Duluth’s only Thai restaurant - Sala Thai - is moving from its storefront on Woodland Avenue to downtown.
With the move, owner Sumlee Beede is returning to her restaurant roots.
Beede is buying the two-story brick building at 114 W. First St. where she started in the restaurant business in 1999. That year, she opened Thai Krathong, which developed a loyal following for its authentic Thai food. After she sold the business, it moved to Canal Park and closed in 2013.
But Beede continued using the recipes and menu she had developed for Thai Krathong at her Sala Thai Restaurant, creating a following there as well.
“I introduced Duluth to Thai food in October 1999,” she said. “Krathong continued to use my menu; essentially that was my creation.”
She expects to finalize the purchase of the downtown building this month after the current street-level business, Giant Panda Restaurant, moves out. Its owners’ reluctance to move has prompted legal action to evict them. A court hearing on the matter is scheduled for next week.
“Once they’re officially out, then we’ll close the deal,” said Beede, 64. “That’s all we’re waiting for now.”
On Friday, Giant Panda still was open for business serving Chinese food. Its owners - Qihui Li and Yi Zhong - said they had bought out Saigon Cafe, the previous restaurant that operated there for $20,000 in 2011 and had put in $40,000 into improvements. They said they haven’t moved out because they want to be bought out for the $60,000 they spent.
They said they haven’t looked for another location, because they put everything they had into the restaurant and don’t have any more money.
Despite the holdup, Beede plans to close her Sala Thai Restaurant at 4023 Woodland Ave. on March 26 and reopen downtown in late April after the space is remodeled. She’d like to have a grand opening with a ribbon cutting in early May.
“I’m on my mission to get this accomplished,” she said.
Last week the city’s Alcohol, Gambling & Tobacco Commission approved the transfer of her on-sale wine license to the new location. There she’ll be open daily and serve the same menu and prices, with some added offerings. Her lunch buffet will fill two tables instead of one, and she’s considering a Sunday brunch.
After selling Thai Krathong in 2003, Beede missed the restaurant business. So when she retired from the Duluth school district in 2008 after 29 years as a public school educator, she opened Sala Thai.
At her new location, she wants to give her customers the feeling of being in her native Thailand when they walk in there, through the decor, the taste and aromas of the food, the music playing and the staff who serve them.
And because the new space is bigger and more spacious, she’ll be better able to accomplish that, she says.
But many of her Woodland customers are going to miss the neighborhood restaurant. Among them is Denny Moran, who eats there at least once a week.
“It’s going to be a tough thing for Woodland,” said Moran, who owns nearby Denny’s Ace Hardware and the Soapbox laundromat. “It’s going to be sad. She ran a good operation. Her food is excellent. It’s really a shame. People will follow her downtown, because it’s that good. But I hate to see her leave Woodland.”
Some of Sala Thai’s customers come from around the city and from as far away as Hayward, Ashland and Silver Bay, Beede said. She expects to lose some of her evening takeout business, but expects business overall will be better downtown.
“It’s bigger,” she said. “Traffic is better than here. I don’t doubt the lunch buffet will be good. Weekend nights will be good, especially if something is going on at the DECC.”
She said she will offer curbside pickup for takeout orders, so people don’t have to get out of their cars.
“When they order takeout, we will deliver right to their car when they pull up,” she said. “I want to offer every convenience I can.”
The decision to move
Beede said she started thinking about moving from her location off Calvary Road in August, after her rent was raised again without the option of a lease. She had been there for six years, after buying out Nam Lee’s Restaurant from the building owners.
The uncertainty of leasing month-to-month and other issues caused her to question whether to continue in the business.
“My head was just spinning,” she recalled. “But the idea of shutting down, going home and getting out of the business made my heart crumble. I love what I’m doing.”
She approached Donald Pasek about his West First Street building and learned it was for sale. In time, a deal was struck for the 9,500-square-foot structure built in 1900.
Pasek said Beede had been good to work with when she rented space in his building 12 to 16 years ago.
“She was a marvelous tenant; she’s a wonderful lady,” he said.
As for Beede, she says the building is in better shape than when she had a business housed there.
“Pasek took such good care of the building,” she said. “They spared no expenses keeping things cleaned and well lit. Next door to the restaurant, which used to be Pasek Pharmacy, it’s now a dance (fitness) studio. And it looks nice there.”
With the pending purchase and move, Beede said she finally feels that she’s in control of her future.
“For the first time in all my years in the restaurant business, I finally feel I’m in the front seat, having that control and eliminating the uncertainties,” she said. “Knowing I’m not (leasing) month-to-month, I’m very confident where I’m going.”
Moreover, rents from the four occupied apartments on the building’s second floor and the building’s other storefront, currently occupied by Zstudio, will help support the venture, she said.
And for those tenants, nothing changes, she said.