With Covid-19 pandemic numbers on the downturn, travel has taken its spot on the top of many to-do lists. Those tourist booms can only be rewarding to eateries like Lemongrass Restaurant and Sake Bar, which — despite numerous challenges — has remained strong and prosperous.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant industry was thrown into an incredibly difficult — and at one time, seemingly endless — loop. Gone were the days where dozens of people could enter a building to chow down. Instead, businesses both large and small were in for the fight of the lives.
According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry has since suffered the most sales and job losses of any industry since the pandemic began, while 110,000 eating and drinking establishments were forced to close in 2020. While the tolls were rough and wiped years of growth off the table, many restaurants continued to fight, like New Hampshire’s Lemongrass Restaurant and Sake Bar.
Lemongrass owner Uraiwan Srisuksai admitted that while she was initially scared, her confidence and upbeat attitude helped to contribute to the restaurant’s overcoming of the pandemic, which also benefited from their takeout operations. “I [was] more concerned for my staff,” Srisukai stated, also giving credit to their customer base for helping to keep them afloat. “I have a good clientele that’s supporting us, so we are really fortunate.”
After 24 months of constant uncertainty, times now seem to be changing for the better. Like many others in the industry, Lemongrass has experienced a much-needed increase in business thanks to the pandemic becoming less of an interference due to easing protocols.
Because of that, travelers — both visiting and permanent — are a frequent sight to beautiful states like New Hampshire, giving encouragement for the near-future. “There’s a lot of people from the cities that moved into our town, the population is pretty high. It’s turning into a [thriving] business now. But the big [boom] is still in the summer months.”
“We need to keep the economy flowing. If I can support them, I will. We take good care of each other.”
In order to attract those hungry customers, Srisuksai believes in the strategy of separating themselves from the competition – and luckily, there’s a number of factors working in their favor to do just that. “To do something different, you have to stand out. We are the only Asian [cuisine] restaurant in the area. We are different. I create my own recipes, [and] I change the menus.”
However, Srisuksai doesn’t view other nearby restaurants as rivals — in fact, it’s the opposite. She often tries to dine out, supporting other businesses in the process. “What comes around, goes around. We need to go see what other people are doing. Because we are a small town, everybody knows everybody. To me, if they come to my restaurant, I need to go support them as well.”
Srisuksai recalled a recent occurrence where she allowed a person to hang up a poster for their business on Lemongrass’ widow, showing their morale boosting of one another.
Stepping into Lemongrass, a visitor would recognize the establishment certainly has a way of catching a foodie’s eye. From the delectable pad thai to the savory mojo free range duck, there’s an authentic dish that every member of the family can enjoy. Of course, both it and its owner didn’t start out as successful. Instead, plenty of hills needed to be climbed.
Coming to the United States from Thailand as a 15-year-old who didn’t know the English language — let alone traveled or stepped on a plane prior — saying it was a frightening reality for Srisuksai might be an understatement. “I didn’t even know what to expect and I [was] so scared, but I was excited, [because] it’s a whole new world.”
“I needed to be brave, I needed to get to the destination. I needed to make my family proud [and show] that I can do this [alone].”
For Srisuksai, the move to the U.S. was so much more than a new life. It presented her the opportunity to prove that she was capable of living and making it all on her own. “My family in Thailand [didn’t] want me to come at all. But I had my [mind set], I wanted to come to America.” She was also motivated to visit a teacher who had previously taught her English back in her home country.
Srisuksai wasn’t alone in her endeavors, of course. Her start in the culinary industry came with the help of her mentor, chef and restaurateur Mike Love, who Srisuksai began working with while studying for her graduate degree. In order to be able to stay legally in the U.S., Srisuksai needed a work permit. It was only obvious, then, that the two came together to start their own operation in the form of Lemongrass. “We opened the restaurant with my name in it, I owned 51% and he owned 49%. I got financially supported of my partnership in the restaurant from my lovely host family.”
While the setup seemed to be potentially fruitful, tragedy — and plenty of monetary hardships — would be on the way for Srisuksai, who was only 26 at the time. “I learned from my partner, but only a little bit. He was in the restaurant with me [for] only a year before he passed away. Then I began struggling on my own. Everything [was] in front of me and I had no idea what or how to do it. I had to figure everything out.”
When Love passed away, Srisuksai was facing a mammoth obstacle, as the restaurant was around $80,000 in debt. “I had to work for free for two whole years. I didn’t have any paychecks, [I] just worked and paid off the debt,” she said. While the “trial by fire” approach certainly helped to teach her crucial lessons and tips needed in order to create a thriving business, her intuition also played a helping part.
“Day by day, I think it was common sense that was teaching me this [or] what I should do. Looking back, I don’t even even know how I made it this far,” she joked. “I didn’t have any choice, I just needed to make it work somehow.”
“Only me and my husband [were] cooking and doing the dishes. Just the two of us, we struggled for about five years. As time went by, we stuck to it. We didn’t give up.”
Because of their dire situation, Srisuksai was forced to let go of around 80% of Lemongrass’ staff. The ones that did remain, she was beyond thankful for. “I’m so lucky that I have a few [employees] that stayed with me.” Of course, a limited workforce and looming debt equaled an insane amount of hours toiling away for minimal income.
That push to keep Lemongrass alive and well, Srisukai said, was seen and respected by their customers. “People recognized that [effort,] and people kept coming back.”
While those memories are far in the past for the now 16-year-old Lemongrass, Srisuksai learned quite a bit from possessing so much financial responsibility at such a young age — along with the strain of striving to maintain the floundering restaurant — and gained confidence that any challenge moving forward can be easily overcome with perseverance and dedication. “I’m not afraid of anything, because what I went through is the most [testing] thing in my life.”
Lemongrass also helps the local economy through their ingredients, which are all organic, natural, and sourced from local growers. “We are what we eat,” she explained. “I will go to the farmers market, meet the farmers, [and then] they introduce a lot of customers to us. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Srisuksai — who eats everything the restaurant serves — emphasized the importance of diets and lifestyles as well, due to the fact that how a person eats can reflect their restaurant’s appearance in food healthiness and quality. “A customer might look at me and think, ‘Wow, what has she been eating?’ [if I ate unhealthy].”
To learn more about Lemongrass’ mouth-watering menu and recipes, you can visit their website by clicking here.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at email@example.com.