Saiphin Moore has quite a story to tell. She was born into a family of Lao hill farmers who had ended up carving out a living in the Phetchabun Mountains, over the border from Laos in Northeast Thailand. She left Phetchabun when she was 18, for Hong Kong, where she worked as a nanny for a Chinese family. In Hong Kong, she later met Alex, who became her husband, and would also open a small Thai restaurant. In 2006 the pair moved to Alex’s native London, where they started a Thai food stall at a weekend market. This year they opened their 12th UK restaurant. And their business group has just been valued at more than US$30 million.
“My daughter says to me, ‘Mum, you’re living the London dream,’” says 49-year-old Saiphin, with an infectious laugh. She is sitting next to her husband in their newest eatery, The Lao Cafe, in Central London’s swish and bustling Covent Garden. It’s the UK’s only Lao restaurant, and, as Saiphin and Alex talk at a corner table, the rest of the room fills with predominantly young, smartly-dressed, cosmopolitan diners. It feels a long way from Laos.
“Yes, we have been lucky,” she says, before her husband interjects. “We’ve had a lot of challenges,” says Alex, slowly and purposely. “We have both had rich and fulfilling lives and that has helped us achieve what we have… And we are immensely proud of what we have created and how we have created it.”
Saiphin and Alex do that a lot. Not so much correct each other but add to what has just been said. “We balance each other,” agrees Alex. “We seem to play on each other’s strengths. We cover each other’s weaknesses.” Saiphin comes over as straight-to-the-point, strong-minded and savvy, whereas Alex is more structured, analytical and deliberate. It does seem a good mix.
The couple have worked together since they opened their first restaurant, Tuk Tuk Thai, in Hong Kong, in 2002. It’s still there, on the edge of Central Market, and is still run by the friend that Saiphin sold it to when they left Hong Kong in 2006. She opened Tuk Tuk after she had made a success of a hole-in-the-wall lunchtime stall just up the road, on Lyndhurst Terrace. Before this, she ran a Thai grocery in Kennedy Town, in Hong Kong Island’s Western District.
“I had run a small grocery and noodle shop in my village since I was a girl. My passion has always been food and cooking,” says Saiphin. “When I worked as a nanny in Hong Kong, my employers asked what they could do to help me and I said, let me go out and cook. And they did. So I looked after their boys, got them to school and back, I cooked for the family and then I would go out, in the middle of the day and in the evening, to work in a Thai place in Kowloon City. They changed my life. That family were so so kind to me.”
When Saiphin and Alex moved to London, Saiphin again turned to what she knew. In the first instance it was for a friend’s business. She would cook a number of dishes at home, on a camping stove on the floor of the couple’s living room – “We had no gas in the kitchen” – and take them into the company’s office canteen to sell, lunchbox-style, every Friday. From there, she went onto a Sunday stall at Brick Lane Market in London’s East End and this quickly became a roaring long-queue success. Then, in 2008, the couple took over a derelict traditional-style English cafe – called Rosa’s – at the bottom of Brick Lane.
“We were really disappointed with most Thai restaurants in London,” says Alex. “They didn’t taste or look anything like restaurants in Asia. So we set about creating somewhere that fused modern London and modern Bangkok.” They kept the name of the original cafe and the basic look and feel but filled it with what Alex describes as “cool London artifacts.”
Rosa’s Cafe served up Saiphin’s trademark homestyle northern Thai cuisine and within a few months it had been written up in Time Out as one of London’s best 25 restaurants. So they opened another, in central London. This one struggled, so they tweaked the model and the design, succeeded, and then opened a third. And so on and so on. But not after a lot of struggle.
“We lived off credit cards a lot in the early days,” says Alex. “Everything was on a shoestring, but the focus has always been on the food. We never compromise. And it was all based on a lot of honest hard work.”
Eventually, investors came knocking – but they were turned down and Saiphin and Alex instead signed up for a UK government scheme that provided them with the services of two skilled business consultants and the ability to start really examining the business. “It allowed us to identify our problems. We drafted a five year plan,” says Alex. “It was really empowering… it was a game changer.”
Today there are active and ambitious plans to add to the existing 12 London restaurants. Saiphin is also now the author of two best-selling cook books and she is about to launch a line of Thai supermarket products. Other ideas are plentiful and could include a UK chain of Thai noodle shops, but the details remain a secret. “If I announce what we are going to do next, others move into that space so quickly,” says Saiphin.
Revealingly, each restaurant is run as its own business, with its own skilled and fully-trained Thai chef and a manager who will have a share in that restaurant. They have a stock option plan across the group and the first kitchen porter to work at Rosa’s remains on the plan today. They even have a business “constitution” that, for example, forbids replying to an email on your day off. “It is based on mutual respect,” says Alex.
Saiphin and Alex remain majority shareholders of the group but have just started a process that will see them sell a significant stake in the business, take more of back seat and make way for a skilled senior management team to be put in place. This is where the US$30 million valuation came from. It is hard to see these two slowing down, however.
Saiphin, despite the success and the ever-growing strands of business and corresponding wealth, says she still cooks at least once a week in one of her kitchens. “I love it,” she says, before repeating herself a few times. “I love it, just love it.” She says she also still tries to go to the London wholesale markets to pick out the best fish, meat and veg. “They all know me there and I still love going,” she says, again with her infectious smile.
Alex looks at his wife and remarks: “When we started in London, our friends would say, ‘you behave as if you are still in Hong Kong but you need to change. You need to become English now.’ But we didn’t want to. We had a kind of immigrant attitude and a Hong Kong energy that allowed us to get things done.’ They both laugh again. “And in our hearts,” says Alex, “we still do. And we hope we never lose it. We always want to have that Asian energy.”