Only two weeks after permanently closing its doors to loyal customers, Thai Elephant, a family-run restaurant that had made downtown Phoenix its home for the past four years, seemed to have unexpectedly reopened last week.
Despite the lack of the recognizable “Thai Elephant” sign above the double doors of the retail space on Adams Street and Central Avenue, the same waiters and waitresses greeted the regular lunch crowd and seated them at familiar booths.
After being handed the menu it became clear to patrons that Thai Elephant had not returned. Instead, a new restaurant — 5 R Cha Thai — had officially opened under the supervision of the same family that owned Thai Elephant.
Gigi Vo, owner of 5 R Cha Thai and sister of Thai Elephant Owner Noni Vo, decided to expand her business to the downtown retail space previously occupied by her older sister’s business only days before opening on Nov. 15.
“When you’ve been somewhere for so long, everyone knows who you are,” said Gigi, who had worked at the original Thai Elephant location since it opened. “We love everybody here. That’s why we decided to continue here.”
Since business was starting to drop because of other Thai restaurants opening nearby, Noni decided to retire as owner of Thai Elephant and made plans to move back to Thailand to care for their mother, Gigi said.
With Noni’s retirement and the closing of Thai Elephant’s Phoenix location, Gigi and her other sister took responsibility for operating the Tempe location of Thai Elephant until the lease ends, on top of running two 5 R Cha Thai restaurants in Tempe and Mesa that opened mid-year.
After taking over Thai Elephant in Tempe, Gigi said she noticed a lot of the regular downtown customers coming to Tempe to eat at Thai Elephant.
“Customers, they love us,” Gigi said. “Are we going to leave them? We can’t.”
Rather than inherit her sister’s business, Gigi said she and her other sister wanted to develop their own restaurant from the ground up, just as Noni did with Thai Elephant.
“We want to have our restaurant, but we don’t want to use Thai Elephant because we don’t want to take credit for what Noni Vo built,” Gigi said. “Thai Elephant starts from her, only from her.”
After years of working at Thai Elephant and studying the restaurant business with the help of Noni, Gigi said she was ready to launch her own business – 5 R Cha Thai, which operates differently based on location.
“We’re going to study and do research about what customers want in that area,” Gigi said. The Tempe location, which is located next to Thai Elephant, operates with a fast-food concept, while the Mesa and Phoenix locations are full service, she added.
While 5 R Cha Thai has a different menu than Thai Elephant, Gigi said she hopes the restaurant will retain Thai Elephant’s loyal customers by promoting that the new business is run by the same family.
“Even though we are not Noni Vo who opened up this (location), we are the same family who has been here since the first day we opened,” Gigi said. “We still keep the same quality of food, same quality of service and we will try to make it better.”
Ryan Baros, of Phoenix, and Lisa Marcus, of Gilbert, both recruiters working at the nearby Chase Tower, said they had been eating at Thai Elephant for more than a year before the restaurant closed.
“We miss the Elephant,” Baros said, adding they found it more authentic than the other Thai restaurants that had recently opened downtown.
After eating at 5 R Cha Thai for the first time, Baros and Marcus agreed the food was comparable to Thai Elephant and said they plan on coming back.
“It’s a loyalty place, especially to people who work down here and descend for lunch all at the same time,” Marcus said. “I would recommend this place to anyone.”
After opening three locations of 5 R Cha Thai within six months with a fourth on the way, Gigi said she is concerned that her business could face a similar fate as Thai Elephant, but is determined to keep Thai Elephant’s original location in the family.
“If the sale isn’t like what we had before, we have to find ways to cut the costs to survive,” Gigi said, adding that business has been slower than she expected since opening. “We will try to make it happen because it is the first one that my sister opened up and we’ve been here for a long time.”
More than 40 restaurants have opened downtown over the past three years because the market is continuing to expand with more students and workers, said David Roderique, president of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.
“It’s a much better market than it was five years ago,” Roderique said. “Even in the best of times, there is restaurant turnover. It really depends on what they do in the kitchen and how they operate.”
The youngest of the three Vo sisters, Gigi said she is confident in Thai Elephant’s regular customers to make 5 R Cha Thai successful, along with the support of her family.
“We’re close with each other,” she said. “Sometimes we fight a lot. But like a normal family, when we have problems, when we have difficult times, they’re going to help.”
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