We had the good fortune of connecting with Vanda Asapahu and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Vanda, how do you think about risk?
Risk taking is in my blood. My dad’s father migrated from China on a Danish Cargo ship headed for Singapore in the early 1900s. Bad weather made him settle in Thailand on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. Like most immigrants, he took the risk of leaving the familiar motherland with only the clothes on his back, all his worldly possessions in a small sack, and in pursuit of new opportunities. My dad’s mom was second generation Thai-Chinese. She was a talented chef and an avid gambler. She went into labor with my father in a card house across the river. My grandmother ran a curry shop out of her home during the day and by nightfall, a dozen pairs of shoes lined the front door, shoes of patrons of her home-turned-illegal card house. She hustled to provide opportunities for all 8 children. My parents relocated our family of four from Bangkok to Los Angeles when my brother and I were both under the age of 6. They initially worked for others, but soon their entrepreneurial spirits took wind and they became their own bosses. With a passion for food and determined to achieve the success of the American dream, they opened and closed many restaurants, and Ayara was going to be their last attempt. My father believes that only in America can you fail upward! Failure teaches a powerful lesson that sticks with you for life. One can take the lessons learned from unsuccessful endeavors and take another leap of hope to start over again. Fortunately for my parents, their last attempt has been rewarding. In my life and career, the confidence to embrace the risks and decisions I make every day comes from growing up in a family of immigrant entrepreneur underdogs. I am privileged to have supportive loving parents and am surrounded by a small team of highly capable individuals who dream big with me and then help me put those dreams into an action plan all while mitigating pitfalls. Before running my family’s restaurant, I graduated with a master’s in public health from Yale and worked with the United Nations in Thailand. I handed in my resignation to a very comfortable UN job of 4 years with no job offers during an economic recession. Some thought it was career suicide, others thought I was just burnt out—I took the risk of not knowing what was next (for the first time in my life) for the hope of something that would give me more personal satisfaction and fullfillment. I got that when I became an entrepreneur. This historic pandemic we’re living through has been the biggest gut punch for all businesses, especially small businesses and independent restaurants. For me, not adjusting and pivoting fast enough posed more of a risk to the survival of my business. This pandemic allowed me to color outside the box and get really creative. It allowed me to offer Thai Pinto, a culturally significant way of eating and cost sharing, as a meal subscription program with many dishes not typically served outside a Thai home. I wanted our community to eat Thai comfort food, and what my siblings and I grew up eating. We started in April with about 20 subscriptions and finished in June with over 70 families subscribed to our weekly meals. Many of the greatest success stories among entrepreneurs are those that involve a great deal of risk, and I’m fortunate to count myself and my family’s thriving Thai restaurant business among them. To live in a state of asking myself “What if?” down the line is reason enough to forge forward in the tradition my family always has: as optimistic, dreaming risk-takers reaping the benefits of our willingness to persevere into the unknown.
What should our readers know about your business?
