Tastes of Home
Nearly 30 years ago, Shayn Prapaisilp’s parents introduced Thai food to St. Louis. Now Prapaisilp is leading the family business into a new era, bringing Thai cuisine and other international flavors to younger generations of St. Louisans.
When Suchin and Sue Prapaisilp opened their first restaurant, The King and I, in 1983, they weren’t sure how receptive St. Louisans would be to Thai cuisine. As the first Thai restaurateurs in the city, they took a gradual approach with their early patrons, serving mostly Chinese-American fare while making tours of the dining room with free samples of pad thai.
Today, as the owners of STJ Group Holdings LLC, which includes four restaurants and two international grocery stores run by a staff of nearly 200, their faith in St. Louisans’ enthusiasm for foreign food and flavors is all but assured.
“So many more people are interested in food and traveling internationally, seeking out new experiences,” says Shayn Prapaisilp, their son, now the company’s chief operating officer. He opened his own Thai restaurant, Chao Baan, in The Grove neighborhood in 2019. “I think the American palate has evolved along with the business, and now we’re seeing a lot more customers who aren’t from other countries but are just really into food. We’re excited to share our cooking with more people.”
Chao Baan is Shayn’s love letter to the less familiar, spicier regional cooking he grew up with from the south and northeast of the country, where his father and mother come from, respectively. (Many mainstream Thai dishes served in American restaurants, such as pad thai, come from central Thailand.)
The menu presents quintessential Thai flavors in fresh, original combinations, from mieng kham — leaf wraps filled with dried shrimp, ginger, lime, red onion, chile and toasted coconut — to Prapaisilp’s personal favorite, khao tod nam sod, a rice dish seasoned with chilis, herbs, lime juice and fish sauce.
“Honestly, the best compliment we’ve gotten is when folks who have traveled to Thailand come back and eat at Chao Baan, and they say it tastes exactly like it does there,” he says. “Then we know we’re doing something right.”
Prapaisilp sees his role in the family enterprise as that of evangelizing the brand to a wider swath of the city, with a focus on younger demographics, but he is humble about building on what his parents have already established. “The nuts and bolts of the business are the same, but I think my value added is introducing new St. Louisans to what we’ve been doing for 30 years,” he says.
Toward that end, Chao Baan isn’t the only venture to put a fresh spin on what his parents started. Prapaisilp also is helping to lead The King and I into its next phase, working with architect Jay Reeves to design a smaller, more contemporary home for the long-lasting restaurant inside the former Blaze Pizza space at The Crossings development in Richmond Heights. “I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to reach more customers,” he says.
Prapaisilp started his career as a public policy advocate in Washington, D.C., after graduating from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earning a master’s degree in public service management from DePaul University. A high school alumnus of the Youth Leadership St. Louis program, he has always had a strong drive to better society and do good in the world. After working for various nonprofits, political campaigns and civic and educational organizations, his parents hired him as a business consultant when they were approached by Washington University in St. Louis to open what is now United Provisions, an international grocery store near the university campus. Prapaisilp would prove instrumental in executing the vision for the store, which gives learners from abroad access to the flavors of home while satisfying the cosmopolitan tastes of domestic students.
When United Provisions opened in 2014, Prapaisilp decided to move home and dedicate himself full time to the family business. “I’m able to reconcile my passion for making the world a better place with my day-to-day job of running grocery stores and restaurants,” he says. “For one, I’m doing something international in nature. And secondly, through our businesses I have a local platform to do good, to have a more immediate impact in the region where I grew up.”
Indeed, his platform is far-reaching: In addition to United Provisions and the two Thai restaurants, Prapaisilp manages Global Foods Market in Kirkwood (the family’s first international grocery store, founded in 1999), as well as Oishi Sushi and Oishi Steakhouse, launched in Creve Coeur in 2002 and Chesterfield in 2007, which offer fine dining in Japanese cuisine.
