When the Royal Bangkok restaurant opened in January at 315 University Ave. in St. Paul, it hadn’t been in business more than a few weeks when the building that housed it was condemned by the city.
It was a roadblock for the Vong family, which owns the building and the businesses inside. But the Vongs, especially 61-year-old patriarch Narin Vong, are no strangers to obstacles.
The family has found success along a stretch of University Avenue that hasn’t always been the most inviting spot for a new business, running four separate enterprises from the building that it hopes will thrive once the Green Line opens in 2014.
For his part, Narin Vong has traveled the long road from war-torn Cambodia to becoming a successful entrepreneur in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. His family owns the 13,000-square-foot building at 315 University, and has remade it with a bazaar-like assortment of family-owned businesses inside: Daughter Regina owns and manages Royal Bangkok, older daughter Maryna owns The Nail Shop at the front of the building, Narin’s wife Somaly runs Royal Design, a tailory and dress shop, and Narin manages the building and runs a law practice from an office in the building’s southeast corner.
“I was raised in this building,” says Regina Vong, 25. “I managed my mom’s jewelry store here when I was 16.”
A refugee saga
The Vongs represent a success story that’s quintessentially American, even if it originated in Southeast Asia. Narin Vong fled Cambodia as a teenager when a communist offensive led to the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. After living in the Thai border city of Kohkong, he moved to the U.S. at age 18, sponsored by a Minnesota family.
“There was nothing for me to do there,” Vong says. “Some family members stayed in Cambodia. But in 1975 the communists took over and everybody escaped.”
After getting his GED and a bachelor’s degree, Vong went to work for Control Data, during which he pursued his law degree via correspondence courses. (He now offers general legal services ranging from bankruptcy to probate when he’s not working on his other business concerns.)
Vong first bought property along University Avenue in the mid-1980s, opening a small grocery store at 369 University (now the location of a photography studio) and another store later at 440 University.
He bought the 91-year-old building at 315 in 1986 for $250,000. It had been owned by a milk company and was essentially a blank canvas for the young entrepreneur.
“Originally nobody wanted to buy this building, because it was nothing,” says Vong. “There were pipes hanging from the ceiling. There was no floor – just concrete.”
Vong moved his grocery store, which eventually became the Phnom Penh Bangkok Asian Supermarket, into the space and made a go of it during a time when University Avenue west of the Capitol was not an ideal place to live or work.
“I had windows broken almost every week,” he recalls. “But there was no building going on in this part of University, and I wanted to expand. There were lots of Asians here, lots of refugees. It’s a lot better here now.”
Birth of a restaurant
After shifting ownership among family members the building now belongs to The Royal Group, an LLC formed by the family four years ago. When the Bangkok Thai Deli moved out of a building to a location next door, the Vongs decided to convert the space into a restaurant that would offer an unusual blend of Thai and Cambodian flavors.
Regina Vong was the ideal candidate to run the restaurant – she had previously operated a banquet and catering business in Burnsville, where she lives. She had initially intended to travel and later apply her bachelor’s degree in international business to the corporate world, but decided to take up the challenge of helming a family business.
“I want to bring back the feel the business had when my parents ran it,” she says.
When it came time to open Royal Bangkok, she scoured the recipe books of her mother and grandmother to put together the menu – and even photographed dishes and designed the menu herself. She’s in the midst of designing a website to promote the businesses at 315, using Royal Bangkok’s Facebook page for marketing in the meantime.
The fusion of the disparate Southeast Asian recipes results in a menu full of variety. Royal Bangkok’s noodle soups are customer favorites, but the menu also offers Cambodian Lort Cha, Cambodian green mango salad with dried shrimp, mini Cambodian crepes, Banh Hoi noodles, and a specialty mackerel with red curry sauce, along with traditional Asian entrees and sides such as stir-fry and egg rolls.
The restaurant offers take-out and dine-in at its four booths and 12 tables, with Asian music and entertainment on a big-screen TV.
“People always find something different here,” says Regina. “There are lots of Thai restaurants, but we’re a mix of Thai and Cambodian. There’s a blend of flavors that you don’t find in most places.”
Hassles and promise
Following the condemnation order from the city (and numerous turned-down appeals by Vong), he agreed to fix a longstanding problem with the building’s basement shoring that was brought to light during light-rail construction.
(And that might not be the end of the restaurant’s hassles: The Asian Economic Development Association recently asked Royal Bangkok to change its name, citing a complaint from former tenant Bangkok Thai Deli. That situation is pending, but Regina Vong pledges to keep “Bangkok” in the name.)
Atop the improved shoring will go a dollar store in the space west of the restaurant. The Vongs also hope to get city funding to put in exterior awnings and stucco and replace outdated air-conditioning units. If funding doesn’t come through, they’ll make do as they always have.
“We haven’t advertised at all,” says Regina Vong. “We just opened our doors and hoped word would get around.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.