Interview with Joel Palmer
Owner of Temple Thai & Tuk Tuk Bar
Easily one of the busiest places along Park Road in Milton, Temple Thai Restaurant is immediately recognisable by its vibrant greenery and Thai-esque décor.
Owned by couple, Joel and Yuparat (Yuey) Palmer, the restaurant has established a loyal following since its opening in 2012. In the last four years, Joel has raised the standard of Thai- Australian cuisine in Brisbane by incorporating the Tuk Tuk Bar in the open-air sanctuary connected to the restaurant.
Boasting ten craft beers on tap, signature cocktails named after famous Thai cities and beautiful waterfalls and vertical gardens, Tuk Tuk is the first Thai beer bar in Brisbane that showcases a creative union between two cultures.
“Most Australians want to be able to enjoy a drink with their meal. So far, there hasn’t been a specific drink list that matches Thai food. By opening the bar, we wanted to provide wines or beers that would go well with your Pad Thai,” Joel said.
Before trying his hand as a restaurateur, Joel worked as a journalist and then later a subeditor for the Financial Review. After travelling with his friends to Thailand, Joel fell in love with the country and especially the food.
“I have always loved my food and it has been a big part of travelling for me. Both Yuey and I love to try the food in different places,” he said.
“I met my wife while she was working in a hotel in Bangkok and we got married in Thailand some time later. It was a big decision for Yuey to move to Australia with me as she was doing really well for herself and she would have had to leave her job to come here.”
As soon as she was able, Yuey started work in a Thai restaurant near Joel’s office. The previous owners of the restaurant were a Chinese- Thai couple that owned many other restaurants and were looking to sell. Joel and Yuey decided that they would take over Temple Thai.
“We never thought that we would buy a restaurant and out of all the restaurants, the previous owner was most reluctant to sell this one,” Joel said and continues that they made sure that a longer lease can be negotiated so that they can ensure that the money put in the restaurant will slowly earned back.
“My experience at the time was as a customer and I have had a lot of different experiences in many restaurants. I know what people want. It can be narrowed down to three things: quality of the food, the ambience and the service. If you can get all three of them right, then you will have a successful restaurant.”
Between the two of them, Joel and Yuey worked to create a restaurant with authentic Thai food that would still appeal to an Australian audience. Joel said that they tried to keep things as simple and straight forward as possible.
“We have the garden that’s like Thailand and we tried to provide quality Thai food. I’m not saying we are perfect but everyone’s idea of the best Thai food is different, so we just try to focus on these three things instead of complicating things,” he said.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, like how we set up the kitchen, and we’ve had to fix them up. They’ve been expensive mistakes but we learn as we go.”
Joel credits the warm and welcoming ambience of Tuk Tuk to their gardener and handy man. The husband of one of his previous clients, Joel says that the bar was built by him too.
“It’s a huge job and he looks after things four times a week. It’s such an important part of the business and it’s hard to look after. It takes a special person to do it,” he said.
“People will come in and look and say ‘oh wow, there isn’t any other place like this’ and it’s really just the garden and the plants that sets us apart.”
“We’re lucky that Temple Thai and Tuk Tuk are not our sole sources of income too because we haven’t had to feel the pressure of making them successful in a short amount of time. We can just focus on making it as pretty as possible,” Joel said.
As the first proper Thai beer bar in Brisbane, Tuk Tuk is also unique in the way it has been managed. In delivering quality service that is comfortable to local patrons, Joel says that he employs mostly Australians to man the bar. Thai staff by contrast runs the restaurant.
After almost ten years in the business, both Yuey and himself have developed an effective way of dividing the restaurant management roles between them.
“We both do menu design and the research into what goes into the menu. Then Yuey works directly with the chef to get those ideas translated into actual food.”
“She deals with the Thai staff; I deal with the Australian staff. We try to balance the cultures to our strengths. I do the rostering for the bar staff and she does the rostering for the restaurant staff,” Joel said.
With the constantly changing hospitality industry, Joel says that it’s important to keep up to date with these trends and to use them where practical.
He says the biggest cost is staff but upgrading the technology to the online ordering software which makes it easy for staff to use to take orders saves them time and some staffing costs including it adds efficiency into giving service to customer especially with a bigger restaurant with separated area like Temple Thai and Tuk Tuk bar.
Using his experiences as a financial advisor, doing the tax, accounts and payroll is Joel’s strengths while running the restaurant plays well into Yuey’s extensive hospitality industry experience. In the last ten years, they have been able to ride the wave of various food trends and successfully stayed afloat.
“In the last 15 years, people have travelled a lot more. It is becoming cheaper to travel overseas for Australians and that means that they’ve been to a lot of places and tried a lot of food,” Joel said.
“They bring the ideas back and you see a lot of fusion places coming up. Our older customers expect the classic food but our younger customers want something different and they want good drinks too. It’s because of this that we have ten beers on tap and many different craft beers or wines.”
“We put a lot of emphasis on the drinks, and we installed the high bar tables for customers who just want to come in for a drink. It’s all about keeping to those three things: quality of the food, the ambience and the quality of service”
Photography: Stephen Kelly (Pixels of Shae)