Brothers Vong Soutavong and Aroon Onchumchit are very familiar with the concept of a tight-knit community.
Their restaurant Thai Fresh, located near Southeast Division and 85th, is a family affair. While they run the front of the house, their sister Kemphone and her husband Thongbay are busy in the kitchen. They are one of the many businesses in the area partnering with the Jade District, contributing input (and tasty food) to the district’s events and gatherings.
On starting out in the neighborhood…
Vong: My brother and I both lost our jobs back in 2008. I did quality assurance in engineering solutions for hydraulic seals for the last 10 years. That’s what I know to do, but when we lost our jobs our sister called. She and her husband had been cooking Thai food for 30 years, and they asked us if we would like to open a restaurant together, and we both agreed that sounded like a great idea!
So we went searching for a location for the restaurant, but most of the ones we found were prime real estate and too spendy for us. But then this new spot became available, and it was on Division near 82nd. We knew there were a lot of Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants and groceries, and no other ethnic foods yet except those ones as well as Mexican. We decided why not try this area? Maybe we could give the neighborhood a “new flavor.”
Aroon: At first we were scared because there were just a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese businesses, and we didn’t know if we would be able to make it. But in the first year those local people and business owners started to come in and tell us they were thrilled we opened up in this location, because they wanted to see something different.
On what it means to be a part of the Jade District…
Vong: I’ve become more involved with Todd [Struble], Duncan [Hwang] and the Jade District over the years, trying to get connected with the neighborhood now that we a part of it. And now with the Jade District in full swing, we can get even more involved with the community, giving our ideas and helping with events. We helped donate food and help during the most recent “Polishing the Jade” event, which had the Mayor show up and help out.
Aroon: We try to do as much business as we can in our local community, shopping locally at the stores around us, because we like to get ingredients as fresh as possible. Definitely, when summer time happens, and farmers markets open, we get the freshest ingredients. We like keeping our money in the neighborhood, keeping that circle going.
On what they’d like to see change…
Vong: It’s exciting to see the neighborhood evolving into something new, something exciting – trying to improve itself and improve the living space. I would love to see the neighborhood streets become more pedestrian-friendly, with safer crossings. We need better crosswalks, because we have lots of older people in the neighborhood and some have been involved in some bad accidents. There’s an overpass right here Division, but they can’t or don’t want to risk climbing the steep staircase.
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