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Owner of Thai Delight restaurant remains hard at work


SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Sakchai 'Chai' Jivagunchainan left a career as a tobacco trader in Thailand to eventually open a Thai restaurant in Wilsonville.Hard work has taken Sakchai “Chai” Jivagunchainan a long way.

When he moved to the United States 16 years ago, Chai walked away from a career as a tobacco trader to become a line cook at a Beaverton Thai restaurant. Only four years later, he opened his own restaurant, Thai Delight, in Wilsonville. His work there allowed him to raise three children who are now successful adults.

But he’s trying to slow down a little now that his children are grown and he has reached age 60. Although he still works in Thai Delight’s kitchen six days per week, he hopes to retire in a few years.

“This is my last stage now. I take it easy, and try to maintain good health,” Chai says.

At the same time, Chai’s work ethic runs deep. He was born in Thailand, and raised to follow his father into the tobacco trade. The family owned a large plantation that Chai’s father had bought in the ‘60s after seeing the opportunity to turn a larger profit than he had while working as an insecticide salesman.

In 1978, Chai’s father directed his son to go to the United States and study business. At 21, Chai spoke no English, but dutifully followed his father’s directive, coming to Portland several weeks later to study at Portland State University.

“It’s a lot of funny stories about the foreign student who comes here,” Chai says, recounting one instructive instance: “I get to the elevator, and somebody asks me, ‘How’s it going?’ and I say ‘Up!’”

At first, the school administration was reluctant to let Chai into the business program, insisting that he take English as a second language courses instead. Chai was persistent, however, and convinced them to allow him in on the condition that he earn a B or better in all his classes.

At the same time as he was taking five courses per day at PSU, Chai was working full time at a nearby bank. But with the work ethic that he still adheres to today, Chai finished his bachelor’s degree in business in three and a half years.

Degree in hand, Chai returned to Thailand and put it to use, supplying tobacco to American exporters. He stayed in the industry for two decades.

The world was changing over the course of those 20 years, however, and the family’s farm — once in the countryside — was battling creeping urbanization, which pushed up the cost of living for farm workers and thus raised the cost of production. Anti-tobacco sentiment had also gained strength.

“It was sort of running down,” Chai says. “I was still supplying tobacco to American companies, but it won’t last. It’s getting harder. The whole economy — it’s not good in Thailand.”

Increasingly it became apparent that a second career path might be worth considering. So Chai decided to return to Oregon, a place he remembered fondly from his days as a student. He made the move in 2000.

A few difficult years followed, in part because he wasn’t able to bring his wife and children to the country immediately due process that ultimately took five years. In the meantime, Chai found a job working in the kitchen at Thai Orchid in Beaverton, building on the knowledge of Thai cooking he’d gained in his childhood by becoming familiar with how commercial kitchens work.SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Chai Jivagunchainan put his business background to use when he converted a local teriyaki restaurant into Thai Delight 12 years ago.

In 2004, Chai decided he was ready to launch his own restaurant. Rather than start one from scratch, Chai decided to purchase a teriyaki restaurant in Wilsonville and refashion it into a Thai one. He planned the transition carefully, informing customers of the change well ahead of time in order not to upset them.

“I close it, make my recipe, and the day after — Thai restaurant,” Chai says.

From the outset, Chai enjoyed the freedom to experiment, and never felt inhibited by tradition where cooking was concerned. He came to pride himself on being highly responsive to customer requests or suggestions, which have sometimes led to new recipes.

“One good thing about this country is they give you freedom of thinking,” Chai says. “So people in Thailand say, ‘No, you cannot do that! This is not alright! This is not the right way of doing it.’ But here, you go ahead and do it.”

Thai Delight continues to operate out of the same location near Town Center Loop that it did 12 years ago. Chai has been happy with the way things have gone — so much so, he says, that he has never considered moving, expanding or opening a second branch. He prefers the intimacy of working in a restaurant that has long been a part of the community.

“Some people say, ‘You know, you should knock the wall down, and expand,’” Chai says. “I like it this way. I can see my customers, I can talk to my customers. I know everybody.”

Chai is especially proud of his children, who are all Wilsonville High School alumni. One of them is at Oregon State University working toward becoming a doctor, while another will soon start courses to become a dentist. A third aspires to an MBA at Willamette University. Chai says that it’s possible that she will use her business degree to take over the family business, not unlike Chai did for his father in Thailand.

“If my daughter wants to expand it, I will be here, helping her,” he says. If not, he may sell the business to someone outside the family. But he says that he will continue to work in the kitchen even after the restaurant is sold if doing so will help the new owner to learn what it takes to keep Thai Delight’s regulars happy.

“I don’t want my customers to be upset, to say, ‘Oh, Chai left us,’” he says. “The thing that I enjoy the most is people. I like to cook; I know how to cook. But I love people.”

Contact Jake Bartman at 503-636-1281 ext. 113 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..