Thai House celebrates 25 years

Looking back, Patrick Chen would have been considered quite a trailblazer in 1980.

Although Richmond was home to one Chinese restaurant -- the Bamboo Grove, which opened in 1963 -- Chen offered up something that wasn't in Richmond at the time.

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According to his son, Desmond Chen, his father introduced live seafood and authentic Chinese food when he opened the doors of the Unicorn on No. 3 Road and Westminster Highway.

"My dad was an entrepreneur at heart and a pioneer, who was always looking for the next, new idea," said son, Chen, who now runs the Thai House Restaurant Group. "At the time, Chinese restaurants were catering to the Caucasian palate so the food was westernized, but Dad decided to stay true to Chinese food and serve it as authentically as possible.

"He loved to deliver new and unique experiences for his clients."

The Unicorn was a Richmond fixture for five years before Chen's father sold it.

"The new owner changed the name," said Chen, who attended elementary school in Richmond before the family moved to Vancouver.

In another bold move, Patrick Chen, 65, introduced many Vancouverites to Thai food.

"In 1985, my dad discovered Thai food while in Thailand and fell in love with the cuisine," said the 37-year-old. "With Expo 1986 just around the corner, Dad decided to open his first Thai House Restaurant on Robson Street."

Today, the Thai House Restaurant Group is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The company has grown to include nine restaurants and more than 200 employees across the Lower Mainland.

Recently, the group of restaurants unveiled its newest addition to the family -- the Pink Elephant Thai in downtown Vancouver.

The Richmond Thai House opened its doors in 1989, the third of five.

Patrick Chen's road to success began when he immigrated with his family to Canada from Hong Kong in the late sixties. He studied food and beverage at BCIT.

"While Dad was at BCIT, he worked part-time in the restaurant at the Pacific Palisades Hotel," said Chen. "Although no one in his family was in the food industry, it was his dream to one day own his own restaurant."

Chen literally grew up in the business. He came on board the family chain of restaurants as a teen.

"At 13, I was a kitchen assistant, which meant I washed dishes," he quipped, adding he went full time in 1987. "My dad made me learn the ropes from the ground up .... He never showed any favouritism, he wanted me to learn the value of money."

Chen, along with his father and their executive chef Lek Tendonioe, who has been at the helm since 1986, head to Thailand for an annual food pilgrimage. If they're successful, the trio returns with new recipes, new cooking techniques and hopefully, a new chef recruit or two.

"If we discover a new dish, we try them out on our staff before they ever end up on the menu," said Chen. "At the Thai House, we have more than 100 items on the menu."

The Thai House Group has expanded into authentic Thai sauces for purchase and there are plans to add ready-to-eat meals within the next six months.

"We want to build a centralized kitchen so that we can offer ready-to-eat fresh meals in our restaurants," added Chen.

There is also talk of franchising.

"However, we don't want to rush expansion," added Chen.

mhopkins@richmond-news.com

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