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Friendly competition

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Supanan Pramoj and Usa Hongskula, owner of Noodle Nation and manager of Thai 65, respectively, have forged a friendship that transcends business.

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Supanan Pramoj, owner of Noodle Nation, prepares food Monday night.

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Usa Hongskula (left), manager, and Rattavut Smiti, owner, have managed Thai 65 since last October, when they bought it from Supanan Pramoj, current owner of Noodle Nation.

When Noodle Nation opened its doors among the bustling global food court known as University Way Northeast two weeks ago, Usa Hongskula began fielding the questions.

“I had 15 to 20 people calling me and my friends asking me if it was OK that they open right next to us,” said Hongskula, manager of Thai 65.

The concerns were valid. Here was Noodle Nation planting itself within the hotbed of Asian restaurants — Thai 65, Thaiger Room, Tara Thai Cuisine, Pho Tran, Best of Bento, China First and Thanh Vi — in between the Northeast 42nd Street and Northeast 43rd Street block of the Ave.

Hongskula assured his loyal customers that it was indeed all right. After all, he probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Noodle Nation.

THE CONNECTION

Supanan Pramoj had always dreamed of opening a noodle shop in the U-District. It’s taken quite some time for that vision to become a reality.

Pramoj came to the United States from Thailand 15 years ago and watched her cousin run his own restaurant in Fremont, Wash. Not too long after, it was her turn to run the show.

She opened Bellevue’s Nibbana Thai Cookery in 2003 and sold it to her cousin after a successful year. Then, Pramoj bought out a Chinese restaurant on the Ave.

Of course, this wasn’t going stay a Chinese restaurant. This was going to be Thai 65.

And so the spacious, open-kitchen Thai 65 opened in 2004. The soft-spoken, hard-working Pramoj would go on to open two more Thai 65s — one downtown, the other in Renton.

Enter Hongskula. The 36-year-old Bangkok native and Franklin High graduate was bouncing around retail jobs when he found a job at Racha, a Queen Anne Thai noodle cuisine. There, his boss told him about a new restaurant in Renton called — yes, you guessed it — Thai 65.

It was 2008 when Hongskula and Pramoj first met. The two worked together for a few years in Renton, and soon enough, Hongskula teamed up with a fellow investor and offered to buy the restaurant.

“He wanted to buy the Renton [Thai 65], and I said no,” Pramoj said. “That one is a really nice place, and over there, we can sell at higher prices.”

But the 42-year-old Pramoj was willing to offer the U-District Thai 65 under one condition.

“I told him that if I sell [Thai 65], I would like to open a Thai noodles shop in this area [in the future], and we decided that,” she said. “If they weren’t OK with that, I wasn’t going to sell.”

Hongskula had known about his boss’ ambitions for a while. “That project has been written for years,” he said. Along with his business partner Rattavut Smiti, the pair decided to add something to the agreement. They made sure that her shop would sell noodles and only noodles — no curry dishes, no rice dishes, no stir-fry dishes.

All of that was written in the agreement. The papers were signed, and Thai 65 was under new ownership, except one piece of information was missing from the agreement: location.

And wouldn’t you know it, six months later, Noodle Nation and its big silver sign replaced the old New China Express five doors down from Thai 65.

Surprised may be the best adjective to describe how Hongskula felt when he first found out where his former boss was going to be, but he says it didn’t really affect him or his friendship with Pramoj one way or another. He’s learned that he can only control the things he can control.

“She says she won’t sell anything but noodles. I trust that because it’s on paper,” Hongskula said. “Why bother worrying about that when you have your own problems? You got your own business to take care of, to go shopping for in the morning — you can’t worry too much about other things.”

Someone who knows a little about that is Kanlaya Khomthongstid, longtime owner of Little Thai at Northeast 42nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, just off the Ave. Along with her husband, she’s owned the restaurant since 1991 and has been through several ups and downs.

“Every time there is a new restaurant coming up, we are going to be affected by that,” said Khomthongstid, also a Bangkok native. “When they first open up, there’s always a long line — I’m used to it. The thing is that you can’t just give up. You have to be consistent with your food and quality and taste, and that’s what I try to do.”

Hongskula seems to share the same sentiment. He knows that the engine that drives the Ave will always be there — the nearly 100,000 people that make up UW’s students, staff and faculty — so keeping business alive means making sure your own restaurant is doing the right things to stay afloat.

“There are enough people to go around that you should worry about yourself and make sure your business is good,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”

After taking over last October, Hongskula has kept Thai 65 almost exactly the same as it’s been for the past seven years. For the most part, the menu is identical, the cooks and servers are all the same, and the interior has been only slightly altered.

And it seems as though the friendship between the new neighbors has been barely affected as well. Both have a certain level of respect for each other, not just as business competitors but as friends.

“I told her that I’m not going to go there and spy in the shadows during the busy time,” Hongskula said. “When I close at 10, I’ll head over there because I know them all. It’s not weird.”

Topics of discussion rarely circle around work between the two. Rather than profit margins or irritable customers, their talks are about everything other than Thai 65 or Noodle Nation.

“We talk about life, kids. I have one. She has three — she has a son that is one year older than mine,” Hongskula said. “We try not to talk about business.”

Perhaps the best example of the ongoing friendship between Hongskula and Pramoj occurred during Noodle Nation’s opening day.

“When we opened here on our first day, [Hongskula and the Thai 65 staff] came and ate,” Pramoj said. “We still talk a lot. We’re still friends.”

As long as the noodles stay noodles, this seems like only the beginning of a successful friendship.

Reach Managing Editor Taylor Soper at weekender@dailyuw.com.

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