Mengrai Thai is a small, yet widely-beloved, Thai restaurant in downtown Toronto. Couple Sasi Meechai, award-winning Iron chef, and Allan Lim opened their first restaurant in 2001, a venture that has now grown into the critically-acclaimed dining experience that it is today. Alongside the restaurant's success and its owner’s already jam-packed schedules, the duo has dedicated their remaining spare time to giving back to their home communities, as well as pursuing local giving action. Allan quit his corporate finance job to help Sasi with achieving her dream of opening a Thai restaurant in Toronto, a platform that would allow her to give back to her community.
“I gave up all of the corporate perks and the large figure salary for a seemingly simple life as a restaurateur, to help her achieve this amazing dream.”
However, Lim assures others that the work he is currently doing is the most demanding of his life. While time-consuming, their current selfless initiatives touch so many people's lives that he is inspired to make many sacrifices. According to Allan, the couple has not taken a vacation in over fifteen years. Doing so would "rob minutes and money away" from those who they are passionate about supporting.
Meechai was born in Chiangrai Province in Northern Thailand. While an upbringing in this location allowed Sasi to master her cooking skills, later pioneering the modern healthy, fresh, and elegant Thai cuisine that is popular today, the Toronto chef grew up in an area riddled with poverty and lacking in opportunity. The couple recounted how this area of Thailand is scarce in educational opportunities and employment outside of low-paying general labour has large numbers of teenage pregnancy. There are a multitude of other social issues that stem from the present cyclical poverty. Sasi claims to be inspired by her father, Jaeng, and mother, who are widely known throughout this Thai region for being exceedingly kind and generous, taking in people who have lost their home or job and need a place to stay. Sasi inherited ambition, being among the small percentage of her region's residents to move abroad. Meechai has her father's giving spirit. Sasi has proven to be a big inspiration to those living in Thailand. It is a rare occurrence that a woman from a small Thai village has a chance to go to Canada. Sasi was obligated to re-learn how to cook, in order to appeal to a Western clientele. Additionally, Sasi taught herself English. The award-winning chef now often shares her story of success at Thai schools to motivate the children.
The couple met in Thailand when Allan was dining at the restaurant at which his now-wife worked. They met again two years later, and he invited Meechai to move to Canada. Since Sasi moved to Canada in 1997, the couple has travelled back to Thailand every year. When visiting, the two would bring suitcases filled with gifts for the local children. The couple was touched by how happy these gestures made the community. Allan recounted that "when they became happy, we saw so many other improvements. They learned better; their confidence improved; it touched me."
The restaurant owner later noticed that there were "so many teenage kids without any ambition, simply because they are born into poverty, and do not have access to many opportunities. This really lowers their expectations for what they can do in life, furthering the cycle of poverty in the region. I witnessed so many bright children leaving school, or not even finishing school, and at best working as an underpaid general labourer. It was really upsetting, as these amazing kids have so much potential, but no access to resources like those here in Canada. Whenever I would ask about their future, they would just give me blank stares. It felt like they were just surviving."
Sasi and Allan began to think of how they could motivate the young adults in Sasi's home community. However, they felt that they could not do it alone, and wanted to share responsibility with other people. Every trip to Thailand that the couple took, they always invited a few people to go with them in order to educate more people about the local culture, as well as have more support in helping the community. People would say yes to joining the couple on the trip, as well as share what they learned throughout the experience. Visitors proved to be a great support, as people would read to the children, help them with homework, as well as entertain them. The two decided to start a volunteer program, which was officially launched in January of 2014, with some help from their friends and fellow Toronto community members. The initiative was built into a platform, which allowed volunteers to gain an "authentic Thai experience." The volunteers get to experience a new culture at a very low cost. The initiative provides for the community's children to form connections with people from abroad who come from unique backgrounds, expanding the local youth's horizons and ambitions.
Additionally, the volunteer experience generates tourism and employment opportunities for the local community, helping lift the region out of poverty. Sasi and Allan's dream for the development of Meechai's home country has turned into the Treetop Country Charity. Sasi's parents, who inspired her to build their community, left her a large piece of land, on which the couple constructed the site of the Treetop Country Charity, which continues to be expanded to this day. The property is being used to create space and more opportunities for the children to learn and be inspired in a nurturing environment. The revenue from Treetop, as well as a lot of income that the couple earns from their Toronto restaurant, is reinvested into the Thai youth's education and learning opportunities. Since its opening, the Treetop has welcomed volunteers of all ages from all over the globe. Lim states that a critical goal of bringing volunteers, especially those with expertise in a particular field, is to mentor and educate the children. After school, local youth would come to the Treetop location, where they are provided with meals and activity centres, and learn from whoever is visiting. The couple has hosted surgeons who have held workshops for aspiring medical professionals, teachers who have taught in local schools, athletes who share their knowledge, musicians, and a wide array of other professionals. The local community has seen economic growth due to the increase in employment opportunities and educational resources. The Toronto couple hopes to see sustainable development in the long term, through mentoring by volunteers in the program, which help to inspire the young and ambitious children to broaden their aspirations.
