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EYE ON BUSINESS: Lake Placid’s Little Thai Kitchen opens amid pandemic

Nu Ratanaboka cooks in the kitchen at Little Thai Kitchen on Tuesday, July 14. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — He went to school for surgical technology. She went to school for fashion merchandising. Now, William and Nee Gilbert are the owners of Lake Placid’s only Thai restaurant.

The Gilberts, alongside partner Nu Ratanaboka, signed the lease for their Saranac Avenue location behind Saranac Sourdough several months ago. They were looking forward to opening their new restaurant, the Little Thai Kitchen.

At the time, widespread shutdowns in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus hadn’t happened yet. But that changed quickly.

“We didn’t think anything like this would happen. Nobody did,” William said.

The Gilberts know the restaurant business well, having owned the popular Plattsburgh restaurant Sawatdee for over a decade now. The pandemic, however, created an unfamiliar economic landscape. Gilbert said they had a choice to make.

(News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

“We were so scared. We were like, ‘Oh god, what are we going to do?’ Luckily, my landlord understood that we can either make it work together — because we’re all in it together — and see what we can do, or we can just give up. So all of us decided, let’s just go forward and start out doing some take-out,” William said.

Staffing was a challenge at first because travel restrictions put in place blocked some of the people who they’d planned to hire from being able to come to the area. And it’s still is a challenge. With many J-1 students unable to study in the area right now, the already limited worker pool has been further diminished, exacerbating existing workforce shortages for many local businesses.

As far as the community’s reception to the new business — they needn’t have worried. Although the business started out with opening for just five hours on June 20, their first order came one minute after they opened their doors.

“The phone just went crazy,” William said. “I’m like, ‘This is bizarre.’ I never thought it was going to happen.

“The very first lady that called at 3:01 — I’ll always remember this — the very first thing she said was, ‘Thank you so much for coming down here and giving us Thai food.’ Ever since then, the local crowd has been very supportive.”

Pathways

William grew up in Washington, Vermont. He moved to California to attend school and study surgical technology. It was at the intersection of the historic Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco that a decision was made that would change his life.

After eating out at a Thai restaurant, one of his friends shared his interest in one of the waitresses who worked there. William encouraged him to ask her out, and the waitress ultimately agreed to the date — if she could bring a friend with her.

That friend was Nee, who was studying fashion merchandising.

Over time, they developed a friendship and then a marriage.

After the wedding, the Gilberts decided they wanted to raise their children in the Northeast, so they moved to Plattsburgh. But it wasn’t an easy transition.

“We came back here and there wasn’t a lot of jobs,” William said.

They spotted an old, tiny restaurant on Bridge Street for sale. At first, the couple toyed with the idea of buying it — but William didn’t think they actually would. Then Nee made a decision.

“She said, ‘I think we’re going to buy a restaurant.’ What do we know about running a restaurant?” William said.

They took the plunge, opening the first Sawatdee location in the city Plattsburgh in 2008.

“It did not go over well for the first six months,” William said. “After six months, we were kind of like, ‘Geez, I don’t think these people are interested in Thai food.'”

Yet they pushed forward, and eventually the business took off. Students from SUNY Plattsburgh’s international student program started stopping by for take-out. Workers from the emergency room at Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital started visiting. William said when they decided in 2014 to move the flagship restaurant to its current location on state Route 3 in the town of Plattsburgh, the business reached a new level entirely — attracting not only their loyal customers downtown but also visitors staying in nearby hotels.

“It wasn’t easy. We literally had to build the business one plate at a time,” William said.

Countless customers from Lake Placid have asked for the couple to open a restaurant here over the years. So with the help of Nu, a friend from California, they did.

Arrival

In the last few weeks, William has seen a few local favorite dishes emerge.

“People in Lake Placid love green curry,” he said. “We have gone through so much curry, green curry. I don’t know what it is,” he said. “And duck. We’ve sold more cases of duck in one week in Lake Placid than we do in a month in Plattsburgh.”

The menu at the Little Thai Kitchen, as well as the menu at Swatdee, was the brainchild of William’s wife, who is from Thailand and knows some Thai chefs.

The menu is filled with diverse options, from dishes that will likely be familiar — like wonton soup, spring rolls, dim sum and pad thai — to those that may not be, like kao soi curry, a mildly-spicy, creamy curry topped with fried onions, red onions, scallions and cilantro; red curry duck and tom kha gai, a coconut soup.

There are also desserts, such as sweet sticky rice with Thai custard and fried bananas served with vanilla ice cream.

The restaurant, located at 2126 Saranac Ave., is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, and from 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. for dinner. They’re open for both dine-in and take-out. The business is currently looking for servers and dishwashers.