This Thai lady is special. She is smart. She is young. She is pretty. Her eyes sparkle when she talks. She worked in an international company in Bangkok.. What made her give up her good job and return to her hometown Chiang Mai?
I had a chance to interview Nitchaya Tuwanon in her lovely restaurant – The Salad Concept. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The ambiance of the restaurant is so relaxing; I felt I was sitting in a tropical health resort.
I got curious to know more about this place. SO I asked her when would she be free for the interview, suggesting another date to save me some time to prepare the questions. And without hesitation she said now. It wasn’t the answer I expected! I turned to Sam and asked for help. He said go ahead, it’s easy, just chat with her. So I took my MacBook with me, hoping that it’d make me look more professional.
We sat at a table. Her warm smile made me feel very comfortable. And we started to chat…
Every story has a beginning. But an interesting story always starts with an inspiring man. Nitchaya’s father is also the father of the restaurant. Being a man who is always searching for the truth, his diagnosis of cancer didn’t stop him from learning more about himself. Instead of letting others decide his fate, he took an initiation to change his way of eating. He collected a lot of information on cancer treatment, folk remedies, natural cure etc. And he slowly started to see his body improving after he went on an organic fresh food diet for a month. The family also adopted the diet.
After a few years, the mother suggested to open a health food restaurant selling mainly fresh vegetables and fruits. Thus, in august 2009 “The Salad Concept” was born from a strong belief in the healing power of living food. Nitchaya quit her job in Bangkok and ventured into a totally unfamiliar retail business.
Today we can see the father’s anti cancer recipes on the menu of The Salad Concept. There’re live greens, fresh tomatoes, crispy lettuce, and the strong blood cleanser – wheatgrass juice. He grows the wheatgrass in his house, which is not far from the restaurant.
Things that make them proud of the restaurant, that keep the words spreading and keep the customers healthy – all the salads are grown locally by a method called hydroponics., free of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. All juices are made fresh everyday. I personally love the Detox juice. Nitchaya created the salad dressings, which are only found in here, free from MSG and toxic ingredients too.
Being the owner of Chiang Mai’s 1st salad house, she recalled her first day in the business,“It was a chaos. We thought that we’re running a café, but people surprised us.” They did not expect the amount of customers who flooded the place, when only Nitchaya, her sister and 2 waitresses were in the restaurant. Everybody was panicked and things went out of control. Nobody was preparing food in the kitchen, not to say doing the dishes. One waitress actually left the shop half way. They had to ask help from friends and relatives who came to congratulate them.
The opening day was long and tedious. After that they closed the shop for 5 days to reevaluate the business, hire more staff and get more stock. From this extraordinary chaos caused by an unexpected good business, she learned that people saw it as a restaurant and they came for a main course of salad, instead of just a café that provided salad.
Everything was started from scratch. From choosing farmers to targeting customers, from quality control to staff hiring, she worked her way up slowly.
The Salad Concept now is famous for its big bowl of salad. Nitchaya said that it was funny in the beginning because she did not know how much ingredients should be served in one bowl of salad. However after a month of trials and experiments, she now has the standard serving quantity. It is quite a lot for the Thai people, but normal for the foreigners. Nonetheless she said her Thai customers can finish it because they love vegetables.
Now the restaurant is using about 40kg of vegetables a day. It’s a pretty huge amount of salad. She said that in order to make sure they have all varieties of salad, they get the supplies from a few farmers. The cost varies because vegetables price changes according to the season. During winter they can get cheaper vegetables, and during hotter months price goes up as vegetables don’t grow that well. But still they try to meet the demand of every customer even if it costs them more.
Her perseverance and ability to make sure everything goes well left her a successful business with average 200 customers per day. Staff grows from a few to 20. A new chef was hired to replace her in the kitchen. They try to prepare the food before peak hour, so customers can enjoy the salad without much waiting.
Many things have changed within a year. Currently Nitchaya is very satisfied with the results. She is always seen at the counter, taking bills, helping the staff out and training the new staff. It takes about 1 month for the staff to get familiar with his task, and work more efficiently. “Staffs are very important assets in this restaurant,” she added. In Chiang Mai, there are many cases where workers from tribal villages are mistreated by the employers. Nitchaya is aware of this problem and tries to communicate with her employees in a humane way. They get free lunch everyday. One of her staffs has been working here since the opening day!
Speaking about the menu, Nitchaya is open to customers’ suggestions and plan to have more varieties of salad, on top of the available ones. The most popular salad on the menu is the one which you can customize from more than a dozen of ingredients. According to her observation, Thai people love the creamy thousand island dressing, while foreigners prefer the exotic tamarind sesame sauce.
“Opening a restaurant in Chiang Mai is not easy.” She said, after seeing many shops closed down in Chiang Mai in 2-3 months.
The price and the quality of the food have to be taken care of. Due to the low cost of living in Chiang Mai, customers expect high quality food and service if price is set higher than others.
Before planning on running a restaurant, you should have a clear image of what you want to do. Know who are your target customers and what should you do to attract them.
Nitchaya’s restaurant gave a good example about business concept. When her mother suggested different types of food, she insisted on salad. She wants to attract people who love to eat salad, or are health conscious. In order to attract the young people in the range of 20 to 35 years old, the decorative theme of her shop is hip and trendy. (Nitchaya’s sister was the doing the decoration.)
And that’s how the name – The Salad Concept came from. Focus on your business nature. And everything will fall in that category. Uniqueness is also another important factor. Even though this kind of healthy salad is not so familiar among the locals, but she definitely is the pioneer in introducing it to the people.
Nitchaya’s father has been cured. The family has been taught a wonderful lesson. And God continues to bless those who help themselves, and others…