“We love being everywhere in the region. From The King and I in South City all the way to Oishi in Chesterfield Valley, we’re embedded in all these different communities,” he says. “It’s very easy to be stuck in your own neighborhood, your own community, but there’s so much St. Louis has to offer, wherever you are.”
In addition to managing the six businesses, Prapaisilp is highly engaged in civic work across the city. He currently serves on the boards of FOCUS St. Louis and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, and his service contributions have ramped up considerably in the last few years.
“At first the chamber was an outreach platform for Asian American business folks to find support and knowledge,” he says. “Then we were able to use the platform for so much more, bringing together the whole city of St. Louis to support the Asian community.” For example, the Prapaisilp family led a citywide effort to donate sales proceeds to the Very Asian Foundation, an organization founded to offer “support and resources for the expansion of Asian stories and experiences” following a social media movement centered around the hashtag #VeryAsian, which fosters pride in Asian American and Pacific Islander identities. (The hashtag went viral after KSDK news anchor and Korean American Michelle Li was criticized by a viewer for sharing Korean New Year’s traditions.)
Currently, the Prapaisilps are hosting a holiday spice drive at Global Foods. The drive lasts through Dec. 24 and is designed to supplement seasonal canned food donations so families can prepare authentic meals that taste like home. Last year, it provided nearly 30 pounds of spices to community members in need.
Beyond philanthropy, a service-oriented mindset has always been central to the family’s approach to business. When Suchin and Sue Prapaisilp first entered the food industry in the 1970s, working for a food retail business run by Suchin’s relatives, the United States was in the process of resettling large numbers of Vietnamese refugees, so the couple catered to the home-cooking needs of that demographic. More recently, with the influx of Afghan refugees to St. Louis, Prapaisilp and his parents have been proactive about making this community feel welcome.
“We let recent Afghan immigrants know that we’re here for them, that we want to give them a little taste of home, whether that’s through particular types of rice they enjoy, spices such as cardamom or other South Asian ingredients we have on hand,” he says, noting that Global Foods is more of a community gathering place than just a grocery store.
“It’s one of the few places in St. Louis where you can hear eight, nine, 10 different languages going on,” says Prapaisilp, “And people from five different continents asking each other, ‘What do you make with that? How do you use that?’”
Suchin and Sue Prapaisilp know firsthand what it’s like to be newcomers with limited means in an unfamiliar country. Independently of each other, they came to the United States as students: Sue studied psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago, and Suchin started an engineering degree at Saint Louis University. He dropped out of school for financial reasons and joined Jay International Food Co., an international grocery store run by his uncles and cousins. His path crossed with Sue on business trips to Chicago while purchasing stock for the store, and the rest is history.
The couple’s considerable impact on the St. Louis food scene originated with practical concerns, Prapaisilp notes. “It’s as simple as they were here as students, and they were out of money. They needed to start working,” he says. And yet, they developed a strong affinity for the work, pouring themselves into it with a level of consistency and heartfeltness that kept customers coming back for decades.
Prapaisilp’s day-to-day work entails a variety of managerial tasks, from reviewing health insurance information to upholding legal policies. But the central focus of the business — food — is what gets him out of bed every morning.
“Honestly, I love feeding people in all the different ways that we do,” he says. “Whether it’s folks missing a piece of their homeland and finding it in St. Louis, or folks coming in on a cold day and having a hot bowl of curry, seeing how that warmth makes them happy. It’s a big deal for us, serving good food to every St. Louisan as the city becomes more diverse.”
And St. Louis, according to Prapaisilp, is a nearly ideal place to undertake this work. “Something unique to St. Louis is the amount of collaboration that happens here,” he explains. “Folks go out of their way to help each other succeed.”
He encourages would-be entrepreneurs to come to the city with their novel idea, as his parents did, albeit with some apprehension, so many years ago. “People are surprised by how receptive folks are here, whether it’s a new type of cuisine or a new concept,” he says. “People want to try new things.
“If you have a new idea, St. Louis is a really welcoming community.”
Join the Story
Stop by Global Foods in Kirkwood to participate in their spice drive.