Bringing Thai to the Twin Cities
Supenn Harrison introduced Minnesota to the flavors of her native Thailand when she opened her first Sawatdee restaurant in 1983. Thirty years later her story is one of great success – she’s the owner of seven acclaimed Thai restaurants, a cooking class instructor, the recipient of numerous awards and the subject of Asian Flavors, a recent documentary that celebrates the impact Asian immigrants have had in the state’s culinary, cultural, and economic history. Supenn talks about urging Minnesotans to try ethnic food in the 80s and what defines Thai cuisine.
AndrewZimmern.com: What brought you to the Twin Cities initially?
Supenn Harrison: I came as a foreign student at the University of Minnesota studying for my Masters of Arts in Education. I wasn’t planning to stay here, but I met and fell in love with my husband, so here I am!
AZ.com: What challenges did you face when you opened your first restaurant? How receptive were Minnesotans to Thai flavors?
SH: In 1983, there were very few ethnic food options, so Minnesotans didn’t know anything about Thai food or culture. In fact, many customers thought I was serving food from Taiwan. I taught all my customers about Thai flavors and culture. They loved it!
AZ.com: How has the Thai food scene evolved in the last few decades?
SH: There are a lot of new Thai restaurants all over the Twin Cities. We are proud to have influenced so many of these new restaurants and to launching the Thai food scene.
AZ.com: What’s the key to running and managing a successful restaurant empire?
SH: The key is hiring and retaining amazing staff, and of course, treating customers and staff with respect and generosity.
AZ.com: How often are you in the kitchen these days?
SH: Since I just opened a new location in Eden Prairie, I’m cooking about 3 days a week over there. I spend most of my working hours at our headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, but I always try to visit each location at least once a week.
AZ.com: What characteristics define Thai cuisine?
SH: The key to Thai food is to accurately combine and balance the 5 flavors of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot.
AZ.com: What three things should every cook know about preparing and cooking Thai food?
SH: Every cook needs to be how much spice, herb, and level of hotness to put in each dish. Each dish will use a different combine of the flavors to make each unique taste.
AZ.com: Three favorite restaurants in the Twin Cities?
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
SH: Vegetables, mushroom varieties, fresh herbs, fruit and some really good bread.
Check out Supenn’s recipe for Papaya Salad (Som Tum).
Who would have thought a young, inexperienced Thai woman could take her dream of working for herself and turn it into a chain of nationally known restaurants. Supenn Harrison did just that. For thirty years she has been creating authentic Thai cuisine which has set the standard for local Asian restaurants. Supenn’s success can be attributed to her hard work, her demand for superior quality and service, her knowledge and understanding of her target market, her keen business sense, and her caring personality. It is these same traits that will ensure her future success in anything she pursues.
The history of Supenn Harrison’s success began in 1979 when she bought the Gopher Grill on Lake Street. The Gopher served hamburgers, fried eggs, meatloaf, and many other “greasy-spoon” specialties. Soon after the doors opened, Supenn realized there would not be great financial rewards in this endeavor. She threw away the fryers, installed a few woks, changed the restaurant’s name, and began serving her native Thai cuisine. The Siam Café was born. There was nothing fancy about it. Just excellent food and service that delighted not only the palette but the other senses as well. Her unique combination of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and hot formed a loyal following of patrons.
Even though the Siam Café had proven to be a success, Supenn wanted more. She sold the café and in 1983 opened the first Sawatdee Thai Restaurant. Located in the newly renovated Cardozo warehouse (now called Market House) in downtown St. Paul’s Lowertown area, Sawatdee built on the Café’s success in a time when neighboring restaurants faltered and failed. It won four star ratings from the Minneapolis Star Tribune thus confirming what the restaurant’s patrons already knew. They expected the best Thai food, service, and atmosphere and the Sawatdee delivered it consistently.
On April 15, 1986, Sawatdee Minneapolis (602 Washington Ave – Headquarters) opened its doors with continued expectations of quality. An old warehouse once again became home to Thai architecture, traditional decorations, and the warm red, blue, and gold tones that by now had become a trademark. Supenn created a slightly different menu that offered a greater variety of traditional Thai cuisine than that of her popular St. Paul restaurant. The new location was an immediate success and has continued to grow each and every year. With its loyal customer base it quickly became the flagship of the growing family of restaurants. Its growing catering business has also contributed to growing profits, name recognition, and the Rolling Stones’ waistlines.
Supenn continued to expand with locations in Maple Grove, St. Cloud, Bloomington, and our newest location in Eden Prairie. The profitability and popularity of the Siam Café and the Sawatdee Restaurants have largely been due to Supenn Harrison’s hard work, her demand for superior quality and service, her knowledge and understanding of her target market, her keen business sense, and her caring personality. Her focus on superior quality and service can be seen by her loyal customer base and by the numerous awards and rave reviews her restaurants have received; Best Thai Restaurant (the last ten years) /Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine; Best Hot and Spicy Food/ Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine Reader’s Choice Award; Best Thai/Minnesota Monthly; Rave Reviews/City Pages. Supenn also won the 1999 Minnesota Small Business Award.
She has demonstrated her knowledge of her target market by the unique atmosphere and menu of each restaurant. Each restaurant has a loyal following of the intended customer base. Supenn’s keen business sense is evident in the profitability of her restaurants. She is constantly trying new things to encourage people to visit the Sawatdee. She has sponsored the Sawatdee Thai Two On 5K Run/Walk for ten years, developed a successful catering business, and has developed her own internet website to relay important information, upcoming events, and sell food items. In addition, she had a booth every year at the State Fair for over 25 years. Finally, her caring personality is evident in the work she does for the community, the close relationship she has with her employees, and the rapport with her patrons. Supenn Harrison is truly a women of inspiration.