Growing up in Thailand, chef Nuit Regular, the executive chef and co-owner of Toronto hotspots Pai Northern Thai Kitchen, Sabai Sabai, Kiin and Sukhothai, always knew she’d turn her love of cooking into a career—mostly because she’s always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
“In high school, I would sneak some snacks into the building during recess [and sell them],” Regular recalls. Regular attended a large school in northern Thailand, which made it easier for her to expand her business—there were lots of potential customers. Soon, she was making pad thai and selling it to her classmates. Not long after, Regular made her first business proposal to the school and had her first experience being a boss, employing her friends to help make and sell the noodle dish. “It was very fun, and it gave me confidence with being in front of people,” she says.
That first business venture also set a precedent for how Regular runs her restaurants: with love for family and friends at the heart of it.
She opened her first restaurant, The Curry Shack, in Thailand alongside her husband Jeff. Regular would work a full day as a nurse, then would head to the kitchen at 5 p.m. to spend her evenings cooking. When she moved to Canada in 2006, she passed the reins over to her brother so he could take care of himself and their family.
But she wasn’t sure how she’d get back to cooking full-time herself. That is, until her father-in-law approached her with an idea.
“He said, ‘You cook very good, why don’t you work with me?’” she says. As it turns out, he owned an empty building in Toronto that would be perfect for a restaurant. Soon, Sukhothai was born.
Almost 12 years later, Regular is known for transforming Toronto’s Thai food scene and her restaurants regularly transport diners to Thailand via authentic dishes and an immersive dining experience.
Her success has been helped, in part, by Amex, which Regular has been a Cardmember with, for several years. The company’s support gave her the financial flexibility to make large purchases, help her manage costs, and expand her restaurant empire.
“Amex has played a huge role in giving us financial support when we needed it,” she says. “During the early days of our business, cash flow was very limited because most of our investment went into construction or other equipment. Amex allowed us to maximize our cash flow so that we could pay our vendors.”
That’s why she turned to Amex again when the COVID-19 pandemic devastated local restaurants, including hers.
“The world turned upside down for me,” Regular says. “No one could dine in and we could only do take-out; most of our income is from dine in, [so how was I] going to pay my staff?”
She initially made the decision to completely shut down her restaurants, thinking first of protecting her community and staff, who often travel in from outside the city. The plan was to stay closed until COVID cases improved.
“That’s hard for our business, but it’s not a hard decision, because we just wanted to contribute to bringing the number [of COVID cases] down as soon as possible,” Regular says.
But when the shutdowns dragged on, she needed Amex’s support. “At the beginning of [the] shutdown, much of our reserve funds were already put into the build-out of our new Pai location, which had been in the works for a long time,” Regular says. “So, we were hit hard in terms of our cash flow, but Amex helped us to be able to pay our suppliers on time, which was a huge relief.”
Cash flow is a common worry among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) right now, according to a recent Amex survey of business owners. Most (64 per cent) say they are facing cash flow and financing problems due to the pandemic, and for 51 per cent, this is their most pressing concern.
Amex’s help gave Regular the breathing room she needed to come up with a plan. In a show of resilience, she and her employees pivoted to creating and selling at-home meal kits, as well as offering their products in local Asian grocery stores and online. This is a strategy many SMEs have implemented during COVID, according to the Amex survey—in fact, 67 per cent said e-commerce would be critical to their success this year. Regular also cut back on her company’s marketing spend, instead launching virtual cooking classes and demonstrations, which coincided with the release of Regular’s first cookbook, Kiin: Recipes and Stories from Northern Thailand, in October 2020.
But virtual classes can’t sustain a business forever. While Regular and her husband Jeff did their best to support their employees while the restaurants were closed down—helping ensure they understood what financial government assistance programs they could apply for, being there for them over the phone to vent or talk and even offering personal loans to any employees who were going through a rough financial time—they eventually had to look to other options.
In August, Regular launched By Chef Nuit, a pop-up restaurant serving a Thai take on traditional comfort foods. The restaurant is geared towards take-out and delivery and operates out of the patio of the already-existing Kiin, which is more of an elaborate, fine-dining experience that wouldn’t work for take-out. The new pop-up is a way to appeal to a broader customer base, but Regular admits she started it more out of necessity than creativity.
“I didn’t really want to do a new thing,” she says of the pop-up. “I just want my staff to have a job. I had to do something for [my staff], so they can come to work and make some money to pay for their mortgages.”
Still, she admits there has been an unexpected bonus to the pop-up: Launching By Chef Nuit and curating a new menu has allowed Regular to flex her creative muscles in the kitchen, trying out new recipes and combinations. Plus, she gets to eat said creations. “I got to create my favourite burger that I enjoy having very much,” she says. “I can have it every day.”
And luckily her other new project is driven by passion: in a testament to her adaptability and business savvy, she’s taking Pai uptown with a new location at Yonge and Eglinton. The new two-storey space includes private dining rooms, a separate entrance for takeout orders and even a stage for the days when live entertainment returns to the city.
And if that’s not a hopeful end to a difficult year, we don’t know what is.
*The American Express Business Resilience Survey was conducted by The Nielsen Company on behalf of American Express from September 16 to October 2, 2020, among 500 Canadian business owners or partners in small or medium enterprises. More details can be found here.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.