In a sea of Thai food places, a pair of restaurant owners are trying to stand out.
So at Sutha Thai, there are no elephant statues or portraits of kings. No gold banners or ornate hats.
Instead, owner Joe Teeraapisakkool brought in a few hundred Happy Meal toys.
He and his girlfriend Mary Jirathinan remodeled this month and are hoping the new decor will draw attention.
“When you see a Thai restaurant, you see traditional decorations,” Jirathinan said. “We wanted something different.”
The pair, who have only lived in the United States for about eight years, are trying to create a brand for their restaurant.
Teeraapisakkool displays hundreds of kid’s meal toys on cabinets at the back of the shop. He’s got thousands more at home, but he wanted to share a sample with his customers.
And a friend back in Thailand prints funky T-shirts specifically for Sutha Thai.
They also customized food for the Latino palate, the owners said.
Soup, for instance, is extra sour — a touch that has proved popular with customers.
Jirathinan and Teeraapisakkool bought the restaurant at 10341 Lakewood Blvd. from the previous owner in 2007. Jirathinan had worked as a waitress at Sutha Thai for a few years when the previous owner offered to sell her the business.
Teeraapisakkool was working as a server at the time.
Now she and Teeraapisakkool are trying to use their native Thai cuisine to live the American Dream.
Along with traditional Thai dishes, the couple also mix in Chinese and Japanese influence. They don’t use MSG, and they try their best to make unique, fresh food, Teeraapisakkool said. For instance, they only use home-made Teriyaki sauce.
Customer Margie Barker considers herself a regular.
“They just remodeled,” the 20-year Downey resident said. “It looks beautiful and they are such nice people, to boot.”
Restaurant owners all over California are working hard to control costs and stand out, said Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association.
With food prices rising, watching the bottom line has become essential.
“People get into this business because they enjoy hosting people, making food,” he said. “They are generally independent people. But this economy has taken the fun out of it. A lot of places are just trying to keep the doors open.”
In good times, restaurants make 5 percent profit. Now most eateries are bringing in only about 2 percent, he said.
The owners of Sutha Thai are aren’t giving up on fun.
“At first, I came (to the United States) to study,” Jirathinan said. “Then I got work at the Thai restaurant in Pasadena.”
She ended up liking food service more than school.
“I just love to work in the restaurant,” she said.