Yes, noodle soup! is a Thai restaurant that has just opened in the dining space occupied by The Diner on Illinois Street.
The diner had served an old-fashioned Americana menu. Yes, noodle soup! offers American guests a traditional Thai staple: noodle soup.
The family-run restaurant has just about everything customers could want – fresh ingredients, delicious presentations and owners intent on keeping diners happy. Now Tata Jongharn and his wife Hui just need customers.
“People in Fairbanks don’t know us yet,” Jongharn said recently on a weekday evening when only two booths were manned by individual guests. “Sales weren’t good. With inflation and meat prices – chicken, beef and pork – things are challenging.”
Jongharn, who is from Thailand, knows the restaurant business well and has been a chef for most of his adult life.
He grew up with both of his parents working as chefs in restaurants in Fairbanks and beyond. His grandmother is also a professional chef who prepares her homemade American-style burgers at Yes, Noodle Soup!
Yes, noodle soup! Opened in early April, Jongharn said he hasn’t seen many customers for his homemade Thai noodle soups, which are a staple comfort food in his home country.
In Fairbanks, a city that loves burgers and pizza places, is there an appetite for hot noodle soup during an unseasonably warm Alaskan summer?
In this new era of food delivery, traveling with takeout bowls of soup presents a challenge, even when they’re in styrofoam containers with lids.
Yes, noodle soup! In fact, there are loads of pasta dishes, all with fresh vegetables, in homemade broth. Everything is made to order. The soups are served with either chicken, pork or beef.
The restaurant also offers popular Thai standards like drunken noodles and different variations of stir-fried vegetables. The focus, however, is on traditional Thai soups—guay tiew—with rice noodles, scallions, and soybean sprouts in a garlic broth.
There is also Guay Tiew Tom Yum, a hot and sour version with chilli paste, tomatoes and lemongrass. And Guay Tiew Thom-Kha is a popular alternative in coconut broth flavored with lemongrass, lime leaves, and mushrooms.
As business slows, Jongharn hopes the pair can build enough regular customers to keep going during the cooler months, when people tend to crave hot, healthy soups.
Jongharn said he and his wife were inspired to open a restaurant when they noticed Fairbanks didn’t have a noodle soup restaurant like they see in Thailand.
Starting a small business
With their restaurant less than three months old, Jongharn and his wife quickly learn the hard lessons of starting a small business.
Even in a strong economy, 20% of startups fail in their first year, according to the US Small Business Administration. Half fail within five years.
Yes, noodle soup! has other challenges. The restaurant is in a location away from the retail hub of downtown shops and restaurants.
The building at 244 Illinois St. is flanked by a vacant lot on one side and a supermarket plaza on the other. It is not easy to drive into the small parking lot and there is no foot traffic in the area.
For now, Jongharn hopes that Yes! Noodle Soup will build a following that will see his restaurant as a target.
He is also practical and continues his job as Restaurant Manager at an established Thai restaurant in Fairbanks where he has worked for 10 years.
If yes! Noodle soup, his mother offers burgers for customers who want American dishes. But she recently injured her knee and hasn’t recovered enough to return to the restaurant just when they need her most.
Jongharn said that even with a small number of customers, he felt a strong sense of satisfaction when he saw people tasting his soups, which are served in oversized bowls.
Starting at $14.95, a bowl of soup is a meal in itself. When people put down their spoons and raise the bowls to their mouths, Jongharn knows they’re enjoying the meals just as much as he enjoys preparing them.
“I’m happy when I see that my customers are happy and like the food,” said Jongharn. “When they eat and are happy, I know I’ve done my job.”