Q&A: Chef Nuit Regular, Executive Chef and Co-Owner and Toronto’s top Thai restaurants, managed weeks with zero revenue — and then pivoted.
Here’s how she managed her business through the pandemic.
Chef Nuit Regular is the Executive Chef and Co-Owner of PAI, Kiin, By Chef Nuit, Sabai Sabai, and Sukhothai. Creating authentic Thai dishes inspired by her roots in Northern Thailand, Chef Nuit has been instrumental in transforming the Thai food scene in Toronto, Canada. In addition to operating her many restaurants, Chef Nuit has also been a guest judge on MasterChef Canada and Top Chef Canada, is a resident judge on Food Network Canada’s Wall of Chefs, and is the author of Kiin: Recipes and Stories from Northern Thailand, which was shortlisted for the IACP Cookbook Awards and the Taste Canada Awards.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
Because we closed our restaurants for several weeks during the initial lockdown of the pandemic, we had zero revenue coming in. We had to adjust how we managed our finances, and we reached out to our bank to get lines of credit approved. We always had really positive relationships with our landlords and suppliers, so they were very understanding and willing to help us out in any way they could — whether it was allowing us to defer payments, or working with us to create payment plans that would make sense with our reduced cash flow. We also signed up for various government programs, including the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS), Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), and small business loan programs, which allowed us to continue to pay our staff wages, rent, and other overhead costs, even with greatly reduced revenue.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
I work in the hospitality industry, which is all about connecting and interacting with our guests in person. It’s been very hard these past 16 months to not be able to give our guests the full dining experience. I started hosting virtual cooking classes and events as an alternative way to connect and interact with my customers. It allowed me to have facetime with guests that I couldn’t have at the restaurants, and I could offer them something experiential and of value in return by continuing to bring my Thai cuisine and culture into their homes. I’ve also become more active on social media as a way of communicating and staying relevant and connected with my customers.
We’ve heard the word “pivot” a lot in the hospitality industry during the pandemic, and that is what we did — offering new products and services based on customer needs. When people were locked down in their homes and cooking more, we created meal kits so customers could easily cook their favourite Thai dishes themselves. Utilizing ingredients we already had available at our restaurants, we also opened an online marketplace selling Thai produce and products directly to customers, including items that are harder to find like holy basil and magrud limes.
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
With the various lockdowns, we were mostly only able to operate for take-out and delivery, so developing deeper relationships with our various delivery app partners was essential. Before the pandemic, take-out and delivery was only about 30% of our business. Suddenly, it became 100% of our business. To maximize ease and efficiency we upgraded our POS systems to ensure they were fully integrated to streamline all online orders, including incoming orders from our various delivery app partners.
The pandemic also helped move our business into doing more contactless transactions. Many of our guests inquired about purchasing gift cards as a way to support our business. Before the pandemic, we only sold physical gift certificates, but we finally transitioned to fully electronic gift cards.
From a business operations perspective, we transitioned to using electronic invoices versus paper invoices, and made payments via e-transfer over physical cheques. This not only ensured the health and safety of our team and our suppliers, but also increased efficiency and convenience for our business.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
I think this pandemic showed me the importance of self-care and taking the time for myself and my family. During the early months of the pandemic, I was able to spend all this time at home with my kids and my husband — time I never had before — and I loved it! I loved being present with them. I was also able to take care of myself — exercise more, get some rest, cook with my family, and do some creative things outside of work. It helped reinvigorate me and allowed me to better focus on work. I was reminded that it’s important to take the time to reset your body and your mind, and to have quality time with your family and with yourself. Now that we’re back to somewhat normal business operations, I still ensure I take time for myself and my family every day. I have my mornings off for family time — whether it’s exercising together or just spending quality time together.
I also ensure that we bring that self-care mindset and positive energy to my team. Being a chef is hard on the body because we’re always on our feet and using our hands, using very repetitive motions. I’ve implemented regular exercise breaks for my team during work, where the team will stop what they’re doing and run through a program of stretches for the hands, the legs, the back, etc. This helps loosen up the muscles and joints and helps prevent chronic pain or long-term injuries. We’ve also created a healthier staff meal program to encourage a healthy and nutritious lifestyle, and we have regular team-building activities and meetings to promote a fun and positive work environment.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
My piece of advice to entrepreneurs is to stay positive and to take care of yourself. Things may not always turn out the way you want them to, but if you approach your life and your work with a positive attitude, you can achieve anything.You also need to take care of yourself in order to take care of others — whether that’s your staff or your customers. I used to be go-go-go all the time, but the pandemic made me rethink my priorities and focus more on my physical and mental health. It hit me hard when I was forced to stop working, and I realized just how exhausted I was, physically and mentally. I discovered that I needed to have my “me” time.
So don’t be afraid or feel guilty to take the time for yourself to enjoy the little moments in life. For me, I now start my mornings just enjoying the flowers and the birds in my backyard, and leisurely sip a cup of coffee. I make sure I set aside time to exercise. Adjusting your daily routine to ensure you’re taking time for yourself will help recharge your “internal battery,” and give you more motivation to work harder and achieve greater things at work.