It was one of the unlikeliest of places to find high-quality Thai dishes.
The year was 2003, and the Yummy Burger diner on East Third Street at Patterson Boulevard in downtown Dayton (now called White Lotus) had served many a greasy comfort-food burger under a name or two over several decades, although it was best known for its run as White Tower.
That year, Siriya “Tik” Sripol and a business partner bought the old diner and began offering a handful of specialty Thai dishes alongside those diner burgers. For many Daytonians, Yummy Burger was their first experience with Thai cuisine.
Sripol would go on to launch and co-own many more restaurants across the Miami Valley, and she now is the owner of Tik’s Thai Express across from Wright State University in Fairborn. And she is our Dayton.com Daytonian of the Week.
Here’s Tik’s story, in her own words.
Tell us about your background and how your restaurant career came about.
I married into an American–Thai family and came to the U.S. in 1988. Since I had to learn the English language, my job options were limited, so I worked as a waitress in several local restaurants. It was a good learning experience and again, because of limited options, I decided I could focus on a restaurant future with a good chance of success.
After having two sons, I began my first limited-menu operation at what is now the 2nd Street Market about 20 years ago. Soon after, the opportunity to obtain the nearby Yummy Burger diner arose, and my friend Fon Christman joined me in opening up a limited Thai-food operation while still offering the traditional diner meals.
In 2005 we opened Ban Thai in Beavercreek as a full-service, expanded-menu Thai restaurant. After selling Ban Thai in 2008, I built and opened Tik’s Thai Express on Colonel Glenn Highway in Fairborn in 2009, Tik’s Thai Grille in Bellbrook in 2011, and Tik’s Thai Grille II in Springboro in 2013.
Over time, I learned a hard lesson regarding span of control. I like to personally oversee customer service and food quality and it cannot be done at three widespread locations at once. I decided to focus on the Fairborn location and sold the others to known capable operators, former employees in the case of Bellbrook. All are operating successfully today, and I have been able to grow Thai Express, now in business for over 11½ years.
What kind of reactions did you get from Yummy Burger regulars when you started offering Thai dishes alongside the burgers and fries?
It only took convincing them to try some Thai dishes. We kept the choice limited and basic, but soon the demand grew and the Thai meals became a favorite for lunch and dinner as well as carryout. Breakfast remained very American. As word got around that something new and different was available downtown, more customers came, and we gradually expanded choices. I think the fact that the old diner operates successfully as the White Lotus some 20 years later makes a great story and attests to people’s willingness to adventure in taste.
What goes through your mind today when you see to what extent Thai cuisine has taken hold in the Dayton area, which now has a dozen or more Thai restaurants in a region that not long ago had only one or two?
First I am glad I was right when I judged that Thai food would become a popular choice if folks just had the opportunity to experience quality food preparation and service. I am also proud that I have had the opportunity to be involved with starting at least five of the current operations.
I come from northeast Thailand, known as Isan. The Thai cuisine that Americans know today is what is popular in Bangkok and the areas frequented by western travelers. I hope to soon begin experimenting with some of the dishes more common to the rural areas such as Isan and the Mekong River region, as well as Laos, in order to add even more variety and uniqueness to our offerings. If this takes hold, I will be very happy and proud.
What advice would you give young restaurant owners in 2020?
Be careful and be prepared. Prior to opening a business, it is always good to understand what success requires. Working in the industry and learning about good and bad practices, health regulations, equipment maintenance, etc. prior to going alone is always good. Planning for a unique and well-presented menu backed by quality service is must. This includes researching sources for the best ingredients, never skimping on their use and employing knowledgeable and capable kitchen staff.
Great Thai cooks are not easy to come by. I have been fortunate but it has not been easy. Thai Express was designed to appeal to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Wright State University and surrounding businesses, so the ability to provide multiple lunch specials and even cook-to-order meals in 7-10 minutes has succeeded in building a loyal clientele of folks whose time is valuable. This was done while expanding our dining room to better accommodate evening dining.
What’s a typical day for you now?
Due to the necessity for dealing with a serious medical issue, my current days are not typical of any that came before. Due to compromised immunity, I have been directed to minimize my direct contact with the public. I have always tried to know my customers, but now I must minimize direct contact. I try to go to the restaurant during quiet times to support the staff, order supplies and food ingredients and deal with any issues. I do all my paperwork at home. I am fortunate to have a great group of kitchen and wait staff that I can trust to maintain high standards.
Previously, I personally filled in wherever there was a need. I am a good cook and really like meeting the customers. A typical 12-hour work day began around 10 a.m. Given that we are open seven days, it shows how tough the restaurant business is if you are to be successful.
What’s been your most recent professional challenge, and how did you push through the challenge?
Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 related issues have had a tremendous impact on how we do business. Fortunately, we were already doing a booming carryout business; however, the staff had to be refocused on all the nuances associated with carryout service. It is a challenge taking multiple calls, waiting on walk-ins and keeping large numbers of outgoing orders correct and timely. I was able to keep a full staff employed and they rapidly adjusted.
Additionally, we were fortunate to anticipate the conditions of reopening. Partitions were added to the backs of all booths, sanitization access put in place and a floor plan implemented to assure distancing between tables. We lost about half our seating capacity, but carryout has remained strong, and we have added outside tables. All in all, we have been flexible enough to survive much better than many others. While business growth has stalled, we are in a position to implement continued business expansion as soon as we get back to a more normal pattern of life.
What inspires you most about the Dayton area?
I guess the first thought is that I have never lived anywhere except rural Thailand and Dayton, Ohio, so Dayton is my home and always will be.
I like Dayton because it is an easy place to live. It is big enough to have all I need and small enough to be friendly. I love my customers and I have gotten to know many very well. They want me to succeed and are willing to help me. Dayton has given me a chance to grow and supported me in many ways, including great help and advice from building contractors, equipment providers and vendors. I can always look forward to a day of work in Dayton being a day of fun and fulfillment.
Tik’s Thai Express is located at 2808 Colonel Glenn Highway in Fairborn. For more information, call 937-912-5984 or go to www.tiksthaiexpress.com.
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