Ratsanee Suksawas, Owner of Le Viet Cafe

This is Ratsanee Suksawas, the owner of Le Viet Cafe, a restaurant on the Upper East Side that combines the best of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Ratsanee worked in the food industry in New York for 15 years before deciding to open her own place. Things had begun changing with the economy and working for someone else was too unpredictable for her. She wanted a change and to be in a position where she was responsible for her own security. Due to her experience in the food industry, she knew when opening the restaurant in September 2015, that being successful means standing out. So rather than making her menu strictly Thai cuisine, she asked her husband (the chef at Le Viet Cafe) to reach out to a friend that he used to work with that was Vietnamese to teach them how to make traditional Vietnamese dishes. She knew that offering banh mis and vermicelli noodles along with pad thai and green curry would differentiate them from other Thai restaurants in a very saturated market. Today, she says, the amount of competition has caused the landscape of the food industry to change even more. You can no longer wait for a customer to come to you, you have to go out and get them. So she continues to look for ways to grow her business by offering unique menu items and interactive meal experiences, while providing the same genuine customer service that her business has been known for since they opened.

Ratsanee started out in the food industry in 2000, when she emigrated to the U.S. from Thailand. She had no previous experience in food but was looking for a job and heard that you could make a lot of money working in a restaurant because people were spending a lot on food at that time and tipping well. Her plan was to work in the U.S. for a few years, save up some money and then move back to Thailand to open a small coffee shop. However, once she began working at SEA (a restaurant that’s now closed) and met her husband (she was a manager there, he was a sous chef), her plans started to change. She got married and had kids and it was important to her that her kids get a good education in the U.S. Now 8 and 11 years old, both of her children attend dual schools where they’re taught in English and Spanish, which she sees as a key requirement for success later in life. She’s raising her children to understand that just like in business, your unique assets and uncommon skills are what make you stand out.

Her children are also the reason why Ratsanee is so committed to her business and is always finding ways to survive among the competition. She recently began recipe testing for some new menu items while also planning out the logistics of operating a pop up experience for corporate catering. She feels that it’s not enough to wait for people to come to them, she wants to go directly to the customer by bringing their food into different offices and testing out various industries to see where customers are the most receptive. She sees this as the best way to introduce customers to the food currently on their menu and drive traffic to the restaurant as well as test some unique recipes that she thinks customers might like. Rather than only offering rice or rice noodles as bases, she is trying to incorporate spaghetti into the mix and create more opportunities with customer by offering these new items that come with a different sauce and a different consistency but a familiar item. She believes this is something that other Thai/Vietnamese restaurants aren’t doing yet and could interest customers that don’t like rice or rice noodles. So they’ve been testing recipes to include spaghetti as well as build your own options, which they’ve never done in the past. Right now it’s hard to know if clients will like the food or not so they’ll need to test it out before fully launching the menu and the pop up experience. But once they’ve found the dishes that they think customers will be receptive to, they’re planning to go to different businesses to see which markets would work for this new concept.

Team at Le Viet Cafe

Although finding unique ways to meet the customer and make her business grow is very exciting to Ratsanee, she recognizes that she’s still battling one factor that she can’t control: technology. Being on delivery apps like GrubHub, Seamless, MealPal and UberEats are a necessary evil for her, something that you need in order to gain access to more customers and more orders. But she gets particularly frustrated with Yelp because if someone has one bad experience, they can write a bad review, which other customers see as a fact rather than an opinion. People have more choices now so they don’t have to get to know you as a business owner or your food, which Ratsanee sees as unfair since 80% of her customers are recurring customers. “If people don’t like me”, she says, “they can just write a bad review”. She feels that Yelp removes the trust from the vendor/client relationship and is always painting the business owner in a negative light. Even when a customer is in the wrong and she has proof of it, they can still write a bad review and she can’t say her side of the story because it comes off as rude and customers get mad. If she does say her side, she says, no one really listens to it anyway, they listen to what they’re reading from others, so she’s stopped trying to defend herself. Ratsanee takes these negative reviews personally because she wants everyone to feel like part of their family when they eat her food, whether they’re visiting the restaurant or ordering delivery. She and her staff are friendly and genuinely care about the food that they create and the people that they serve. They don’t see them as customers who eat the food and that’s it, they see them as friends and family and try to make the restaurant as welcoming as possible. Which is why it’s so frustrating, because they have so many clients who they do have relationships with that will come to them directly if there’s an issue with the food. In these situations, she doesn’t have to worry about someone thinking that they’re good or bad, the customer knows that her team will fix it because they appreciate the feedback and are always trying to make their food better. If it is her fault, Ratsanee doesn’t mind giving a discount or free food because she knows she was wrong. However, when every negative review requires her to give a discount to make the customer happy, she doesn’t make any money, which makes it harder for her to take care of the people that work for her. Her employees are very important to her so making sure that they’re happy, getting paid enough and not getting frustrated with their job is even tougher when she has to factor in discounts, that are sometimes undeserved, on a limited budget.

Dealing with negative reviews and criticism on a regular basis is hard for Ratsanee but she has seen an increase in orders and new customers recently, which is very gratifying for her. A lot of the new customers are people that have tried them out through catering at their office and liked the food so much that they began ordering personally. Ratsanee loves that more customers are learning about her business and visiting the store, where she feels they really get a sense for the business and the positive atmosphere that she and her team create. On one of the walls in the store, “life is beautiful” is written out in books in both Vietnamese and English. Ratsanee hopes that that grateful, easy nature is what customers associate her business with, because she truly does create food from the heart. Moving forward, she’s eager to see how customers react to the new menu items and pop up experience and feels that these unique offerings will help the business immensely. Even if something doesn’t work, she says, they’ll continue testing out different ideas to make sure that they’re staying top of mind for customers. It’s a demanding industry, but she’s ready to fight for it.

 

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