Ayara Thai was born out of my parents’ American dream of being their own bosses and doing what they love most—nourishing people with their food. Before Ayara, my parents opened and closed many restaurants, and operated a catering business out of our home kitchen. My siblings and I are the true definition of restaurant kids: doing homework in the storage room and putting ourselves to sleep because our parents worked late into the night. We saw and witnessed all the struggles and the sacrifices they made for us. Ayara Thai was my parents’ last attempt at the restaurant business, and in 2004 it was formed out of all the lessons learned and savings they had. While I helped start the business with menu design, plating, and marketing, I stepped away for school and to pursue my own career. In 2010, I left my career to help grow our family’s business during its growing pains. Initially it was temporary, but I loved it and never looked back. Fast forward to 2020 and 10 months into a pandemic, I am proud that we are able to continue to serve home-cooked Thai food I grew up eating and worthy of Michelin Bib Gourmand 2019 recognition. I am elated that we grew our business slowly together as a family with no investors and able to own property. I am most proud of the relationships we have made: guests who regularly support us, farmers who grow the freshest produce for us, and the many dedicated team members who have been with us for 5+ and 10+ years and call Ayara home. Running a business with my family and being an entrepreneur has its challenges, but I would never trade it for a comfortable desk job. There is a thrill and adrenaline rush of being a business owner that gives me the edge and high unlike anything else. Knowing that people depend on me motivates me to do my best. Being an entrepreneur is endlessly interesting. I am always learning, growing, and improving. Creativity is rewarded. As I grow our business, steps to become more efficient, run more profitably, and improve the workplace through benefits and training can be quickly implemented. The best part of being a boss is being able to change what I want to see!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
When friends were able to visit me here in LA pre-pandemic, we explored all the beautiful cultures of this city—and days were usually planned around the food we would eat (stretchy pants always required!). LA is home to many great ethnic cuisines, made by people from around the world who call this home. A perfect day would start in San Gabriel Valley with either a dim sum brunch at Lunasia or Taiwanese porridge at Lu’s Garden, followed by a quick grocery run to Hawaii Supermarket for Asian snacks (or ingredients I need for the restaurant), and boba at Tiger Sugar or Bopomofo. We would make our way to Boyle Heights for tacos and churros and hit up my favorites like Los Cinco Puntos for carnitas, and the Tacos y Birria La Unica truck and the legendary original Mariscos Jalisco truck. From there we would head to Little Tokyo to walk off the tacos at the Japanese American National Museum, MOCA, or the Board. If walking is too painful, we may stop at The Last Bookstore to find a comfortable spot to sit down and read, or if it’s a beautiful day outside, we would people-watch on the pink benches near the fountains at Grand Park. After a few hours without food, time to fuel up in Koreatown on a hearty tofu soup at Beverly Soon Tofu, or go big with Korean BBQ at Kang Ho-dong and grab a pre-meal drink at Quarters while waiting for a table. From Koreatown, we would drive west on Pico to see the different neighborhoods: Byzantine-Latino Quarters to Roscoe’s (where we’d pick up some wings and waffles if we had the time), to the Jewish community Midcity with the Museum of Tolerance and Hillcrest Country Club, to Fox’s Studio of Century City, to Santa Monica. We’d eat our wings and waffles on the sand of Santa Monica or Malibu at sunset. Now we’re thirsty. In Venice, either we head to Dudley Market for wine and oysters, or onto Abbot Kinney for an iced matcha at Shuhari and a Blue Star donut and get in some shopping. We would end the night out with a Bird scooter ride to Jeni’s for ice cream, then head to my house for a movie. If you’re my friends, you’re still hungry—so I would make a gourmet instant noodle with all the fixings, or order takeout from Ayara Thai (my restaurant).
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Two of my greatest mentors are my Uncle Lek and Uncle Supap. Uncle Lek was my dad’s older brother and a chef, and Uncle Supap was a close family friend and successful businessman. Both have left this physical world, yet their legacy lives on in the impact they made on my life and the lives of others. Uncle Supap was a generous successful businessman. He was the owner of the largest manufacturer of metal food cans in southeast Asia. He donated a large portion of his personal wealth and time to charitable causes and was a big believer in that more is gained when you give. This personal philosophy and his tenacity for innovation (never settling for status quo) made him a force to be reckoned with. I am so lucky that he was on my team. He was my father’s friend and anchor and became my mentor and sounding board. He gave me insight into setting my priorities, achieving balance, and standing for my values. My family and I owe a large part of our success to him. Uncle Lek’s passion for food influenced my culinary career. Uncle Lek did not have any children, and because he lived with us for a large part of his life, he considered my siblings and I his kids. And I was definitely his favorite (not a secret). He taught me how to make curry paste from scratch when I was 9 years old. I always accompanied him on market runs. He taught me how to select fresh produce and fish, and how to determine the different grades and cuts of beef when I was 10 years old. When I turned 12, he took me to see a live chicken get butchered. I was mortified and a bit traumatized but learned that he wanted me to appreciate the life a creature gives us and to never waste food. At a young age, he taught me to understand food, shared family recipes, and honed my skills and techniques to become a better cook. He saw potential in me before I saw it in myself. I owe my understanding of Thai cooking and the love of food to him.
Attempted to upload the image at this URL as well but it would not save in the system: https://www.instagram.