Raj Sundaram has an analytical turn of mind. So ten years ago, when his wife Pookie came up with the idea of opening their own restaurant, he assessed it carefully.
He had a career in technology/software engineering in Virginia. His wife had experience in various roles in her cousin’s restaurant. The prospect of running their own authentic Thai restaurant in a smaller town appealed to them both.
“I had lived in a lot of big cities,” Sundaram said. “I wanted to live in a mid-size town; not too big, not too small.”
The search for the right place to start led to Morgantown
He researched the selection criteria for the ideal location:
- A college town with roughly 25,000 or more students
- No other Thai restaurants present so that the Sundaram’s would be the first of its kind in that town
- A vibrant downtown main street
- Economic stability, driven primarily by industries such as healthcare and education
- Located within a one-hour flight or 4-hour drive of his tech/software engineering job in northern Virginia
His search pointed to Morgantown.
“Since I didn’t know anyone in Morgantown, one of the first resources I contacted was the West Virginia Small Business Development Center,” Sundaram said. “I wanted to know more about Morgantown’s economy, West Virginia University, the future plans of hospitals, tourism aspects of Morgantown and so on.”
He spoke with WV SBDC Business Coach Sharon Stratton, based in Morgantown. She holds a Master of Business Administration degree and ranks as a Certified Business Advisor, having completed the graduate-level e-learning course through the accredited Kent State University.
“I assisted Raj in writing a business plan, forming his company and ultimately getting financing to start the restaurant ten years ago,” she said.
“Sharon and the SBDC helped from the start, with registering the legal business, all aspects of federal and state taxation requirements, and obtaining permits,” Sundaram said. “Sharon was also helpful in making me understand the local demography of Morgantown, advertising a new small business, et cetera.”
The Chaang Thai Restaurant opened in Morgantown in August 2011.
For Sundaram, the restaurant presented a glimpse into what makes The Kingdom of Thailand unique, including the fresh, flavorful and healthy food.
“Chaang Thai Morgantown offers a small representation of the vast range of Thai cuisine,” he said. “Thai cooking always tries to ensure that we have a nice balance of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and a little bit of spiciness.”
Said Stratton, “Chaang Thai has become a cornerstone of downtown Morgantown.”
Changing times change faster with COVID-19
Over the years, Sundaram kept tabs on consumer trends and in touch with his SBDC coach.
Sundaram noted the decline in downtown foot traffic, attributed to factors such as the rise in shopping centers with plenty of parking, student housing built away from the downtown area and a growing preference for online pickups and food delivery.
“Even before the pandemic hit in March 2020, I had started adapting my business as early as 2014-2015 to meet these new customer choices of deliveries and online pickups,” he said. “I established online ordering/online delivery channels. By the time the pandemic began affecting businesses, many of my dine-in customers had already begun transitioning into using those services. Online food ordering for pickup and the increasing value of convenience in getting food – or anything else for that matter – delivered is a trend which is going to stay for a long time. Amazon has changed forever the way we procure things.”
When the pandemic swept through the state’s economy, Sundaram and Stratton discussed ways to adapt. They also worked on applying for COVID-related loans and assistance.
“Raj is a quick learner and a good researcher,” Stratton said. “He does not stop when faced with a challenge. The pandemic is the biggest challenge the restaurant has faced and has been the reason for many business strategy discussions.”
They deliberated ways to get the restaurant food to patrons more efficiently, including more convenient ordering online, curbside pickup, touchless Kiosk ordering and customized fare.
When the pandemic lockdowns started, takeout/delivery soared from 30% to 85-90% of Chaang Thai’s business in less than three weeks. Sundaram quickly reviewed and improved the restaurant’s internal processes and customer interfaces to make the delivery/takeout channels more efficient, reliable and error-free.
“After so many years in Morgantown, we knew that customers liked our food and will continue ordering from us, as long as we make it easy for them under the new norms,” Sundaram said. “So we put more processes and technology in place to do an impeccable job when it comes to making the whole experience worthwhile for the customers.”
The restaurant expanded its online menu to include vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free choices. Sundaram invested in new mobile ordering technology and started a loyal rewards program.
Customers were also attracted by Chaang Thai’s spacious indoor dining area and outdoor deck. Even with social distancing, the venue can accommodate 60 guests.
“We did see dine-in traffic improve by the end of May,” he said. “We started offering free parking validations. I also invested time and money in marketing on Facebook, Google and our website chaangthai.com to let customers know that we are still open, and that we have made many improvements to offer safe, easy dine-in, takeout or delivery food services. A strong delivery channel/delivery partners and great internal processes to reduce delivery errors all goes a long way in how customers build their trust with you.”
While the economy begins to reopen, Sundaram and SBDC Business Coach Stratton continue to work together to sustain and grow the restaurant’s success.
“Sharon keeps me posted on the economic developments of West Virginia, Morgantown, and the bigger national trends of the restaurant industry,” he said. “We constantly engage in strategic discussions around how the food industry is changing and how to be proactive and stay ahead in the game.”
A new future and a renewed appreciation of the past
One side effect of the pandemic Sundaram hopes to see is a new appreciation for the small pastimes that have been unavailable for the sake of public safety.
“Old downtowns like Morgantown’s have incomparable unique histories, delightful charm and singular attractions, which cannot be replicated by new constructions,” he said. “So, in a strange way, I think that this pandemic has taught us that we cannot take our past way of living for granted. The simple pleasures of social gatherings, dining out with friends and family, taking a casual stroll in a charming downtown street, window shopping, people watching, live music, all contribute to a unique experience and classic-memory-making.”
Small business owners in West Virginia can take advantage of WV SBDC business coach expertise at no cost. Business owners can get connected with a business coach through the Ask Me! Line:
Phone Number: 888-WVA-SBDC
Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org