When you first walk through the doors of Thongbai Thai, your eyes are pulled in many different directions. The ornate decorations on the wall, the stylistic themes that echo throughout the entire restaurant, and a woman with a warm smile welcoming you into her restaurant in a way that makes you feel at home.
Ben Woodworth and her husband Don started the business four years ago after Ben came over from Thailand to help her sister run The Thai Restaurant. Eventually, The Thai Restaurant changed its menu to a more Thai-American style, and Ben wanted to create a restaurant with purely Thai cuisine.
“We try to offer as close to authentic Thai food as we can,” Don Woodworth said. Don runs the bookkeeping side the business. “My wife, our daughter, and I went back to (Thailand) in April … I made it a point to try the food that’s on our menu in Thailand, and there’s not an awful lot of difference.”
Thongbai Thai, at 104 Wenatchee Ave. in Wenatchee, maintains its authenticity with quality ingredients.
“We get our ingredients as fresh as we can, we make a trip to a Thai grocery store over in Seattle about every two weeks,” Don said. “We get supplies and vegetables we can’t get here.”
The ambiance of the restaurant also contributes to the authenticity. Staff are dressed in authentic Thai garb, and all the design aspects of the restaurants bear a strong Thai theme, complete with an enormous picture of the late king of Thailand on one wall.
When the business was first opened, the streets were choked with smoke from the wildfires, cutting down business in the evening hours.
“You couldn’t see to the end of the block, the smoke was so heavy,” Don said. “We had a pretty good lunch crowd, but nobody was coming downtown for dinner for several months because of the fires. We had some concerns whether we would make it through the first months or not.”
Fortunately, word-of-mouth and publicity soon turned around the fortunes of Thongbai Thai.
“We get an awful lot of word-of-mouth,” Don said. “People eat great Thai food and then want to tell all their friends about it.”
The loyalty to the business and the word-of-mouth helped Thongbai has continued to help them grow.
“More and more people are finding out about us and we have nowhere to go but up,” Don said. “The food is good, and the people who find us really enjoy our food and keep coming back.”
Strong selling points of the restaurant include their lunch buffet which provides a limited amount of offerings that rotate out every day. If you purchase 10 buffets and fill a punch card, you get an 11th one free.
“We’re finding that it’s very popular because people downtown just walk in and sit down and get their meals and get through, it’s very quick,” Don said. “
Another aspect of Thongbai that customers enjoy is the hostess.
“My wife has just the best personality,” Don said. “She is just the sweetest woman I’ve ever known in my life and the customers really enjoy talking with her.”
Ben isn’t the only exemplary staff member Thongbai Thai employs, however.
“My wife wants our staff to be courteous, to be fast, and to know what the food is,” Don said. “The staff tries the food and the buffets so they know what all the food is like and they can make recommendations. … We’re really happy that we have people who enjoy the job.”
Edan Patterson, a former Thongbai Thai employee, said that Ben’s message to her staff was: “Treat everyone like a V.I.P.”
“Ben tells everyone that the customer is the number one priority,” Patterson said. “I’ve never had a customer say anything negative about Ben. Even if they don’t like Thai food, they can’t deny that she’s a wonderful person. … Ben is probably the nicest person in Wenatchee, if not the state.”
One of the difficulties of running Thongbai Thai is the long hours. Don said that his wife works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
“We do have a daughter at home, so that does cut into the family time quite a bit,” Don said.
Another struggle with the business is the lack of parking around it, limiting how many customers can stop and eat on-the-go.
“All the parking is five or six blocks away from here,” Don said. “It hurts us when people want to walk-in, they drive around the block and see they can’t park and go somewhere else.”
Three other restaurants compete with Thongbai for the limited parking space on that block. One of the solutions the Woodworths are looking into is purchasing a new location.
“My wife is always on the lookout for restaurant spaces with parking,” Don said. “We enjoy the place that we have right now, but we’d like to have another space.”
Don said that working in the Wenatchee community has introduced him to many new friends.
“We’ve met some really nice people,” Don said. “My wife has people who come back just to see her, bring her gifts, and are always disappointed if she’s not there to see them. When we left for Thailand we had people who would take care of our dog, watch the house, and water our plants who are people we met through the restaurant.”
Many of the people walking through the doors of Thongbai Thai are families with children, the customers Don enjoys serving the most.
“We love little kids in here,” Don said. “They may make a mess, but they are so much fun. … The kids love our meals. They really like the Pad Mee noodles. One time we had a family who brought in their autistic. They’d bring her in here because it was one of the few places where she knew what the food was and liked it.”
To appeal to kids even further, the Woodworths stand outside their restaurant to hand out candy to children on Halloween
“It’s always fun to see the parents come along for the first time who didn’t even know we existed,” Don said. “And, of course, the children’s eyes just light up.”