Long stayers: Long-serving waitress Mrs. Muangklang and chef Prakob Bunjaroen with owner Sumalee Omnondha (middle).This month Sumalee Omnondha marked 20 years of business since she opened Sanook Thai Restaurant in Corlette at Port Stephens, a good measure of success in any restaurateur’s book.
The restaurant celebrated with a fund-raiser for drought-stricken farmers on October 5, donating more than $2000 to the Buy-a-Bale campaign.
Mrs Omnondha took the time to answer a few questions about her business recipe for success.
Have you always been in the same location?
I have always been running this restaurant from this location. Three months after I migrated to Australia, I got a job in this restaurant’s kitchen because my sister was the head chef. A year later, I purchased the business from the previous owner and opened it as my own restaurant on October 5, 1998.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I learned cooking from my mum, in Thailand. I remember cooking with my mum since I was 7 or 8 years old, running around the kitchen to help her cook and serve a family of 10, before I was allowed to go and play with friends. I have a degree in Marketing from Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University but I have taught myself all of the skills necessary to run the business.
Do you cook in the restaurant, too?
I do cook in the restaurant, and I also help the kitchen staff and front staff whenever I am not cooking. I find it best to work dynamically, wherever help is needed to ensure smooth restaurant operation.
What are the most popular dishes on the menu?
One of the biggest sellers on our menu is our massaman curry. It is a traditional Thai dish, and generally considered the dish to try to gauge the quality of a Thai restaurant. Ours is widely regarded as exceptional, so a large proportion of customers get it. Our traditional Thai green curry follows at a close second. Our food does reflect a mostly traditional Thai style, I keep it very authentic and the restaurant prides itself on that. It is a fresh change from other, more westernized Thai restaurants in the area.
Do you change the menu very often?
The menu does not generally change much or often at all, but we do put specials on from time to time as seasons and purchasing allow.
Are there any staff who have been with you for all 20 years?
We have no full-term workers, but our longest-working veteran is 14 years, held by Mrs. Manida Harris, who is a waitress, followed by the seven-year service of our cook Mrs. Muangklang and our head chef Mr. Prakob Bunjaroen (3 years). We have around 10 staff in total.
Are there any distinct trends in dining at your restaurant?
Our restaurant tries to retain a casual atmosphere, whilst whisking customers away to Thailand for the duration of their stay.
What is your clientele like?
Our clientele are generally families or couples, as the mood of the restaurant is a bit more intimate. Return visitors would make up a large percentage of our clientele, as we are the favourite restaurant of a lot of patrons. Similarly, locals make up a large proportion of our customers (except during summer holidays, but that is more due to the population of the area tripling in that time). On a busy summer night we may do up to 300 meals. Bookings are only required during long weekends but are not too difficult to get.
You pride yourself on fresh produce. Do you use locally-caught fish? Who are your seafood suppliers? Are there other local suppliers who have been with you over the long term?
Yes, we purchase our fish from the largest local fish market in the area. Newcastle Seafood Market and Port Stephens Eggs have both been with us a very long time.
Do you have family involved in the business?
I have one child, who used to help with the business until he moved on to further his career opportunities.
You mentioned you are raising funds for drought-stricken farmers – what are you doing and where will the funds go?
The charity we are supporting is Buy-A-Bale, a charity formed to purchase much needed hay bales for feeding livestock in drought-stricken areas of country Australia. All proceeds from our major events go to charitable causes, primarily Buy-A-Bale.
What is your business philosophy? What is the key to your success?
My key to success is keeping my cooking very authentic but also original-following my mum’s recipes. Also we only use the freshest ingredients we can get, and do take options off the menu if they are not seasonally available. I work around 42 hours a week on average, and I take very occasional holidays.
Where in Thailand is your family from?
I was born in and grew up in Nonthiburi Province in Thailand, around 50-100kilometres south-east of Bangkok. I was raised in a fruit plantation where my family worked.
What is your favourite meal when you eat out or at home?
My favourite meal is seafood, in Asian styles. And spicy! What else would it be!