Thai restaurant adds flavor to West Bank cultural diversity

Chai’s Thai weaves into Cedar-Riverside’s cultural tapestry.

Tucked away and hidden on the West Bank, a small, rectangular building houses an often-overlooked restaurant offering foreign cuisine and a cultural atmosphere.

Owners Chai and Marlene Rachwat opened Chai’s Thai Restaurant in 2005, and Marlene Rachwat said it contributes to the community’s cultural diversity.

“We add a lot to (the West Bank). I remember when we first moved to buy the restaurant. Ö The restaurant was quite dark, but it seems like it is really exciting now,” Marlene Rachwat said.

Carlson School associate professor of marketing Rajesh Chandy said the West Bank is an interesting mix of demographics consisting of two distinct groups: the University community and the large immigrant community.

In general, a restaurant’s success depends on how well it meets the needs of both communities, he said.

“You can do so in two ways,” Chandy said. “Offering things that are exactly in line with the immigrant community, or offering cheap, yet eclectic food that caters well to the University community.”

Targeting one specific community is a challenge in the diverse Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Chai’s Thai is close to the University’s West Bank campus and is also surrounded by an Ethiopian restaurant called the Red Sea, the KFAI radio station, a Korean bakery and the Cedar Cultural Center.

Chai’s Thai was the home of another restaurant, The Korean House, until Chai and Marlene Rachwat bought it.

The couple moved to the Twin Cities from Texas, Marlene Rachwat said. However, it was difficult for Chai Rachwat to find a job in a restaurant.

“We decided Ö to open one ourselves,” she said. “We did not have a specific area in mind because we didn’t know the area very well.”

The couple bought The Korean House and made it their own, changing the type of food and the restaurant’s name.

“It was the right place for us to start, so we just went from there and found out it was a really good area,” Marlene Rachwat said. “After a few months opening we (realized) we liked it. We didn’t expect it to be an area (University students) would like.”

Marlene Rachwat said she and her husband did nothing specific to appeal to University customers. Instead, they designed the restaurant and constructed a menu that pleased them.

“It just turns out that a lot of people like it also,” she said. “You can’t please everybody so you just do what you think is best for you and hopefully you’ve found the right place.”

Geography junior Cole Sexton frequents the restaurant and said he wouldn’t visit the West Bank without Chai’s Thai.

“It has more of a homey feeling,” he said. “It is a nicer place to go to than Noodles & Company.”

The restaurant’s décor is part of its popularity. The walls are painted daffodil yellow and the black ceiling is embellished with a repetitive leafy design. The entryway is decorated with bamboo pedestals holding candy and menus, while the large bay window is adorned with flowering plants.

Although some customers are concerned with the quality and taste of the food when it comes to restaurant choice, Marlene Rachwat said it’s important to focus on all aspects of restaurant operation.

“Everything has to be balanced. Ö You have to have a combination of atmosphere, food and service,” Rachwat said.

The restaurant might not stay exclusively hidden in the West Bank for too long. Although Chai’s fits well with the West Bank, Chai and Marlene Rachwat said they see a bigger future.

“We would like to stay here for a while and maybe one day expand,” Marlene Rachwat said. “It’s a really small restaurant right now and it’s really (important) to learn. We don’t want to rush it.”

-Freelance editor Courtney Blanchard welcomes comments at [email protected]