Win and Sutida Somboonsong have been deflecting a lot of Stephen Starr comparisons lately. And if you’ve been keeping up with local restaurant news, that should come as no surprise. In July, this under-the-radar culinary power couple opened Azie on Main, former home of the ill-fated Maia, in Villanova.
All the while, they had another project in the works for the Newtown Square space once occupied by Roux 3 bistro. The Win dynasty’s latest addition is named after the youngest of the couple’s four kids, Parker, who’s not quite 2 years old. Not your typical hibachi-style Japanese steakhouse, Parker’s Prime offers Angus, Wagyu, Kobe and other select cuts, plus a well-stocked floor-to-ceiling wine tower featuring at least 130 bottles. Its chef, Daniel Mallet, honed his chops at a Virginia steakhouse.
In this perilous economic climate, taking on two new projects at once may seem a tad risky. But the Somboonsongs seem to be channeling a Buddha-like Zen these days.
“We opened Thai Pepper in Ardmore in 1992—right in the middle of the last recession,” says Win. “Everybody asked us the same thing, but we had a full house the first night. And for the next six months, the restaurant was always booked.”
Adds Sutida, “There are customers out there who appreciate what we’re doing and can afford to dine out—even in this economy. If we offer good food, good service and good prices, we’ll be at the top of the list when they’re thinking about where to go.”
Back in ’92, Thai Pepper was a trendsetter for its bold fusion fare, deftly balanced with traditional flavors and techniques, and its modern, artistic styling. When the Somboonsongs took their brand west, the new Thai Pepper—now Flavor—quickly garnered an equally devoted audience.
But it wasn’t until the Somboonsongs revived the former Bobby’s Seafood location along Route 3 in Newtown Square that they were regarded as forward-thinking restaurateurs. Designed to resemble a Japanese lodge in “the middle of nowhere,” Teikoku had the whole package—trendy, innovative food and drink (they led the pack in extensive sake offerings) and a well-conceived, themed look complete with an enormous communal table and an equally roomy sushi bar. The idea was for customers to come, unwind, meet other patrons and enjoy traditional Japanese dishes with a little unexpected flair.
Teikoku catapulted the Somboonsongs to a level on par with the team behind Berwyn’s Nectar and, yes, even Stephen Starr. All see the merit in creating a dramatic space—and selling dining as entertainment. “People want to feel ‘different’ when they go out to eat; they want to feel like a star,” says Win. “Eye-catching design plays into that.”
Music is also important to Win, who’s the company’s official DJ, providing the music for its seven restaurants, with recommendations from his children and staff. It’s Sutida’s nurturing that provides the inviting ambiance and makes the staff feel like its part of a family. Employee retention is not an issue.
Sutida earned a graphic design degree from Harcum College, though she felt the allure of owning a restaurant.
“I said ‘OK,’” says Win, who was in the Navy when Thai Pepper opened. “All of her sisters were politicians in Thailand, and I knew she wasn’t going to sit still.”
Sutida “borrowed” a chef from her uncle, who had a restaurant in Boston. Within six months, said chef and the manager were gone, and the couple had to fend for themselves. “It was the fastest way to learn the business,” she says.
A sizable portion of the Somboonsongs’ success can be attributed to a perfect balance of consistency and creativity, and an acute awareness of just how much to test customers’ palates. Some dishes may come off as Americanized, but from the kitchen’s perspective, the cooking reflects a more evolved and contemporary Asian cuisine in which the focus is less on the exotic and unfamiliar, and more on light, healthy ingredients.
So while each restaurant maintains a certain individuality by sticking with its respective regional cuisine, the unifying elements are the fresh, straightforward components, bold textures and color, and layered flavor profiles that allow ingredients to shine individually and collectively, regardless of how they’re combined. A recent visit to Azie on Main offered a dazzling mix of sashimi and raw oysters, and the pork chop at both Azie locations has drawn raves from Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan.
Still, the Somboonsongs are savvy enough to realize that too much change isn’t what Main Liners want from their local eateries. So when they hired former Iron Chef competitor Takao Iinuma to shake things up at Teikoku, they took a measured approach to tweaking the menu. “Chef Iinuma was sly,” says Sutida. “He observed what customers were and weren’t ordering, and then slowly started adding new things to the menu while taking some things away.”
Iinuma soon began transforming all the Win Signature Restaurants. Last fall, Mikado and Thai Pepper in Ardmore received an interior overhaul and the menus were merged, giving customers the best of both worlds, not to mention a taste of what was being served at Azie and Teikoku. All in all, it signified a positive transformation from both the patrons’ and owners’ perspectives.
When it came to prices, the Somboonsongs had largely escaped criticism. That changed when they opened Azie in Media, undoubtedly the most urban and sleek restaurant on State Street—and likely the most expensive to open. Dinner entrées there range from $18-$30, and appetizers (other than sushi/sashimi) $5-$20.
At Azie’s Villanova cousin, entrées run as high as $38. Apps (other than sushi/sashimi) are $14-$26. It’s not clear yet if the more exclusive zip code will make a difference in price perception, but both Somboonsongs do believe they’re meeting customers’ expectations and offering fair price points based on expenses.
“Our landlord commented on the concept and the prices; he thought they were affordable, so we’ll see,” says Win. “Let’s face it—ingredients aren’t the cheapest right now.”
Nor is the Somboonsongs’ overhead, which includes mortgages on Teikoku and Azie, rent for the other four properties, and wages for 200-plus employees. “When payday comes around, it’s like ‘Wow!’” says Win.
During the first two years, the company lost money at Teikoku, but Mikado “supported that,” says Win. Now, maybe it’s Teikoku supporting Mikado. “Like everything, it’s a balancing act,” he adds. “Other locations need to support new operations for a couple of years.”
Win’s business model leaves no room for any investors other than family members. This puts the duo on surer footing than if they had to answer to investors like the ones they met while searching out a second location for Azie. (Though they were approached by the Starr team, the Somboonsongs stuck to their game plan.)
Along with the Starr comparison comes the inevitable question of how to retain individuality among seven restaurants that are all overseen by the same executive chef. “There is a good dialogue between chef Iinuma and the chefs de cuisine,” says Sutida. “He doesn’t act autonomously, and actually encourages them to be more creative and bring their own flair to the restaurant.”
Truth be told, neither Somboonsong worries much about overlapping dishes. “If it sells, why not?” both say.
“You move with the cheese,” says Win, in reference to Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, the no-nonsense book by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard. “We have our main identity, but we are not stationary.”
THE WIN DYNASTY
Azie: 217-219 W. State St., Media; (610) 566-4750, azie-restaurant.com
Azie on Main: 789 E. Lancaster Ave., Villanova; (610) 527-5700, azieonmain.com
Flavor: 372 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne; (610) 688-5853, flavorwayne.com
Mikado: 66 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; (610) 645-5592, mikadothaipepper.com
Parker’s Prime: 4755 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square; (610) 353-5353, parkersprime.com
Teikoku: 5492 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square; (610) 644-8270, teikokurestaurant.com
Thai Pepper: 64 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; (610) 642-5951, mikadothaipepper.com