From Thailand To Medicine Hat

Sounantha Boss, owner of Thai Orchid RoomOne of Sounantha Boss’s first memories comes from growing up on her family’s rural farm in Thailand. She recalls being only 3 or 4 years old while playing in the wooden house they lived in, supported by stilts sticking out of the brown mud that made its own home below. Sou was playing inside near the window ledge when her sister gave her a shove, perhaps a bit harder than intended, and Sou found herself swiftly falling out the window into the muck below. Thankfully, her father was working outside and rushed to catch her before she was seriously injured.

Perhaps Sou remembers this moment so vividly because it mirrors the support her father has always given her. The way both of her parents have mentored her and helped her become the successful entrepreneur, chef and business owner she is today. Anyone who has enjoyed a meal at the Thai Orchid Room in Medicine Hat, Alberta, will attest to this.

Upon immigrating to Canada as refugees in the early 1980’s, Sou’s family moved to Lethbridge, where her father found work as a chef at the Prince Of Wales Hotel in Waterton. Sou remembers her parents love for the kitchen because it seemed as though that was the only room you could find them in. Her parents loved the entire experience that cooking brought –  it was their passion and they strongly believed in the power of bringing people together through food. This is a sentiment Sou still carries with her today.

Sou knew she wanted to start her own business and be her own boss as soon as she finished high school. It was just a matter of how and when she could do it. She also understood that it wouldn’t be easy – that becoming an entrepreneur would require hard work, perseverance and sacrifice.

At only 20 years old, Sou began looking into the purchase of a restaurant. There was one available in the SE corner of Alberta and Sou decided to drive from Calgary to check it out. At the time, she had never heard of this place called Bow Island and wondered, “Is there actually an island in the middle of all this prairie?”. She discovered that the location was, of course, not an island, and stayed for a week to get a feel for the place, fell in love with the town, and decided to make it her new home.

Sou knew she would need to put in a massive amount of work to learn how to run a business. From filling out all different types of paperwork, to learning how to create a business plan or what it actually meant to incorporate. The trickiest part was financing. Since Sou was so young and had no previous experience in creating a business or running a restaurant, investors were hesitant to help. She remembers the constant echo of hearing no, no, and no again from the banks. Sou finally got her break when she was introduced to a member of the Alberta Opportunity Company (now known as the Agriculture Financial Services Canada) who was willing to take a chance on her and provided funding for land and building assets. It also helped that Sou was constantly working, putting in 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week trying to jump start her dream.

With Sou being the first person to bring authentic Thai food to Southern Alberta, the locals were initially uncertain of the new Bow Garden Restaurant, many of them having only tasted traditional Western or Chinese food before. However, the cuisine quickly grew on them and customers began appearing from Taber, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and beyond. Eventually it was suggested that she move to Medicine Hat, where most of their clientele were traveling from. After long consideration, Sou and her husband, Ken, decided that it made the most business sense to relocate.

At the time, they thought, “Where do we even start?”. It was 2006 and development was barely beginning in the now booming south-end of Medicine Hat. The old Walmart had just been built, surrounded but not much more than a fresh dirt road and new light posts leading to Southridge. The Boss’ looked at several spots in the city, but when they came across 36 Strachan Court SE, they knew it was the right location. Again, they had to work hard to put together financial backing for this purchase. Thankfully, they had developed an amicable relationship with a regular diner who turned out to be a banker, and was able to vouch for both their work ethic and the inevitable success of the restaurant.

Surprisingly, Sou and Ken had little concern about putting up their restaurant, the Thai Orchid Room in an undeveloped area. They knew how much potential was in Medicine Hat and strongly believed that if you built a good business, the people and the customers would come. Any worry they could have had was soon laid to rest anyway as they watched more and more establishments popping up around them, especially hotels. Now in 2020, there is a brand new Walmart, a variety of restaurants, fast food chains, gas stations, retail stores and more surrounding their once empty lot. They have built great relationships with their neighbours and often receive dining recommendations from the nearby hotels and businesses.

Sou and her family have not once regretted the decision to move their business to Medicine Hat. While they do miss their regular customers and neighbours in Bow Island, although many still make the drive up to come dine, they are also grateful to be able to work and raise their four children in Medicine Hat. From residing in Lethbridge to Calgary to Bow Island to The Hat, Sou feels that this is a perfectly sized city, is well suited to fit many different types of people and an ideal location for just about anyone – business owners, families, retirees, students and eager entrepreneurs alike.

Overall, Sou feels hopeful about the future of business in Medicine Hat. She says that even with the sometimes uncertain market recently, she sees a lot of future growth in the city. Building a business can never be done alone and it requires many helping hands to create success, so the fact that there are so many people willing to assist new business owners or investors to the city is incredible. She feels the city is well run and extremely supportive of business owners, large and small.  Most importantly, she says the fact that the area they are in has grown so much, means a lot of people must be doing something right.

What is Sou’s advice for helping out other new business owners or entrepreneurs?

“It can be scary, yes, but if you surround yourself with the right people in both your personal and professional life, it will feel less scary. Do your research, put in the hours and have passion for what you are trying to achieve. If there is no passion, there will be no drive and no success. Expect challenges, expect ups and also expect downs – you need to be prepared for the downs.

Most importantly, remember that fear is your friend. It will push you to go further and to try harder. If there is anything you need to know when first starting out, it is this: Always work with your fear, never against it.”

The Thai Orchid Room has been serving Southern Alberta for over 20 years with their extensive menu, based on traditional family recipes from northern Thailand. They offer lunch & dinner options, as well as catering, private bookings, cooking courses and a unique chef experience for small groups. For reservations or inquiries, call 403.580.8210. To learn more and view their menu, visit their website.



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