On a typical day, owner and manager Aya Amornpan manages the business side of Imm Thai Street Food, while her husband, Note Mansawataphaiboon, the restaurant’s co-owner and chef, arrives at the restaurant in Downtown Berkeley to prepare fresh curry sauces.
Founded in 2014, Imm Thai serves Bangkok street food at the intersection of University and Shattuck avenues. Usually reliant on student dining, the restaurant is staying open by maintaining a tight bottom line, employing a small staff of full-time employees and relying on the business of Berkeley residents.
Amornpan and Mansawataphaiboon moved from Bangkok to Berkeley as international students in 2003. Amorpan said she saw a gap in what other Thai restaurants in Berkeley had to offer, and, in 2014, the couple decided to open its own business.
“In the Berkeley area, there’s a lot of Thai restaurants already, but none of them can provide the real street food,” Amornpan said. “I just wanted to provide Berkeley with the real Bangkok experience.”
Amornpan said, while lots of local restaurants serve dishes such as pad thai, Imm Thai serves food such as su kho thai noodle soups, which she called a unique menu item.
The couple designed Imm Thai using a “made-to-order” concept, which Amornpan said targets college students by aiming to serve good meals at a reasonable price.
Normally, campus students drive about 70% of Imm Thai’s revenue. Since many students left campus this spring, the restaurant’s services have slowed down.
Uncertain about what will happen in the fall, Amornpan is using her savings to keep the restaurant open.
“The challenge is to try to survive,” Amornpan said. “We can’t make any profit at all, but at least we still provide jobs for the employees.”
While student dining has slowed, some of the restaurant’s neighbors have organized to pick up the slack.
In April, Amornpan’s neighbor Jamie Greenblatt organized a “virtual block party,” in which Amornpan delivered soup to different houses on the block. Residents then enjoyed a meal from Imm Thai on Zoom together.
“Since they gave us hot sauce, the meal got to linger,” Greenblatt said.
For now, Imm Thai is just open for takeout — although Alameda County opened for outdoor dining in late June, Imm Thai’s owners said they hope to keep their team safe by maintaining a small bubble of employees focused on takeout.
“We’re still doing OK through word-of-mouth, Cal students and social media,” Amornpan said.