six new local restaurants have opened and closed. “With the increase in commodity prices and the poor economy, it’s increasingly difficult,” says Vas.
The two of us had talked, sort of flippantly, about opening a restaurant,” he laughs, “But we were never actually motivated to act, until one of our favorite places in Palm Coast folded.” That was Pasta Pasta.
“Palm Coast is the type of small city where you’re limited in what’s available as far as restaurants go,” says Harrison, 48. “It hurts when you lose a good one.”
Hunger is the best sauce, goes a Latin proverb. It’s also a terrific motivator.
Promptly Harrison and Pomploy got in touch with their friend Ken Nuntavuttisarn, a 35-year-old Thai chef with whom they’d become acquainted while visiting one of the two Asian restaurants in which he was involved, in Rockledge, Near Merritt Island.
By 7 a.m. the day after contacting Ken, they had gained the landlord’s key and were scouting the former Pasta Pasta interior with a different type of hunger. “The next thing we knew, we were signed, sealed, and delivered,” says Harrison, with each of the three men with an ownership stake in what is now Thai Korner.
Ken, who had studied architecture in Thailand, determined they would model the entire décor off a single lantern that Peter had brought back from New York. The parti-colored light fixtures, made from shells, dangle in the filtering sunlight behind the beaming faces of the three owners.
“The color scheme and the floral patterns set the tone for everything else,” says Peter. “We wanted a place that would be welcoming and relaxing to all, whether you are wearing a tee-shirt and shorts or formal wear. It lends itself to both.” During open hours, Ken works the sushi bar while he leaves a competent kitchen staff to handle his Thai dishes and sauces in the kitchen. He also preps everything beforehand.
Ken continually gets up from his chair, running back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room where Peter and Vas have kept stewardship of his third of the story, to check on his special dessert. It is Thai coconut jelly, on a recent menu in late December to celebrate Thai Korner’s one-year-anniversary. They’d also be toasting with champagne.
That said, recognition and identity have been slow in some demographics of the Palm Coast clientele. “We still get people who wander in, walk past the lanterns and the giant framed effigy of a golden Buddha, stare at our menu with a blank look, and then ask for the Italian one,” Peter says. “It’s especially difficult with older customers who haven’t had the most exposure to ethnic food—especially sushi. We need Ken’s presentation to lure them in.”
After studying architecture in Thailand, Ken—who’d always enjoyed cooking with his mother—came to America to study English so he’d be equipped to get a job at an American firm. Of course, he had to earn his keep on the way. Before long, he found himself working with distinguished sushi chefs in Japanese restaurants. He never looked back but that didn’t mean he abandoned his architecture skills completely.
“Presentation is just as important as taste,” he says. “My medium is no longer buildings. It’s food. The dish must look appealing.”
“It’s pretty common that some younger people, maybe college students, will order both Thai entrees and sushi. When the server carries out this absolutely gorgeous sushi tapestry on a white plate, you’ll see an older couple, at their own table, turn their heads. They’ll pull the server over and ask, ‘what was that?’ The initial awe outweighs their trepidation. The next time they come, they might not remember what to call it but they’ll do their best to describe that colorful piece of sushi they saw the last time they were here,” says Peter.
“On top of that,” Vas says, “when we were snooping around, and there was nothing here, Ken was able to use his architectural eye to visualize where everything would fit, from the layout of the tight kitchen through the dining area.”
With an already reputable Thai restaurant in town—Thai by Thai, open in the
Palm Harbor shopping center for almost 10 years–even after taking Pasta Pasta’s place, the trio doesn’t appear worried about sustaining itself. “That place is on the other side of I-95 and it’s hard in this country to find two Thai chefs who cook the same way,” says Vas, referring to Thai by Thai’s location. “It’s like in America when you have some chefs who are from the South and some who are from the Northeast or Southwest. The cuisine is very different. People who like our food may not like theirs and vice versa.”
Vas and Peter aren’t shy about what they view as their equally important roles in the partnership. Vas, who originally worked at the Thai embassy when he arrived in the United States, is in charge of bills, speaking with inspectors, payrolls, and hiring. It’s his banking and business background speaking.
Peter, who originally worked at the Irish embassy when he arrived in the U.S., is here only on weekends, as he stuffs his suitcase with warm clothes every Sunday evening for a four-day work week in New York City, where he continues to advise hospitals, a 25-year relationship. His restaurant role mainly involves customer satisfaction. He adds that personal touch as host, and will wait tables on occasion.
“Every Thursday, I leave the hectic pace and frigid NYC winter to return to the sunshine state. The change of pace here feels like being on vacation, even though running a restaurant is notoriously difficult.” Laughing, he says, “Compared with Vas and Ken, I know, it sounds like I do nothing, but I promise, I play a huge role!”
“Owning your own business is like the white picket fence of the commercial world,” says Vas. “Everything I’ve wanted to do in life, I can now say I’ve done.”
There’s always at least one owner at the restaurant, which results in a smooth operation and great communication with both customers and wait staff. “We live it. There’s always someone on the beat.” With the divided government of sorts in charge, tensions stay cool with the staff in what typically would be the fiery caste system that entraps foreign-themed restaurants.
“We’re the total complement to each other. It’s like making a dish. Ingredients alone are good but not until you throw them all together and spice them up do you have an entrée.”
Thai Korner Restaurant and Sushi Bar is in the Bealls-Winn Dixie Plaza at at 1280 Palm Coast Parkway SW, opposite City Marketplace and along Cypress Point Parkway. Open for lunch Monday through Friday. 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner seven days a week. Visit Thai Korner’s website for details.