Patthama Chaklang, known as 'Chef New' to family and friends, opened Thai restaurant Café Isan in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers in 2016. She had moved to Dubai on a visit visa in 2009 and used the money she'd saved through cooking and catering jobs to buy a partnership stake in the restaurant. The business partners spent upwards of Dh1 million setting up, but they have kept the restaurant going over the last four years. Ms Chaklang, 32, from Thailand expects the business to survive the pandemic, before expanding to new locations. She lives in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, while her 13-year-old son lives in Thailand.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I grew up in Pak Chong in rural Thailand. We were a poor family but our mum was hard-working and enterprising. She had several jobs, sometimes two or more at the same time – including working on a farm, at a construction firm, in a factory and cooking and selling food to her colleagues. So I learnt the value of money at a very young age. My mum taught me that the more you give, the more you get back later. That’s Buddhist philosophy, and that’s how my mum was. She’d cook extra food for people who didn’t have any, or give people things on credit. Later on, these people came back and helped her out when she needed it. It’s karma. Mum is still my biggest inspiration.
How much did you earn in your first job?
At the age of about seven or eight, I’d help my mum out with her farm job and she’d give me THB20 (Dh2.26) per day, or buy me new clothes or shoes as an incentive.
What brought you to the UAE?
I came here on holiday to visit a friend and decided to stay and look for work. I didn’t speak enough English, so getting a job was impossible at first. But I made friends in the Thai community, and my first job as such was cooking for them – after I’d taught myself to cook from YouTube.
So how did your business come about?
It happened by accident. I invited some friends over for dinner and they suggested I cook them food every day. It was a slow but natural progression from being a home cook to opening a restaurant.
How did you finance the business?
It took years of saving, a bank loan and buckets of blood sweat and tears to get the restaurant open. There were so many upfront costs that took my business partner and me by surprise. The whole process took exactly a year. We overcame some of the hurdles by borrowing and keeping costs down when we finally opened. In total, we used Dh700,000 of savings from myself and my business partner, plus a bank loan of Dh250,000 and Dh50,000 on a credit card – ouch.
What did that initial investment go towards?
Upfront costs such as rent and the rent deposit, agency fees, trade licence, visas, construction, deposits, permits and registrations, interior design and furniture, installing gas, cooking equipment, pipes, alarm and fire safety systems and an AC system.
How did this affect your personal finances?
The worst was having to give up the apartment I’d lived in for eight years because the rent was too high. I had to downsize.
Was that your greatest financial challenge?
Yes, realising it would take a whole year to build and open the restaurant, and managing the enormous costs that involved. It was really frightening thinking I’d just put all my money into this project and that I might have to stop before opening. I was let down by some of the people I’d contracted with, so that made it harder. I overcame it by getting a bank loan and credit card and went forward with a positive mindset.
How has your business been hit by coronavirus?
Being a community-focused place we’ve been hit pretty hard as 60 per cent of our trade was eat-in. We’re now delivering to more areas, improving our online ordering systems and we’re about to launch a whole new menu called Covid-19 Super Savers, to offer greater-value options for our customers. We expect to be affected for at least six months, if not more. My upbringing helps me stay positive during this crisis. Us Thais are strong and used to challenges because life in rural Thailand can be tough. So we learn to face challenges with a smile and positivity.
Are you a spender or a saver?
A spender. I buy a lot of food, even if I don’t need it or I can’t possibly eat it all. I used to buy jewellery, but I’ve got better there.
Why do you spend?
I didn’t have money as a child. Growing up, dinner could be soup, with one egg shared between the family. So when you have to wait for a whole year for something, you spend when you can. Now I can buy what I want, so I buy everything.
What has been your biggest financial accomplishment?
Buying my mum a brand-new car.
What do you invest in?
Gold and land. I bought a large plot of land to build an eco-resort in Beung Kan, Thailand. It cost me about Dh100,000. If it was sold on the open market now, it would be worth Dh250,000 plus. I’m also increasing its value through extensions and additional developments, such as a freshwater feature. This area of Thailand doesn’t get a lot of tourists, and we’d love people to visit. That would create more jobs for the local villagers and help the community.
What car do you drive?
In Thailand, I have a Toyota Vigo and Toyota Yaris. I don’t have a driving licence in the UAE.
How much do you have in your wallet right now?
Do you save on a regular basis?
Every day. I hide Dh100 or Dh200 notes from myself in my clothes or my socks. Sometimes I find it two years later. If I put it in the bank, then I know it’s there and I’ll spend it/
If you could live your life again, what financial decision would you change?
I would never build a restaurant from scratch again. I’d buy a pre-existing one, so I didn’t have to waste time and money on the set-up.