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IWD story – From a food stall in Bangkok to running 17 thai restaurants


AS A successful female leader in the hospitality industry, this International Women’s Day, Owner and Head Chef at Thai Leisure Group, Kim Kaewkraikhot, shares her journey from running a street food stall on the streets of Bangkok, to owning more than 17 Thai restaurants across the UK.

Kim was born in Kirimart Village, Thailand, where she grew up as part of a large and close-nit family. Kim didn’t have the easiest of upbringings, she lost her father and brother at a young age and had limited access to education. However, she always had a passion for food. Her first taste of cooking was at home with her mum, and she knew from a young age this was something she wanted to pursue.

Kim commented: “It was very different growing up in Thailand. Times were tough but I had a big family and we would always work together. We loved to go out fishing and cooked together as a family – I think deep down I always knew I wanted to work with food. We lived in a very poor area where cooking with fresh local ingredients was not only a necessity but an escape.”

At the age of 15, Kim left her village for the bustling streets of Bangkok to expand her knowledge of Thai cuisine and where, after setting up her own garment factory, she went on to open her own small Pad Thai cart in 1993. To this day, Kim’s Pad Thai recipe is the most popular dish throughout all Thai Leisure Group sites and one that is close to her heart.

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A few years later, Kim was working on her infamous cart when a group of Englishmen came to try it out. Her now partner, Martin, was visiting Thailand on holiday when he convinced his friends to try out Kim’s Pad Thai and he fell in love. In 1999, Kim moved to the UK where she started off working as a waitress and kitchen porter then set up a Thai restaurant with her twin sister. This partnership came to an end and in 2004 Martin and Kim started their journey of making their vision and dream a reality – opening their first restaurant, Chaophraya, in Leeds, Martin’s home town.

After the success of Chaophraya in Leeds, the feedback and passion from guests was overwhelming and spurred Kim on to create a second brand, Thaikhun (pronounced Tycoon). She added:

“We opened multiple Chaophraya restaurants across the country and then saw a gap in the market and had ideas for a more casual dining brand that did not fit with our Chaophraya audience.”

It was then that Thaikhun brand was born – a casual, street food style restaurant which is family friendly, authentic and playful.

No matter what gender you identify as, being a business owner in the hospitality industry is a challenge and in recent years, more so than ever before. But, Kim has found that by staying true to her values and having a strong team beside her, who are willing to both challenge and support, it is much more manageable.

The hospitality industry is heavily dominated by males however it is part of Kim’s mission to invest in and progress females within the business.

“There are talented females across every department of our group and by nourishing this talent there is no reason why, alongside passion and hard work, these team members cannot progress to board level.”

As well as running the wider Thai Leisure Group business, being part of the kitchen team is also an integral part of Kim’s role.

“Outside of Thai Leisure Group, I sometimes find it challenging to communicate with others in the industry due to the language barrier however I have found communication comes in so many more ways than through speaking. It comes through the skill of showcasing your passion through food and service and that is what I focus on.”

 Providing a True Sense of Thailand

When starting her business, Kim knew she wanted to give diners a true taste of what Thailand has to offer in whichever form this may be.

“Our Thaikhun brand is like walking straight onto Khao San Road, we have imported bric-a-brac from market stalls in Bangkok for the truest authentic feel within our venues. Whereas Chaophraya focuses on the finer details, it is more of what we call ‘occasion dining’. 

“Thaikhun is our authentic, casual street food experience whereas Chaophraya takes a modern and contemporary twist on traditional Thai cuisine. We believe both of our core brands are more than just the food, they’re about an overall experience and feeling.”

To recreate her dishes, Kim employs mainly Thai chefs, so not only is she bringing a flavour of Thailand to the UK, she is creating hundreds of jobs nationwide. Thai Leisure Group currently employs 679 members of staff from 39 different nationalities.

Kim visits Thailand regularly to see friends and family, as well as to source and bring back innovative and traditional ideas to ensure her position as the leading Thai restaurant group across the country.

Both Kim and Martin still love eating from the street food sellers in Bangkok when they visit Thailand.

“I try to go back once a year as my mum still lives over there. It’s great to go to all of the street vendors and new restaurants then go home and try out the dishes for my mum. She has the final say after all!”

The key to success 

There are now nine Chaophraya restaurants across the country and 20 sites under the Thai Leisure Group umbrella.

“Martin and I always had a dream of owning our own restaurant and we are so lucky that this came true. I still pinch myself now, I can’t believe we have 20 restaurants across the UK. 

Although Kim is now an extremely successful business woman, she started from scratch, and her success is down to her positive attitude and determination.

“Being a good leader in this industry requires an abundance of skills. You need to show attention to detail, be able to multitask, have an excellent understanding of cleanliness and safety/allergens, as well as cooking techniques and culinary expertise.

“My advice to anyone trying to make their dream a reality is to follow your heart and trust your instincts. There will always be people who tell you that you can’t win and that ‘it won’t work’ but if you truly believe in your vision, then persevere and you will be glad that you did.”

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