For five and a half years, the space sat empty. Maybe it was because of the landlord’s tense relationship with the county or the perception that the building was condemned or the thousands of dollars needed to bring the space up to code. No matter the reason, no business had wanted to, or been successful, in moving into the old Naughty Dog space in Henrikson’s Poplar Trees Mall in Tahoe City.
That is, until two brothers from Chico came along.
Simon Thamabong and Kelvin Peck, who opened the Thai Kitchen Restaurant in the Henrikson building in September, saw opportunity where others saw problems. Determined to open the restaurant, the brothers invested a significant amount of time and money to make the space legal. So far, they haven’t looked back. The two aren’t the only ones happy with the restaurant’s opening; others in the community are relieved to see this prime piece of Tahoe City real estate put to good use once again.
Thamabong, who with Peck owns a Thai restaurant in Grass Valley and is opening another in Oroville, first got the idea of expanding his business to Tahoe City last year. Driving through the town on his way to vacation in Reno, he noticed that there were no Thai restaurants. Then he saw the ‘For Lease’ sign on the Hernikson building. The location, he thought, could not be beat.
‘I wanted to make something different for the city,’ said Thamabong, who is originally from Thailand (Peck was born in the U.S.). ‘This space was empty and dark.’
But it would not be an easy road. The owner of the building, Ollie Henrikson, has battled with Placer County for almost two decades about additions he made to the 1950s-era building – a glass-enclosed, empty swimming pool and second floor – that were done without permits. In 1993, a judge ruled that the second floor could not be occupied, and because of that and other unresolved issues, the county stopped issuing new business permits. That’s one reason Naughty Dawg owner Eric Westenburg decided to close his bar in April 2004 after 11 years in business. He had wanted to expand the restaurant to increase capacity, but it proved to be too difficult.
Thamabong and Peck, however, were undaunted by the challenge. In order to move in, they had to secure a tenant improvement process (TIP) permit from the county to modify the space. This meant bringing everything – bathrooms (which were not ADA compliant), floors, kitchen, gas pipes – up to code.
‘At first, oh my god, the place was a mess,’ Thamabong said. ‘There were a bunch of dog prints all over and wires hanging.’
The black and white paw prints are long gone. Now the restaurant is painted a warm orange with bright orange, green and pink curtains hanging on the windows. Glittery Thai paintings adorn the walls, along with a framed photo of the Thai royal couple. Statues of Thai goddesses are tucked in the restaurant’s corners. The only sign of the previous tenant is the bar, which is covered with paintings of various types of dogs.
Peck, who is also a general contractor and did the work himself, says they spent $60,000 remodeling the place, 90 percent of which went to bringing it up to code, and worked day and night, seven days a week, for three months. But the two brothers were not responsible for every improvement. Peck said Henrikson, based on the terms of the lease, took care of some of the modifications.
When asked why he thought the space stood empty for so long, Peck replied: ‘Who wants to spend $60,000 to upgrade a restaurant? A lot of people tried to get in, but they didn’t want to deal with Ollie and they heard the building was condemned.’
Or maybe it was just because Peck and Thamabong possessed an important trait: persistence.
‘The business owners seemed really motivated and willing to do what was needed to get in,’ said Kirk Smith, Placer County Building Department senior inspector. ‘Previous business applications opted not to go through the TIP process.’
Henrikson said that over the years he has had around five offers from prospective tenants, all restaurants. But none of them had the dough.
‘They were all inexperienced and lacked finances,’ Henrikson said. ‘I didn’t want to get involved.’
Although Thai Kitchen opened at the beginning of the fall shoulder season, the brothers are pleased with the pace of business.
‘So far, I’m happy,’ said Peck, who estimated that residents make up 98 percent of his customers. ‘The local support has been great.’
Locals are excited that a new business is occupying the highly visible front space of the Henrikson building, which between 2002 and 2004 lost six tenants. (The building got a new tenant in 2008, Gravity Bikes, but in the back.)
‘It certainly adds vibrancy to that corner, which is the gateway to our town,’ said Lolly Kupec, vice president of the Tahoe City Downtown Association. ‘I see that location as having tremendous potential.’
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