March 25

Nan Chaison On Her Culinary Journey To Becoming a Restaurateur


Portland-Based Restaurateur Nan Chaison Shares Her Story and Advice With Anyone Looking to Enter Restaurant Ownership or Expansion

It’s not uncommon to daydream about opening your place when you work in the hospitality industry. Some of you may even be working toward that goal with a fully visualized plan, while others have made the leap but are considering opening a second or third location. 

Regardless of where you are, taking that initial step is always challenging, and understanding what you could get into is vital. Learning from those already in the thick of it is the best way to recognize common pitfalls and successes. 

Ahead of opening her fourth concept, Portland-based restaurateur Nan Chaison sat down with us to discuss the road to entrepreneurship and offer advise to anyone looking to open or expand a small business. 

The Unexpected Journey to Restaurant Ownership

When Nan Chaison first immigrated to the US in 2008, a long-term hospitality career—let alone opening her fourth concept, as she will do this Spring—was not part of her ten-year plan. 

At the time, Chaison immigrated from Thailand to achieve her master’s degree in education. Having previous hotel experience, Chaison, like many others in her position, found the hospitality industry an easy transition while new to the country and in school.

“I came here as a student, and I’ve always worked in restaurants, so what can I say?” Nan shared. “There were not many jobs I could get when I moved here at first, but once I was in the restaurant, I became passionate about food.” 

Starting in the FOH and moving into management, Chaison quickly cross-trained behind the bar and in the kitchen—having to jump in wherever was needed to keep the restaurant moving.

As Chaison continued to grow in her hospitality career, she realized education was no longer the path she wanted to take. Instead, after 16 years of working in hospitality and falling in love with the industry, Chaison decided to take the next step and open her own restaurant. 

Chaison expressed that after years of working for others, her drive and her family were the primary motivators for her decision to branch out and open her concept. 

“Working back of the house and managing, making tips—it was fun, but at one point, I felt like, what can I do for my kid?” Chaison shared. “You know, what can I do for us to have our own home and be able to afford things in life? I was at the bottom of my life at that time.” 

The road to her initial restaurant opening wasn’t easy. The decision would be a huge financial responsibility, requiring Chaison to seek loans, max out her credit cards, and put everything she had on the line—but she decided to take the risk and hope for the best. 

Partnerships on the Road to Expansion 

While Chaison has opened many concepts, she hasn’t always gone at it alone. Partnerships are a common avenue and can be valuable when opening a small business. 

Of course, partnerships also come with their own set of risks, which should be considered carefully before taking action.

“When I’m going into business with someone, financials are important, but what’s more important is being in business with somebody with the same goal and vision,” Chaison explained. “You have to sit down with them and ask what their vision for the business is and what they want from it. It’s not just about the money. It can be a conflict later on if you don’t have that clear conversation from the beginning.”

It’s essential to have thorough and sometimes challenging conversations before entering into business with someone. Ultimately, having this conversation earlier will allow you both to organize the business in a mutually beneficial way and avoid conflicts later on. 

“If you feel like you’re going to partner up with someone that’s not really into the business side of things, maybe there’s an option of having them just support you financially,” Chaison explained. “But if you wanted to have someone that would help take the load off your shoulder, then you have to find someone that literally has the same goal and vision on how they want to do a business, and they have to be passionate about what you do because if you’re not passionate about this business, it’s just harder to be successful.” 

At its core, partnerships should be made with trust and respect—if you don’t have that, you might consider other options. 

Norah PDX

Finding Your Niche and Community 

Before Chaison opened her four restaurants—Mestizo, Norah, Libre, and her newest concept, Phaya Thai Express—she considered her niche and how she could introduce a unique menu to a specific clientele within a community and expand upon that. 

For example, with her first concept, Kati, which Chaison has since stepped away from, she and her partners wanted to open a Thai restaurant. But living in a city with so many Thai restaurants, they had to think outside the box to set the restaurant apart so that people would actually want to come. 

So, they introduced a plant-based, vegan Thai menu. Of course, this meant their targeted market was the vegan and vegetarian clientele. Still, to expand upon that community, they made sure their food was delicious and attractive to non-vegetarian communities to demonstrate that food doesn’t need meat to be delicious. 

With Phaya, Chaison took time to develop a clear concept that brings something new to the city, targets a specific clientele, and offers something everyone can enjoy. 

Phaya will be a fast-casual Thai eatery offering plate-style meals. While most Thai restaurants offer family-style portions, customers at Phaya can build combination plates, allowing individuals to try many items. Imagine Panda Express, but with Thai cuisine that uses high-quality ingredients.  

There is nothing like Phaya in Portland currently, so while Chaison is opening another Thai restaurant, she is doing it in a unique way that sets her apart and addresses the needs of a specific clientele: busy individuals. 

Additionally, to avoid waste and offer more affordable options to Portland locals, Phaya will discount food throughout the day to ensure everything sells out and they can start fresh the following business day. 

Building Your Team  

One of the most essential factors to running a successful business is having a reliable team that is passionate about your mission. As they say, you’re only as good as your team. 

When asked what has been the most helpful on her road to success as a restaurateur—Chaison quickly responded that having people she can trust to share in her vision. 

“It doesn’t matter how creative I am or how good a cook I am; if I don’t have people to help me achieve those goals, then I won’t be able to expand or do anything,” Chaison shared. 

Chaison has been a long-time customer of Poached and shared that having a tool to help narrow down skilled and passionate hospitality people has been vital to her success. 

Leaning into her educational background, Chaison is also very adamant in cross-training all employees. She has found this method a great way to ensure everyone can fill in as needed to achieve work-life balance and career development.

“All of my servers can bartend, so if someone gets sick or we have to rotate the schedule a little bit, there is no interruption because someone can only do one thing in the restaurant,” Chaison said. “So, I invest in training people. Cross-training is very important.” 

As we wrapped up, Chaison offered one last piece of advice to anyone looking to open their first, second, or third restaurant. 

“If you really know this is what you want to do as your career, and it’s not just a job or something that you’re doing to get by, then just put 110% into it and take risks,” Chaison said. “And be very passionate about it. Like, I wake up every day, and I feel like I love what I do, and that’s very important.” 

No matter where you’re in your hospitality career—you’ve likely heard how challenging, yet rewarding, running a restaurant can be. It takes a lot of passion, a lot of creativity, and a genuine interest in hospitality. Regardless of the difficulties, if you’re prepared and know how to be flexible yet diligent with your vision, you’re on the right track. 

To learn more about Nan Chaison and her concepts, check out her restaurants on Instagram: Mestizo, Norah, Libre, and the up-and-coming Phaya Thai Express.


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.