When Gnap Boonsombutt was a child, his mother cooked for the employees of a large industrial company near Bangkok, Thailand, and he would tag along to work with her.
“I grew up with the food business,” he said. “I helped since I was young. In elementary school. I’d start with one egg and peel it. A hundred a day. I helped her with everything I could do.”
That’s when “He realized he likes food,” Pakkanat Kitraksa, his business partner and longtime friend, explained.
Gnap, who pronounces his name “gee-nap,” and Kitraksa, who goes by PK, are the co-owners of Thumbs Up Food by Gnap and PK, a small Thai food stand on Badger Road in North Pole. The two have known each other since college and are such close friends that many mistakenly presume they’re married.
“I think of her as my sister,” Gnap said.
Both Gnap and PK grew up in the suburbs of Bangkok, Thailand’s enormous and extremely busy capital city. They met on the business campus of Silpakorn University, where Gnap studied management science and PK majored in tourism.
“After I graduated,” Gnap
recalled, “I still didn’t want to work. So I went to study English in London for one year. Then I had an opportunity to work for a big restaurant. Thai Square. They have many locations and are really popular over there.”
He started as a dishwasher, then moved up to pantry and dessert cook. After a year he decided to return to Thailand. “I went back to work for my aunt’s company, but it wasn’t what I like. Just sitting in an office is not me. Then I tried to escape. Again.”
In 2010, Gnap headed for Los Angeles, where he earned his MBA at California University of Business and Technology. PK was also in the city, where she obtained the same degree from Pacific States University. To help make ends meet, the two took jobs with a Thai restaurant a friend knew about.
“That restaurant is in Calabasas,” Gnap remembered. “It’s very popular in that area. I served Stevie Wonder, Arsenio Hall. Miss USA.”
PK added, “Sometimes we served them but didn’t know they were celebrities.”
“But,” Gnap said, they realized famous people were there because “the other customers freaked out.”
Gnap worked his way up from helper to head cook at the restaurant, and both learned the business there. “They helped me a lot,” he said. “We worked as a family.”
The North was beckoning, however. Gnap had already spent three months in Fairbanks with a J1 work visa prior to moving to California, and he wanted to return. In 2017, after vacationing here, he convinced PK a move north would be a good thing. They were both encouraged by Mikki Patterson, owner of Pad Thai on College Road, who gave them jobs on arrival.
“Mikki helped us a lot,” PK said.
“Her son is my friend,” Gnap said. “I told him I wanted to move here.”
“She said ‘just come,’”PK added (the two are so close that they often complete each other’s sentences).
They arrived on July 4, 2017. Within a couple of weeks, Patterson offered to rent them the hut on Badger Road, which she owned at the time, and which hadn’t been operating for the previous six months. This was a great opportunity, as they could launch a business without a major investment.
They opened on Aug. 4. The first year was a bit slow, they said, but they now keep busy and have bought the business. Both want to limit the restaurant’s carbon footprint, so they serve their food in biodegradable eco-boxes rather than using styrofoam. They give military discounts out of appreciation for the sacrifices service members make. And they hand out punchcards that allow customers a free meal after buying 10. The used punchcard is then put in a box with the customer’s name for a twice-yearly drawing for another free meal.
In these and other ways the two have built a loyal customer base. But the food is what’s most important. The two page menu lists nearly three dozen items, including Almond Shrimp, which Gnap said is a specialty that only Thumbs Up offers in Fairbanks. They also offer a few American items, which pleases parents who want Thai food, but whose kids aren’t yet ready to try it.
Both of them are involved in all aspects of the business, although Gnap focuses more on the cooking while PK manages the books. They’ve also had to learn about the quirks of keeping open in cold weather. During last winter’s cold snap, their water pump froze and cracked, resulting in a one-day closure.
Even during open hours, keeping the hut properly warmed during the coldest days can be difficult, and not just because of the need to keep opening the window and door. “When we turn on the hood, it sucks the wind inside. It’s really really cold,” PK said.
Winter initially challenged them outside of work as well. “When we came here, we didn’t know how to drive on the snow,” Gnap said. One day he slid into a ditch, and, PK added, “In just 10 minutes one guy stopped and said, ‘Hold on. I’ll go grab my chain from my house. I’m going to help you.’ That was one of our first impressions of Fairbanks people.”
Gnap marveled at the difference this showed between Fairbanks and California. “If your car breaks down in L.A., no one will help you. You have to call AAA.”
The two have many kind words for Patterson, for the people working at nearby businesses and for Fairbanks in general. PK said even walking down the street strangers are friendly and stop to chat. “I don’t know how to explain my feeling about people here,” she said. “I keep telling friends, ‘Alaska is special.’”
Speaking for them both, Gnap concluded, “I want money to stay alive, but my profit is my customers being happy.”
Thumbs Up Food by Gnap and PK is located at 7453 Badger Road and is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday - Saturday and 3-7 p.m Sunday.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Becoming Alaskan is an ongoing series documenting the lives of immigrants in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to email@example.com.