Thank you Small Business BC for this interview.
Mild Napatsanan knows a thing or two about the food business. After all, she’s successfully founded several of them. Mild’s mission is to share her love of Thai food with the world. She achieves this goal through her Thai Roots Trading import business, and her Wela Progressive Health Bar restaurant in North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay.
“Thai Roots got started purely because of the true love I have for Thai food. I am a foodie who loves exploring new foods wherever I go. But no matter where I go, I always come back to my roots, which is Thai food.
“I was so fascinated by the thought of seeing people enjoying the secret of our flavourful Thai food – which is the balance of five flavours: sour, sweet, spicy, salty and bitter – that it got me thinking about turning my passion into something to share with the rest of the world.”
Learning on the Job
Before Mild dived into the world of entrepreneurship, she worked a desk job at RBC bank. During regular trips back to Thailand, she saw the opportunity to turn her love of Thai food into a business. She started small, importing delicious coconut chips after discovering her network of friends loved them, and couldn’t find them in Canada.
“On my trips home, I would always bring back these amazing coconut chips to share with my friends. They loved them, and wanted to know where they could by them in Canada. I wasn’t able to find them, so it set the wheels in motion and I started putting my business plan together.
“It’s been a constant learning curve since then, but that isn’t a bad thing! The life of an entrepreneur is motivating me to improve myself every single day,” said Mild.
“Everyday is a new day for me. It motivates me to learn new things and do things differently and more efficiently than yesterday. For example, I’ve become way more sociable because of my business. I love to network and help people in my network as much as I can. The entrepreneurial community in Vancouver is a close-knit one. We all support each other as it will help us all to grow together.
“You also have to accept your time is precious. Every day is a potential work day, you have to get out of the ‘clock out at 5pm mentality’. Your responsibility becomes huge. You have to become a master of letting things go and moving on, otherwise it would just be too stressful to continue.”
Panda Coconut chips proved a smash hit, gaining a Canada-wide distribution deal with Whole Foods. Mild’s next step was to look at importing more Thai food into Canada.
To achieve the unique flavours it is known for, Thai food leans on ingredients that need to be imported. To get Thai Roots Trading off the ground, Mild had to learn how to meet the required import regulations, as well as work on her patience.
“When I found out about some of the licensing I was surprised! To give an example, we use fish sauce in Thai products. We are well known for fish sauce; we love it and we put it in most of our dishes. When I looked into importing the fish sauce it took me eight months to figure out how to get the right licensing and satisfy all of the regulations.
“Even now, we can sometimes have inspections that cause us delays in delivering products to stores but I understand why it’s needed, it’s not a big deal. I’ve learned that being patient is key. You need patience every day as a business owner.”
Opening a Restaurant
Never one to sit still, Mild wanted to cook up new ways of spreading her love of Thai food with the world. She hit upon the idea of opening her own restaurant, achieving the goal toward the end of 2019. Located in North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay, Wela Progressive Health Bar offers a menu of tasty treats, sprinkled with some Thai flare.
“I always have these ideas in my head and I wanted to try and open a restaurant for a long time. With Wela Health Bar we wanted to offer healthy food with some of that Thai flare and flavor. For example, we have roasted cauliflower Thai curry that is really tasty and really healthy. We also offer lots of traditional juices and smoothies.
“It’s definitely more of a fusion concept for a restaurant, not fully Thai. With Thai Roots Trading taking up so much of my time, I only invest about 20 per cent of my time in the restaurant business. Even though it seems like a short time to spend on it, I’m so passionate about it.”
In February 2019, Mild’s importing efforts were rewarded with the Best International Trade Award at the Small Business BC Awards. The recognition she received in front of 600 peers at Vancouver Convention Centre has provided a launchpad for her future success.
“The awards was such an amazing experience for me and I’m so thankful for it. Winning really helped me to gain my confidence as a business owner, that I belonged and what I was offering was a really good product.
“I use it to reach out to more customers now. I include the award in my email signature and I even have a short video clip I use of the awards to show people more about my business. Putting it on our website and social media really helped us gain more exposure and make Thai Roots more well known to a lot of people.”
Advice for Future Business Owners
With multiple successful businesses (and awards) under her belt, Mild is perfectly positioned to know what’s needed to launch a food business. What advice would she give to those looking to follow in her footsteps?
“My number one advice I can give to people starting off is to be patient and be kind. When I was growing up in Thailand a monk said those words to me and I have always remembered it. That one little sentence means a lot. If something is worth doing, be patient with it. Wait for the right opportunity to present itself. Be kind to yourself and to the people around you. You never know one day when that kindness might come back to you in ways you never imagined.