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October 1, 2009

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Simply Thai celebrates 10 years

FORMER accountants Richard Lim and Choon Quek believe the secret to a successful restaurant is as much science as it is flair and that certain magic ingredient all good restaurants have.

The former suit-wearing business types ditched the corporate life 10 years ago to start landmark Shanghai restaurant Simply Thai.

Over the past decade the Singaporean pair have expanded their brand to include a home wares business, a restaurant offering Sichuan Province cuisine and a string of four Simply Thai restaurants across the city.

They have also added the Party People catering arm to the business that services high-end multinational companies for their functions across China.

When Simply Thai opened in January 1999 it was one of a few non-Chinese restaurants in town that wasn't in a five-star hotel.

Situated on Dongping Road it is part of a generation of restaurants that forged the future of Shanghai's now vibrant restaurant scene, which includes the iconic M on the Bund.

Back then Dongping Road had Sasha's on the corner and not much else, and Quek and Lim both say they never imagined it would become the prestigious Shanghai address it has become today.

However, it took the local diners a while to warm to Thai food, with the pair having to walk down to Hengshan Road to try to entice potential customers to eat in their fledging restaurant.

"When we opened, Chinese people hated Thai food, they would try it and say it was too sour or too spicy, they had never tried Thai food," says Quek.

"But that year Chinese tourists started to go to Thailand, and by December we started to get many more local people."

Both Quek and Lim come from high-flying jobs in the food industry.

Quek was the chief financial officer for United States food giant Pillsbury in China and Lim was the chief executive officer of Haagen-Dazs' China arm.

Both say their backgrounds have made them believers in what they call the "science" of running restaurants. That is, adhering to strict systems and processes to achieve consistent quality.

"The challenge is consistency and you have to win them (customers) one by one," Quek says.

In Shanghai's notoriously fickle restaurant industry that sees many players come and go, they attribute success to their drive for consistent quality.

"If you eat our green curry this year or in two years time it will be exactly the same. People want that reliability and that comfort," says Quek.

In keeping with this philosophy, Simply Thai still has many of the same Thai chefs who started at the restaurant 10 years ago.

All its chefs across its four restaurants in Xintiandi, Hongmei, Jinqiao and its first Luwan District restaurant come from the same Thai cooking school that provided their chefs a decade ago.

It has also opened up a central kitchen in Putuo District that services their restaurants.

Lim says they have tried to keep the restaurants simple with few changes to the menu over time.

"We still have the same 80 or so items we started with and we have added a few items to take it to about 90, and during that 10 years our prices have only gone up by about 10 percent," Lim says.

The average spend at Simply Thai has remained consistently around 150 yuan (US$22), he says.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Simply Thai is running a promotion offering 10 dishes for 10 yuan each for 10 hours from October 8-10.


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