Owner of sunset strip thai restaurant bringing upscale concept to more affordable level with New cafe chain

Like many businessmen, Prakas Yenbamroong had a dream. It just took him a few years to set it in motion.

The Thai native came to this country as a young man in the 1970s to get his MBA at Cornell University.

With degree in hand, the newly minted banker worked for the company that had sponsored his studies, Thai Farmers Bank, for four years, first in London and then in Los Angeles.

Yenbamroong, a compact man given to fashionable black suits and tiny black wire-rim glasses, often wined and dined important clients at upscale restaurants around town, but he never found a Thai eatery as elegant as the ones in his native country.

So the young banker changed that. Seventeen years ago he started Talesai, an upscale Thai restaurant in the heart of the Sunset Strip. Ever since, he has been a successful restaurateur.

Now the 51-year-old businessman is launching a chain of Thai cafes in Southern California. Located in mini-malls, they are designed to be smaller, more affordable versions of his flagship restaurant. His first Caf & #233; Talesai opened in Beverly Hills in August. The next is scheduled to open in Orange County next fall.

Family approach

Yenbamroong never thought he would become a restaurant owner. "Otherwise I would have gone to culinary management school," he noted one day, sitting inside his shiny, brand new caf & #233; at 9198 Olympic Blvd.

But the lure to fill a gaping hole in L.A.'s restaurant scene was too much.

When the banker decided to open his first Thai restaurant, he knew nothing about the business. But he knew exactly whom he would hire as his executive chef: his mother.

"I knew I could rely on Mom," the Thai native said. His mother, Vilai, has long been a creative chef whose father was Chinese and whose mother was Thai. Her blend of Asian cuisines had been served to family members for decades, but she had never worked in a restaurant.

Yenbamroong telephoned his mother in Bangkok. Would she take the job? Before she knew it, she was on a plane headed for L.A.

With $120,000 in family funds and a loan from Bangkok Bank, Thai Farmers Bank's competitor, the businessman, his wife, Sumitra, and his mother opened Talesai, a 60-seat restaurant whose name in Thai means desert.

The chic Thai eatery surrounded by nightclubs was frequented by a slew of movie stars, including Harrison Ford, Brooke Shields, Sting, Martin Scorcese and Mel Brooks, all of whom had heard about the restaurant from other friends.

"They deserve the success they got," said Merrill Shindler, an L.A. editor of the Zagat Survey, a local restaurant review guide. "They did it in a slightly different way that made them unique."

That was in 1983, and the Yenbamroong family finally is on an expansion spree.

Caf & #233; debut

With $350,000, they opened the Beverly Hills caf & #233; in a new mini-mall near Doheny Drive. With its tall, curved windows, it is a stylish steel-and-glass structure that encompasses a 500-square-foot dining room that accommodates up to 50 diners.

The metal tables are covered with white linen tablecloths. The walls have contemporary art hanging on them. Images of Buddha, perched on shelves, watch over customers.

The caf & #233; menu is slightly different from the main restaurant's offerings.

First, the caf & #233; prices are lower. The average check at Caf & #233; Talesai is $15 per person. At the more elegant Talesai restaurant, the average check is $50.

The Yenbamroongs' plan is to open a string of cafes from San Diego to Silicon Valley and then expand into other states. Prakas' mother remains the executive chef.

"We want to create great Thai food in the New World," said Prakas, who developed his caf & #233; idea last year after attending a UCLA seminar on fast-growing food trends. The Thai businessman learned there was money to be made in "Home Meal Replacements," which are affordable restaurant meals that can be delivered, served at a restaurant or ordered as take out.

In addition to the cafes, Yenbamroong wants to start a catering service that specializes in corporate lunches and meetings. That is why he placed his first caf & #233; between Century City and Beverly Hills.

He also is working on a boxed meal similar to the "Bento Box" concept popular in Japan. He envisions people buying boxed food to take to the Hollywood Bowl, on plane trips, for work and picnics or business gatherings.

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