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Good luck followed sisters, as monk said

With the blessings of a Buddhist monk in Thailand, four sisters combined talent and hard work to create a successful SoHo restaurant.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 22, 2002


SOHO -- South Howard Avenue was prime real estate. No one doubted that. But the four sisters needed validation from a trusted source.

Following tradition, they dug deep, two feet, past the top soil.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
The four Damrongwatanasuk sisters behind Royal Palace Thai Restaurant are, from left, Natchaya, Kasinee, Nitchanan and Tapanee.
A world away, in Thailand, a Buddhist monk waited in a mountaintop temple. The clump of dirt, along with the sisters' birth dates and birth times, arrived in a Federal Express envelope.

That's how Royal Palace Thai Restaurant was born three years ago.

That's how the Damrongwatanasuk sisters knew that 811 S Howard Ave would be so lucky.

The monk offered other tidbits of advice. Green was the sisters' lucky color. Today, every single family car is green, including the new Pathfinder.

"It had to be green," said Tapanee Damrongwatanasuk, second youngest sister.

With luck came work.

Every day, from morning to midnight, the sisters toil.

A small bungalow was purchased nearby just so the two eldest could walk to work.

Each sister pulls her weight. Natchaya, 54, stir-frys and creates menus. Nitchanan, 43, makes duck sauce and tracks supplies.

The quick one, 35-year-old Kasinee, chops: cabbage, carrots, beans, cucumber. And she folds slices of carrot into butterflies garnishes, easily as if the carrots were origami.

Tapanee, proficient in English, greets customers at the polished hostess stand.

The restaurant is their life. They rarely see movies. Rarely venture to the mall. Rarely take a weekend off.

"No one cares like an owner," said Tapanee, 41. "And we are four sisters, four owners."

It was she, Tapanee, who dreamed the vision of success.

"I had a dream about a Thai restaurant for a long time," said Tapanee. She came to the United States in the mid-80s, when she was 24, to study English at the University of South Florida.

All the while, she was thinking: "I want to open a Thai restaurant. I know my family has good cooks."

She sent letters home, coaxing her sisters.

Come to Tampa.

Why? They wondered. All had good jobs. Nitchanan taught school. Natchaya collected rent from the family rice field.

We can make it here, Tapanee wrote. We can be independent, together.

One by one, the sisters immigrated to the United States. It took years. They took restaurant jobs to learn skills. Kasinee rolled egg rolls, developing speed. Natchaya peeled shrimp at a fish company.

"We started from zero," said Tapanee.

This wasn't a prosperous time for the Damrongwatanasuk sisters. Each worked two jobs. The four shared one car: a light blue Nissan Stanza.

They rose at 3:30 a.m., said good-night at midnight.

But every day, they found time to lay newspapers on the floor in their tiny apartment, sit in a circle -- Thai style -- and eat Pad Thai noodles from one large pot.

Finally, in 1993, with money pooled, the sisters bought a defunct restaurant in Dunedin.

"Every penny we had, my savings, my mother's savings went into the purchase. No loans," said Tapanee.

Soil sample taken, front door facing east, the Dunedin restaurant succeeded for years.

The sisters wanted more, to own the building. But the owner's asking price was high. And the sisters looked elsewhere, to South Howard, a dream location.

The connection was personal: "I used to babysit in this area on weekends," said Tapanee, who lives in Town 'n Country.

And the connection was financial: South Howard Avenue is one of Tampa Bay's finest restaurant rows.

On Dec. 9, 1999, Royal Palace Thai Restaurant opened its carved wooden doors to the public. The kitchen was half finished. The sign wasn't up.

But the monk said if they opened Dec. 9, they would have good fortune.

That first night, the restaurant was packed. And has been since.

The monk was right.

Still, the American dream wasn't reached until last year, when the sisters made their first television commercial. There, they were, among white tables and teak paneling, saying in unison: "Thai it, you'll like it."

Life is work, work, work, but every afternoon, after lunch and before dinner, the sisters eat together. Natchaya spoons stir fry onto blue and white plates. Peppery spices fill the air. So does laughter.

"We work hard," said Tapanee. "And we're happy to do it."

- Babita Persaud can be reached at 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com.

4 sisters, 1 restaurant

  • FIRST NAMES OF SISTERS: Natchaya, Nitchanan, Tapanee and Kasinee.
  • LAST NAME: Damrongwatanasuk.
  • LETTERS IN LAST NAME: 16.
  • HOW IT'S PRONOUNCED: Like it sounds.
  • HOME TOWN: Pitsanulok, in the central plains of Thailand.
  • TAPANEE'S LAST TRIP HOME: Nine years ago.
  • WHO NAMED ROYAL PALACE THAI? Tapanee's American husband, Randall Knowles.
  • "THAI IT, YOU'LL LIKE IT": Another of the husband's ideas.
  • SISTERS' LUCKY COLOR: Green.
  • DO SISTERS ARGUE? "Honestly, yes," said Tapanee.
  • THE GOOD NEWS: Disagreements don't last long.

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