From Russia (And Laos) With Love

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 13, 2007

(from left) Maile Kawai, Khannie Ramsuvan, owner Souvaly Khamphoui and Vatsana Hongphao
(from left) Maile Kawai, Khannie Ramsuvan, owner Souvaly
Khamphoui and Vatsana Hongphao

The restaurant’s name practically sings: “Souvaly.” It’s location, however, isn’t lyrical; it’s on the ground floor of a four-story office building in Pearl City, a suburb not known for haute cuisine.

The restaurant anchoring the other end of the building - Flamingo’s, part of a kamaaina chain of homespun eateries - better reflects the Pearl City of old, as does the Zippy’s across the street.

But Souvaly is not a song title - it’s the name of the owner, a 35-year-old Laotian immigrant named Souvaly Khamphou, the goal of whose youth had nothing to do with owning a restaurant.

“My mother is a medical doctor, my father a politician,” she says. A pretty successful one: At one point he served as Laos’ deputy minister of agriculture. But his success didn’t last, and in Laos’ often rough-and-tumble politics Souvaly’s father was forced from office.

Souvaly was one of five children. She excelled in school, particularly in languages, and she won a scholarship competition (“A kind of Olympics of language,” she says.) to study Russian, first in a Siberian city and then in Moscow. Her goal was to become an interpreter and a diplomat.

But Russia in the early 1990s was in turmoil, so Souvaly returned to Laos. The situation was none too stable there either, but she had an auntie in Hawaii, so in July 1992 she came to the Islands. She was 20 years old - fluent in Lao, Russian and Thai, but deficient in English.

Souvaly went back to school - adult school - to study English. To support herself, she worked in a series of restaurants operated by other Laotian immigrants.“I was a dishwasher, a bus girl, then I did food prep and waitressing,” from 1997 to 2004 at Champa Thai in Aiea.

“Laotian culture is similar to Thai,” says Souvaly. “We watch Thai television. We understand the Thai language, we use Thai products.”

While working in Aiea, Souvaly went back to college at Leeward Community College and the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. It took her seven years, but she received her bachelor’s degree in business from UH-WO in 2001.

Degree in hand, Souvaly found a job in the insurance business; but “I always wanted to have my own business. And I was very familiar with the restaurant business. I enjoy going out to eat, and I enjoy cooking. So here I am.”

Six months after opening, the restaurant Souvaly is doing well. “The taste of our food is similar to that of all Thai restaurants,” she says, “but I wanted a really clean restaurant where the server treated customers as if we were an upscale restaurant, but without the upscale prices.

“We’ve broken even from the first month we opened, but we have attorney bills and construction bills as well as payroll and food to buy.”

The new restaurant owner has had a little help from family - more than a little. “Pasiano’s, Assaggio’s, Champa Thai, they’re all owned by Laotians. Their experience is an open textbook for me.

“Early on - one night at 11 p.m. - I called Paisano’s owner, whose wife is my mom’s cousin. I told him my problem, that too many of my meals had been paid for with credit cards, and I needed to pay out tips to my staff, but I didn’t have the cash to do it. He told me to join the club, and to always maintain a cash reserve for that purpose.”

For Souvaly, dealing with that staff - their tips, juggling their hours with those that need to be covered - has been the most difficult part of restaurant ownership: “Our waiters and waitresses, our bus boys, they’re all young people, and I’m still young. Most of them are students.

“I have to watch what I say, zip my mouth and shut up. Once I clock in, I’m a tough boss. After I clock out, I’m mellow. I talk story with my employees.”

Only three of them are full-time employees of the restaurant. “On the Mainland, Thai restaurants are owned by Thais,” says Souvaly with a smile. “In Hawaii, Thai restaurants are owned by Laotians. I may be Laotian, but my two cooks are Thai.”

Food critics Nadine Kam of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Wanda Adams of the Advertiser have given Souvaly high marks. Wrote Adams: “Souvaly passed the ultimate dining critic test. I’ll go back on my own dime, and I’ll happily drive to Pearl City to do it.”

Not bad for a Russian-speaking restaurateur from Laos serving Thai food in Pearl City.

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