A challenge that the couple faces with their initiative in Thailand is funding.
"Advertising on GoAbroad costs around six thousand dollars every year. We tried that for one year, but just could not afford it."
The couple invests a lot of their income from the restaurant on their charity. According to Lim, the two spend around fifty percent of what they make every year on the children.
"We do not drive fancy cars. We can not. We don't buy fancy stuff. We started to save and save for the children. We could have been around the world together many times by now. I could have bought myself a fancy car, but I haven't. I'm driving an old, used van. With all of the money that I've spent, I could have had a brand new car every year! I decided to give up a life of entitlement and privilege to save up for the children."
The results since the opening of Treetop have been outstanding, which has dramatically encouraged Sasi and Allan to continue with their work. The two claim never to feel stressed running both businesses, as they are motivated by the change.
"You can see the fallout from small business owners. People divorce, people quit, because it is such a demanding job. We have never felt that. I have been doing this for around eighteen years now and am still like a rock."
The two feel that they have been able to set very high expectations for the Thai children under their mentorship, allowing them to be role models for other local kids, inspiring change.
"We can see that the children are learning to share and communicate, to be engaged, and to be themselves. We build self-confidence in these children. The bi-product of that work has resulted in a lot of good. We have basically eliminated teenage pregnancy in the region, through teaching safe health practices. We have seen that they are more hopeful. Most of the kids who have grown in our program will be going to college now. Ten to fifteen years ago, this was not even a possibility. I would say that, perhaps, five percent of people in the region went to college. Now, with the work of Treetop, now we are seeing around five percent of people going onto post-secondary education, which makes me so happy. It was so amazing how my wife and I were able to play a part in this happening."
Though running both a successful business and a charity may seem like a full plate, the couple is also known for their nurturing work environment, which gives back to the local Toronto community. "I have learned from my wife's Thai culture by being positive. It creates a very nice state of being, which helps me run the restaurant. We don't make work conditional and don't let little things bother us. Thai people say not to let little things hurt your soul and always to protect it."
The two take on staff, often those who have recently immigrated to the country and have limited English and experience in the field, and train them.
"What we did in Thailand also enabled us to realize that there are people here, who are the same, and need help. The amazing people and students working in our restaurant who we have hired, based on traditional standards in the service industry, were not likely to have obtained a job. We like to give people chances and work with them. Usually employers have a two week prohibition period; however, even if they are not ready to work, I keep them around. We create an educational system in the restaurant. I always tell them that when they become good, they become teachers to the next batch of students. We have created a school of leaders. It's easier for me, ultimately, as I only have to train the first group, who teaches the second group and so on. I always tell my staff to 'share their mystics' so that we can all improve and lift each other. We still have staff meetings, but do not play the blame game. Instead, we ask how these mistakes can be fixed in the future, how to ensure we do not take impolite customers personally and to return rudeness with kindness. Our staff is like family. Overall, the restaurant's techniques have proven to be very successful. With all of the work that we are doing in Thailand, we wanted to do the same thing here. We want to have very low staff turnover due to how we treat our staff. We want them to build their confidence, ambition and communication as well."
While the couple's educational initiatives have provided many opportunities for those struggling in Toronto to gain job experience, most of the staff members would add that another perk about working at Mengrai is chef Sasi's overall kind nature. The chef is always feeding them. "She is not just giving them food; she is constantly asking them to try different recipes and making them meals to take home."
Sasi and Allan hope to continue expanding the Treetop Country charity, aiming to provide more opportunities to exponentially larger groups of children in the community. The time-consuming and often stressful work that this Toronto couple conducts every day, and have dedicated their lives to, continues to have a positive impact on many social groups, both abroad and locally. The raw passion and love that the duo has for Treetop and their restaurant is an appeal for many customers and volunteers alike. While many challenges may be presented when conducting a small business and not-for profit, the resulting improvements are a driving factor. Sasi and Allan's sacrifice of material goods in the name of giving back to the world is, without a doubt, a source of inspiration to fight for change that you want to see in the world. The couple is a pillar for advocacy and social action within the Toronto community.