Then & Now: Mon Thong thrives on great dining experience

Nearly 30 years since opening Mon Thong Joe and Sunee Karunyasopon are still serving delicious and affordable Thai meals.

Mon Thong owners Joe and Sunee Karunyasopon.

Local restaurateur Joe Karunyasopon got into the restaurant business by accident.

But nearly 30 years later, his restaurant Mon Thong is still serving delicious and affordable curries, stir fries, soups, salads and Pad Thai.

Twenty-seven years ago, Mon Thong owner Joe Karunyasopon was living in Vancouver with his wife when family friends invited them to become partners in a new  Kelowna restaurant.

And although the Karunyasopons never thought they’d become the sole owners, the family now owns a chain of restaurants across Kelowna.

“We came up to Kelowna to help my friend open the restaurant,” Karunyasopon recalls.

“But the liquor board didn’t allow him to operate the business because he had a criminal record. So my wife and I had to take over.”

The family quickly found that the people in Kelowna were very welcoming.

With a number of great staff on hand, they worked hard to make the restaurant a success—and they found that they loved the new culture.

“The culture here is very different from Thailand’s culture,” Karunyasopon says.

“The labour laws are quite different. In Thailand, the employer has much more power.

“But here, it’s equal. I like that.”

Over the years, the family found the Thai food industry became increasingly competitive as large corporations like Costco started offering Thai dishes.

But in spite of competitive pressure, Mon Thong stayed true to its values—and found success because of it.

“Costco is a big competitor, but at Costco, the food is all pre-made. Nowadays, a lot of restaurants are serving pre-made food,” he explains.

“Not many restaurants are doing something unique—everybody copies everybody else. When you come here, you get fresh food.”

He notes that while a number of casual dining hotspots are trying to add Thai food to their menus, there are very few who can actually cook a proper Thai meal.

“Thai food requires a very specific cooking style,” Karunyasopon notes.

“In Thailand, mom and dad teach the children how to cook from day one. When I was growing up, it was expected that the women would learn how to cook.

“If you bring a Thai woman into a restaurant, she can cook professionally within just a few months because she’s already learned the basics.”

He says that for would-be entrepreneurs and restaurant owners, finding the right people is critical.

“The restaurant business is very tough, and it’s hard to find people you can trust. I’m not a risk-taking person, but once you jump onto the tiger’s back, there’s no way off unless you want to get eaten. I have a big family that I need to support.

“I keep going with this restaurant because I want to help my family.”

And although Mon Thong’s fare gets top ratings on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, for Karunyasopon, it’s not just about the food.

“The customers are amazing,” he says. “I got into badminton because I met people at the restaurant who play badminton.

“I joke and chat with them. I love meeting new people. It’s fun.”