Hectic Hustling Keeps Restaurateur Alive

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Tough times have made King Phojanakong a jack-of-all-trades.

Some days, he’s a host, server, chef and dishwasher. Other days, he shops and even acts as a disc jockey, choosing restaurant playlists for diners.

Phojanakong, 39, is the owner of two restaurants – Kuma Inn, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and Umi Nom, an Asian restaurant in its infancy that was opened about three months ago in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

“I have many restaurant owner friends that are really feeling the crunch,” said Phojanakong. “They thought I was crazy for opening Umi Nom in the middle of this big recession.”

But the restaurant had been months in the planning and the Clinton Hill area looked up-and-coming, Phojanakong says. So he leapt.

Now, he nips and tucks where he can. He doesn’t use a floral service anymore; he makes his own arrangements with artificial flowers that save him $60 a week. He trimmed his linen service and even built his own restaurant tables by carving and staining long wooden blocks sold as countertops.

His wife, Annabelle, 35, serves as a hostess, waitress and dishwasher when needed. A corporate attorney by day, she has also done some more unpleasant tasks – like cleaning out a restaurant toilet – because she knows it’s what the family needs to do to make the business a success. On a recent Friday, she scurried from customer to customer, taking names and seating them before running to the back to see where else she might need to fill in.

“I race here from my day job whenever they’re short staffed,” she said. “It’s pretty exhausting. I really sometimes don’t even think I’m going to make it.”

King Phojanakong works with a bare bones staff, choosing to fill roles himself wherever he can. Between lunch and dinner, Phojanakong shuttles back and forth between his two restaurants, whizzing in a van across the Williamsburg Bridge. He purchases food supplies in Chinatown along the way. This practice allows Phojanakong not only to buy ingredients at wholesale prices, but also to cut out the delivery service – or middleman.

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“It doesn’t leave much time for sleep,” said Phojanakong, who usually doesn’t get home from his workday until 1 a.m. and rises early to be back to work before lunch. “But I’m a very hands-on owner, and we do what we can to cut corners and save an extra buck.”

Business at his established restaurant, Kuma Inn, is down between 10 and 20 percent since the start of the recession. Customers still go to the restaurant, but they buy less. He has noticed they no longer order dessert and might skip an appetizer.

His Brooklyn restaurant Umi Nom has been approved for a liquor license, but Phojanakong said his employees cannot yet serve alcohol at Kuma Inn. Their license wasn’t renewed, so they now allow customers to bring their own wine, beer and sake. The lack of a liquor license has hurt their business, but customers are getting used to the BYOB policy.

To see pictures from Phojanakong's career, click here.

The recession has also buffeted Phojanakong’s personal life.

He used to take vacations to Asia two to three times a year in order to learn new ingredients and culinary techniques. Phojanakong hasn’t traveled outside the country in almost two years. He has also had to curb his predilection for the finer things in life.

"Me and my wife usually go out for dinner on Sunday nights,” said Phojanakong. “Before the recession, we used to have extravagant meals. Now we just go to our neighborhood favorites. I haven’t had any extravagant meals lately.”

The recession has also forced Phojanakong to avoid his Achilles heel: sneaker collecting.

“I used to be a big sneaker-head, but not anymore,” said Phojanakong. “I’ve just been rediscovering my old sneakers. And when I go shopping for clothing or anything, I always look for sales. But I haven’t gone shopping for clothes in awhile.”

In some ways, his restaurants are better positioned to survive the downturn than his competitors, Phojanakong says. Kuma Inn is moderately priced and Umi Nom features tapas – or small plates – which allow customers to pick and choose how much they want to eat and how much they want to spend. Both factors work in his favor. Nonetheless, the recession makes him anxious.

“This is the worst of it right now, but it’s not going to change tomorrow,” said Phojanakong. “It’s going to be like this for awhile, so if you’ve already made it and can make it through another year like this you should be OK.”

In the meantime, if you see Phojanakong shuttling to and from the kitchen, barreling across the Williamsburg Bridge or scurrying through the Chinatown markets in search of a deal, best stay out of his way.

This story is part of a series called "The Big Hurt" produced by the Digital Media Newsroom at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

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