Although the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many new, unforeseen challenges for small business owners (SMEs), their optimism remains strong - a true testament to the resilience and determination of Canadian entrepreneurs.
As part of our recent profile series in partnership with The Globe and Mail, Passion & Persistence: Stories of Business Resilience, we spoke with Chef Nuit Regular, the executive chef and co-owner of the popular Toronto restaurants, PAI Northern Thai Kitchen, Kiin, Sabai Sabai, and Sukhothai. Nuit has demonstrated great strength and tenacity throughout her culinary career, and even launched a cookbook (Kiin: Recipes and Stories from Northern Thailand), a second PAI location as well as a brand-new business during COVID-19. By Chef Nuit is a new pop-up restaurant in Toronto, which serves a Thai spin on traditional comfort foods alongside a virtual marketplace where customers can buy fresh Thai produce, pantry staples and items from her product line.
Here, Nuit shares her unique approach to food, the challenges of starting a new business and how she’s navigated these uncertain times.
Q: Tell us about your background; what about your past experiences helped shape your approach to food and cooking?
I first learned to cook in my mother’s kitchen in Thailand, where I was born and raised. My mother and I would cook for the whole family together. Even when I didn’t want to, I would cook with my mom because I loved her and wanted to help her. I later moved away from my family to work as a nurse, and cooking was what made me feel close to them. For me, my culinary inspiration has always been love. It’s about cooking from your heart.
Q: What was the biggest barrier you faced when opening your first restaurant?
The biggest challenge was managing the financial side of the business. I wanted the best Thai ingredients so that I could make high quality dishes, which meant a big upfront investment. However, when you’re just starting to build your reputation in the industry and you don’t have a dedicated customer base, the food costs tend to be higher, and the return on investment isn’t there. Once you’ve established yourself and have more customers and steady revenue coming in, the food costs naturally balance out.
Q: How has Amex helped you on your business journey?
When I opened my first restaurant in Toronto with my husband Jeff, we had to import a large quantity of products from Thailand, which was very expensive. American Express helped us manage payments to suppliers and freed up cashflow, which really eased my stress and anxiety as a new business owner. They gave us the financial support and flexibility we needed so that we were ultimately able to expand and build a restaurant empire.
Q: How important has e-commerce been to your business during COVID-19?
E-commerce continues to play a huge role for our business during the pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, most of our revenue came from dine-in customers, but when dine-in was no longer an option, we needed to adapt and keep our business going through take-out and delivery. We even started creating and delivering meal kits to customers and teaching virtual cooking classes through our online platforms, so that they could learn to make authentic Thai food at home. This was a great way to connect with our customers and still provide them with unique, enjoyable experiences. We also launched a new virtual marketplace, which features my favourite fresh Thai produce and new line of products that can be purchased and picked up in Toronto.
Q: How have you managed to stay so focused during this pandemic?
My version of the three “P”s help me to stay focused; it’s about being patient, positive and productive. Being productive has helped keep my mind off unnecessary worries and things out of my control. The pandemic pushed me to flex my creative muscles and allowed me to work on several new and exciting projects – I released a cookbook and opened a pop-up restaurant for which I developed a totally new menu inspired by comfort food.
Q: How have you managed your restaurant staff during the pandemic?
I tried hard to stay connected with my team, whether that was online, over the phone or via text. I think keeping in close communication and remaining connected during tough times is so important, especially with so many people feeling concerned and anxious. My team is like my family, so I made sure they knew that if they needed my help, they could come ask me.
Q: Who is your biggest inspiration?
My mom has been the biggest inspiration for everything in my life, and I’ve learned a lot about business from her. She is a small business owner herself and has taught me to always strive for the best – to have the best quality products and hone my culinary techniques to deliver the most impressive dishes.
Q: How are you thinking about the future?
For me, I’m more focused on the present than the future. If I do my best today, then tomorrow will be even better. I try to be patient and understanding and accept that some things are just beyond my control. My mom always says that “there is no future”, meaning that tomorrow is not guaranteed, there is only today.
Descriptions and opinions are those of Chef Nuit Regular and PAI Northern Thai Kitchen, not those of American Express.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or an opinion on any issue. It should not be regarded as comprehensive or a substitute for professional advice.