Maui Thai Bistro: From World Finance to Island Food
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Oey Meesook is not a gourmet chef. Or a seasoned restauranteur. She is an economist, who served as Country Director for the World Bank in Washington D.C., which is part of the United Nations system.
“I worked with developing countries; the World Bank gives advice and loans to developing countries’ governments,” she says. “My husband and I both worked at the World Bank, and we had no experience, zero, zilch, in a running a restaurant.”
It may not seem like a recipe for success, at least at first glance. But Meesook and her husband were determined to bring quality Thai food to Maui, after retiring here several years ago. And if she could facilitate global finance, she could run a restaurant, right?
“Call it supreme self-confidence or whatever, but the fact that we had never done anything like this before was the last thing to deter us,” smiles Meesook. “I mean, it just didn’t occur to us that we couldn’t do it because we hadn’t done it before. We just figured everything is learnable, and we have a background in economics and finance, which is at least part of what you need for a restaurant.”
So they took over a former Thai restaurant space at 2439 South Kihei Road, renamed it Maui Thai Bistro, and renovated it with a casual, contemporary style.
“We did try to change the atmosphere. We didn’t want it to be full of elephant tablecloths and bamboo; we wanted to get away from that, ” she says. “We wanted it to be a more modern place. No tablecloths, no curtains, much cleaner lines, cleaner looking, with lights being part of the decorations.”
They brought on an experienced, Thai chef, who crafted a menu of both traditional and innovative dishes. Meesook’s husband, who had worked as Principal Information Technology Officer for the World Bank, set up a digital point-of-sale system, so that all food could be ordered virtually on iPods and iPads, which printed tickets for the kitchen.
The night after they opened in 2013, customers were ready to try this top-notch Thai food! However, it turns out Maui Thai Bistro was not quite ready for them. Yet.
“Every table was taken. The fact that we were in a tizzy and couldn’t really deal with all these people is another matter,” explains Meesook, who remembers how the kitchen was overwhelmed by all the customers and servers were underprepared on the iPads.
“I was so embarrassed, I disappeared into the back! I said, ‘I can’t face these people!’,” she recalls. “But in the end as they were leaving, I came out to apologize. I said, ‘I’m sorry, but, you know, this is only our second day.’ And one person said to me, ‘Oh, this stuff, it’s okay! You’ll get it together sooner or later. But the food is fabulous!’ So, perfect message.”
Just a few weeks of iPad practice for servers, and that recipe for success was dialed-in. While the tablet-based software now makes it easy for employees, it’s also a priceless resource for employers, keeping track of work hours, payroll figures and restaurant sales, and providing details by day, month and year.
“Every day, you get a report on how much your sales were, how much was credit card, how much was cash, so we know how much cash is supposed to be in the cash drawer, and everybody knows that we know,” Meesook says. “You can get things tabulated out by server, by dates, we can figure out what our most popular dishes are.”
Popular dishes include the all-time authentic items, like Pad Thai noodles, Som Tum papaya salad and Tom Yum soup. But customers are also drawn to dishes with a creative, often local, twist, like Panang curry made with macadamia nuts instead of the traditional peanuts.
“We tried it, and we found, yes, it’s better than peanuts, so why not go with that? You can get the Panang with some type of fish, like Salmon or Ahi or Mahi, or what we really like is Short Ribs,” explains Meesook. “We go by what tastes good, and we’re in touch with what’s happening in Thailand itself where there’s a lot of innovation going on.”
After about a year and a half in business, Maui Thai Bistro converted an additional space next door into a bar and lounge area, which is set to open soon. Along with double daily happy hours from 4 to 6 p.m. and 8:30 to 9:30 p.m., the new area will offer a full dinner menu, with additional tables to free up space in the existing dining room.
“We wanted to enhance the dining experience of the diners, we didn’t just want to pack them in,” says Meesook, who hopes diners remember fantastic food and great service when they think of Maui Thai Bistro, which has won several awards from Open Table and Trip Advisor.
“This is a very friendly place,” she adds. “This is a family restaurant. We want it to be a pleasant dining experience for everybody.”
Looks like the World Bank’s loss is Maui’s gain, as this economist-turned-entrepreneur figures out a solid equation for adding one happy customer after another.