Grad Dishes Up Fresh Fusion in Winter Park

Hospitality is one of the most notoriously difficult markets to break into. It’s estimated that more than half of all new restaurants fold within their first year. With so much at stake, budding restauranteurs often turn to gimmicks in order to set themselves apart.

As co-owner and manager of KrungThep Tea Time in Winter Park, FL, 2012 Entertainment Business grad Pemika Assawasoponkul has her own idea about what makes a brand successful. The bright, airy cafe space serves to highlight the real star of her business—the amazing food and drink.

“I wanted to make something authentic but also unique,” says Pemika. “There are many Thai restaurants in town, but I had never had a Thai-inspired sandwich before. I started experimenting with recipes, and found that Thai sauces and herbs are good on just about anything.”

KrungThep’s menu features dishes inspired by traditional Thai cuisine. Spicy gra-pow chicken blends with mozzarella, fresh basil, and local five grain bread for a fresh take on a grilled cheese. Conventional dishes like tom yum soup are deconstructed and re-imagined as salads. Fans of curry will find the menu loaded with options, each featuring a unique twist on old favorites. For desert, KrungThep offers several varieties of “brick toast,” a treat popular throughout Japan and Southeast Asia consisting of honey soaked toast topped with decadent accouterments like Nutella and fruit. They also carry an impressive array of teas, many of which Pemika, who hails from California by way of Bangkok, discovered while traveling.

The name KrungThep derives from the ceremonial name for Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city. It’s a name most commonly used by locals, and one Pemika felt it was an appropriate nod to a city that is commonly misunderstood.

“Customers will sometimes tell me about their experience [traveling to Bangkok], and they always mention the nightlife. There are a lot of associations, and not all of them reflect the Thailand I know. I wanted to call the restaurant something that would be familiar to Thai people and also provide insight into our culture.”

The decision to enter the restaurant business wasn’t much of a leap for Pemika. Her father runs a hotel in Thailand, and he encouraged her to try her hand at hospitality.

“He wanted me to come back and work for him, but the hotel seemed too big for me to manage. This is a similar industry, but on a much smaller scale,” she says.

Which isn’t to say that breaking in to the business has been smooth sailing. After scouting locations for a few years, Pemika realized that her ideal space—open, bright, and affordable—didn’t exist. In order to achieve the atmosphere she wanted, she would have to oversee an extensive remodel.

“The day I signed the lease, I nearly cried,” she recalls. “There were black lights and ugly wood paneling on the walls. I couldn’t imagine the work we had ahead of us. But the physical location felt right.”

For the design, she and her business partner went with a neutral color palate.

“We wanted the inside to be classy, with lots of wood and earth tones. The focal point of the bar is the lighted sign. We wanted that to pop, so we went with a dark gray for the walls.”

Now nearly a year in, KrungThep is thriving. Success is sweet for Pemika, who is looking to expand in the future.

“I would love to open a second location in a city like Los Angeles or Boston,” she says. “Eventually, I’d like to build the brand and bring it back to Thailand. For me, this is about culture—bringing the best of my own culture to the rest of the world.”