After engineering training, Keng Dechawuth finds stride in restaurant bizMOORHEAD - Being adaptive has served Keng Dechawuth well in the eight years he’s been in the restaurant business.
By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM
MOORHEAD - Being adaptive has served Keng Dechawuth well in the eight years he’s been in the restaurant business.
But the co-owner of Thai Orchid here and seven other restaurants in Fargo and East Grand Forks, Minn., said he first had to learn a lesson that went against everything he believed for his first 32 years – it’s OK to fail.
Dechawuth, who will celebrate his 40th birthday next month, was born and raised in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering there.
He first came to the United States in 1998 with a scholarship to earn a master’s degree at the University of Southern California. That’s where he met his wife, Farah, who coincidentally grew up in the same Thai city – though the two didn’t know each other until college.
He returned to Thailand in 2000, serving as an army captain for five years and putting his engineering training to work at the military’s television station. In 2005, Dechawuth and his wife moved to Fargo to pursue doctorates at North Dakota State University.
But when his father-in-law, Dave Scheer, opened Thai Orchid in Moorhead and unexpectedly had his business partner drop out a month later, Dechawuth stepped in – and found himself in unfamiliar territory, having never worked in a restaurant in his life.
“It took a couple of more months before Keng really became more and more indispensable, and finally we just deiced to partner,” Scheer said. “He’s really what made the restaurants grow, and he was able to manage the kitchen staff and mange some of the day-to-day stuff.”
Dechawuth said despite devoting years to his studies, he never dreamt of being an engineer and said he wasn’t sure how he would put his Ph.D. to use. Still, he said it’s an Asian value to want to finish as high as possible, and he had to go against that to leave engineering behind.
“I think that’s really important for the business because it’s not like we open a lot of businesses and I’m always successful,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a bad idea and not successful, and I think that’s from the past that makes me feel like, ‘OK, it’s OK if we fail sometimes. Just don’t give up and try something new, or fix it.’ ”
Driven by the success of the Thai Orchid in 2005, Dechawuth and Scheer have opened eight more restaurants in the region in the past eight years, beginning with LeeLa Thai Cuisine in Fargo in 2006.
A few years later, Dechawuth said there was an empty spot in the building across from his apartment at the time and figured it was perfect for a new venture – a restaurant offering pasta and noodles from across the world.
Despite not advertising, the Drunken Noodle was a hit. There was plenty of room in the space, so later in 2009, Wasabi Sushi and Asian Grill opened up in the same spot.
It seemed like the kind of concept that would work well in other places, so a second Drunken Noodle opened up along 32nd Avenue South in Fargo. While it had a good lunch business, it didn’t draw enough customers, so they sold to Lucy Penney in 2010 and she opened Lucy’s North China Cuisine.
“She’s successful in exactly the same location,” Dechawuth said. “She made it better than me.”
The second Drunken Noodle didn’t exactly fail, but rather was sold because of Penney’s offer and the slower-than-expected business, he said. It was the first setback for the pair. Dechawuth said shows just how unpredictable the business can be.
Dechawuth and Scheer kept at it, opening the Little Bangkok in East Grand Forks in 2010 and a Drunken Noodle nearby in 2012. Last year, the pair opened the Beefsteak Club in downtown Fargo and Café 21 in south Fargo.
Their rapid expansion was in part to bring more diversity to local diners’ plates, Dechawuth said.
“It’s not necessarily my job to do that, but I think we had potential to bring something new to the area,” he said.
Opening new restaurants also gave the restaurateur a chance to expand his self-taught culinary knowledge that started with helping his mother and relatives prepare meals in Thailand.
After a few years in the restaurant business, Dechawuth said he also started to think about his employees’ future.
“I started talking to them about in the future, if we expand, they can take part of the restaurant as a partner or they can own the restaurant,” he said. “That’s kind of people’s dream.”
Pook Supawedsakun, an employee of Dechawuth’s for the past six years, said she loves her boss “like a brother” because he has helped her find her way in the business.
She started as a cook at the Thai Orchid when she couldn’t speak any English – she, too, had grown up in Thailand – and said she was encouraged by Dechawuth to learn the language.
Supawedsakun has since rolled sushi and helped open new restaurants, and now serves as co-manager of Wasabi and Drunken Noodle in Fargo and is a partner on Café 21.
“He really wants us to have a future,” she said. “I want to help him like he always helps me.”
In some ways, the stakes are lower in the restaurant business than in engineering, when a miscalculation can lead to the collapse of a bridge or building, Dechawuth said.
“In the business, if you fail, that’s not the end of the world,” he said.
Still, the restaurant industry is “bizarre,” Dechawuth said, and it’s all about taking calculated risks to get ahead.
Despite his untraditional way of getting into the business, he said he’s done well by thinking about his restaurants as a customer and not the owner – and being willing to listen to suggestions from customers to make the food better.
“I always put myself in that position, and I always eat in other people’s restaurants,” he said.
Eric Watson, executive chef and co-owner of Mezzaluna Fine Dining in downtown Fargo and president of the Red River Valley Chef’s Association, said Dechawuth has been a savvy businessman, buying up former restaurants to save on the big expense of outfitting a new location with kitchen equipment.
But he’s also been able to grow his business in a way that few restaurant outsiders can do, Watson said.
“Clearly he has had success, no doubt about it, and he’s been able to do it because he’s creative and thinks outside of the box,” Watson said.
Dechawuth and Scheer have found their roles in the partnership, with Scheer in charge of remodeling the spaces and getting them ready for new restaurants while his son-in-law handles the day-to-day management and restaurant concepts.
“For me, when I cook and the customers like it, that makes my day,” Dechawuth said. “We’re good partners because we work on different perspectives.”
His next project is to refine the restaurants they’ve already launched, starting with Thai Orchid, the one that started it all.
When it first opened in 2005, Fargo-Moorhead diners didn’t eat tofu and shied away from the idea of consuming raw fish, Dechawuth said. But today, several restaurants in the region offer sushi, and he said the time is right to revamp the menu of Thai Orchid to bring more authentic cuisine here as it celebrates its eighth anniversary this month.
There’s always the chance employees will come up with another concept or ask to open a new restaurant, he said. But Dechawuth said eight is enough for now, and even as he cuts back in the future, he has no plans to get out of the kitchen anytime soon.
“I still like cooking, so I’ll probably stay in one restaurant and cook for my customers,” he said.
Restaurants owned by Dechawuth and Scheer in the region
Keng Dechawuth and his father-in-law, Dave Scheer,
own and operate several restaurants in the region:
• Thai Orchid, 420 Center Ave., Moorhead. (218) 227-0099
• Drunken Noodle and Wasabi Sushi and Asian Grill, 623 NP Ave., Fargo. (701) 232-3380
• LeeLa Thai Cuisine, 1450 25th St. S., Fargo. (701) 235-5795
• Cafe 21, 1450 25th St. S, Fargo. (701) 356-3986
• Beefsteak Club, 612 First Ave. N., Fargo. (701) 356-3656
• Little Bangkok, 302 Demers Ave., East Grand Forks, Minn. (218) 399-1122
• Drunken Noodle, 415 Second St. NW, East Grand Forks, Minn. (218) 399-2100
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587