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IRC helps businesses survive the pandemic

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Sami Roe, small business specialist at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City, works to propel small businesses towards success. By leveraging funding and loans, Sami helps entrepreneurs scale up their businesses. Working alongside them, he finds resources so that owners have direction when they run into roadblocks.

Yupin and Wichai work with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City to preserve their restaurant during the pandemic.

Yupin (left) and Wichai opened their restaurant, Laan Na Thai, in 2016 with support from the IRC in Salt Lake City's Spice Kitchen Incubator program.

Photo: Billy Yang

Now that the pandemic has upset many businesses, Sami’s job shifted gears toward relief assistance. Especially where language barriers exist, Sami’s work remains vital. Many shops and restaurants could evaporate simply because they do not have the language resources they need to save themselves. For the owners of the popular micro-restaurant, Laan Na Thai, in downtown Salt Lake, this especially posed a dilemma. “They’re an older generation paired with a language barrier,” Sami explained. While language barriers present their own challenges, the loans themselves “open and close that fast,” according to Sami.

When talking about their business now, Wichai Chareon, who runs Laan Na Thai alongside his wife, Yupin, could only say, “It’s not better than before.” Their shop, which has attracted attention from customers and media, can only fight to stay afloat while they wait for the dangers of the pandemic to subside. Downtown, usually a bustling place of activity, has turned into a ghost town. “Everybody’s scared,” Wichai said of the coronavirus.

Sami Roe from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City discusses how a beloved restaurant has been impacted by the pandemic.
Laan Na Thai crafts rich and juicy flavors, demonstrating the experience and dedication of the chefs, Yupin and Wichai. Photo: Billy Yang

Laan Na Thai was the first independent restaurant to graduate from the IRC’s Spice Kitchen Incubator program. “[Yupin] worked here before,” Wichai explained. During the first several years that they lived in the United States, Yupin worked as a cook at Ekamai Thai, the micro-restaurant that previously occupied the space. When Ekamai Thai announced that it would close the location, Yupin worried about how she would provide for her family. Spice Kitchen, which helps not only refugees but immigrants like the Chareons as well, offered to support Yupin and Wichai in opening their restaurant. Four years later, everything they have accomplished is at risk. “They are highly successful and highly impacted,” Sami said.

Due to their experiences, Sami feared Wichai and Yupin’s instinct would be simply to move on. “They’re starting to realize that this is going to last for a long time,” he said, not only in regard to the Chareons but to all Spice launched businesses. While local Spice businesses did not live with this uncertainty before the pandemic, they are survivors. They are resilient. Wichai and Yupin had dreamed of opening a restaurant for many years. Their journey had taken them too far for them to lose sight of everything they had hoped for.

Sami Roe at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City discusses how to support small business during the pandemic.
Sami Roe, small business specialist, has been thinking constantly about the barriers presented to refugee entrepreneurs and enthusiastically shared his perspectives. Photo: Tatjana Andrews/IRC

With Sami’s support and direction—from helping them navigate complex loan processes to discussing pivots in their business model—Laan Na Thai has a renewed sense of hope. This has been the case for a number of Spice Kitchen Incubator entrepreneurs who have worked closely with IRC staff to seek resources and apply for assistance. “We’re pretty good about getting the word out in regards to loans,” Sami says of the responsive support Spice Kitchen staff needs to provide to help local businesses.

Sami would love to see more patronage at refugee- and immigrant-owned businesses, for them to “make good money with their craft.” During the pandemic, Spice Kitchen has organized the Community Food Box initiative, a box delivered weekly packed with delicious meals that feature myriad products from different participating chefs. These have been extremely successful, according to Sami who says that the boxes sold out quickly when they first started project. He encourages people to “take time to know where your food comes from.” This attention to detail strengthens the local economy and ensures that small businesses will thrive. Plus, as Sami said, “the food tastes better.”

Learn more about the businesses supported by Spice Kitchen Incubator and how you can support the entrepreneurs who run them by visiting SpiceKitchenIncubator.org.