Chef Rachel McAuley greets everyone who walks into Zen Thai Cafe with a luminous smile. Whether she’s in the kitchen, behind the bar, or making rounds amongst the tables chatting with guests, her warm and inviting presence makes the Downtown Phoenix eatery feel like home — and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I often call my customers ‘Zen family,’” she said. “The experience of eating good food, and to be happy, to hang out…for me it fulfills the dream.”
It was a dream that started as a young child growing up in Thailand – a place where food, family and community were inextricably linked. Living in a traditional Thai house on stilts with no electricity, the family’s livestock underneath the house, and access to an abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables – her love of cooking and eating blossomed.
She said neighbors would often gather to hang out and share food, while the kids would run around and play. Sometimes there were big celebratory events where the entire community would come together over food, sharing their favorite dishes.
“Back home, you would just eat together…you sharing everything together,” she said. “That’s why I love community. That is the thing that’s shaped me to want to have everyone involved, you know, participating or connecting to each other. That’s the big memories with food for me.”
Part of a growing community of women and Asian-owned businesses
Rachel McAuley is part of a small community of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in Phoenix, just over 4 percent (compared to 6.5 percent nationally), according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Yet AAPI women were one of the fastest-growing demographics of entrepreneurs prior to the pandemic.
McAuley purchased the business in 2017, formerly known as Tom Yum Thai Restaurant, after Zen Culinary in Scottsdale – her first project – shuttered after less than a year.
Without skipping a beat, she refocused on Downtown Phoenix. Blending some of Tom Yum’s classic dishes with some of her own creations, she rebranded with her own concept in 2018.
The result was Zen Thai Cafe, which rapidly grew in popularity amongst students from ASU Downtown and the Phoenix Biomedical Core, business professionals and convention travelers.
“I love downtown because – look at this!” she said motioning out the window. Between the bustling sidewalks, street art, nightlife, and light rail running past, she said having a restaurant downtown feels like “an honor.”
Strength and resilience amidst the pandemic
After opening, McAuley poured everything into her business and was just starting to get it off the ground when the pandemic hit.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We got hit first because we are Asian restaurant. People start not coming in because they’re scared.”
She said the hardest part was laying people off. The forced shutdown followed by coronavirus-related restrictions slowed business to nearly a halt. It came down to the impossible choice between saving her business and supporting her employees.
“I decide to cook by myself, clean by myself, just to keep the restaurant running,” she said. “Every day, I wake up, I ask myself, whatever happens, I got to do my best. This is the only thing I have for myself and my daughter.”
McAuley got creative – applying for loans, grants, changing up the menu, the hours, and applying for the City’s temporary outdoor permit. But despite her best efforts, she said she finally had to sell her house to keep the restaurant afloat.
The silent struggle of AAPI women-owned businesses
Unfortunately, her story of struggle was not uncommon across the U.S. The pandemic disproportionately harmed women of color, and Asian women in particular, endured some of the harshest economic effects of the crisis, according to the Center for American Progress.
In a 2021 survey, AAPI small-business owners cited access to capital as their number one challenge, in addition to the wave of anti-Asian sentiment and hate incidents, all of which have heavily impacted owners’ ability to operate.
Nationally, the number of AAPI business owners (both men and women) is estimated to have decreased by more than a quarter since the start of the pandemic.
McAuley is one of the lucky ones. But she’s careful not to label herself as a victim.
“I don’t think being Asian is a disadvantage. I don’t think about race. You work hard, you get what you want,” she said. “Yes, we made it. We are not afraid. Whatever comes now, we are a survivor.”
Journey from surviving to thriving
With pandemic-related hardships in the rearview, Zen Thai Cafe is finally moving from surviving to thriving.
“I am able to take care of my employees and they can take care of their family,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have that happen. It’s a big responsibility, but being here today is the greatest thing. You know, mission accomplished.”
The care and responsibility she feels toward her employees extends to her guests as well. McAuley knows many of her regulars by name, and says she keeps in touch with them even after they move out of downtown.
Bringing people together as a restauranteur is like a form of “community service,” according to McAuley. and because of this commitment, she takes great pride in serving the freshest and healthiest ingredients possible.
Much of the meat and protein options are organic, with gluten-free and non-dairy alternatives when possible. From pad Thai and khao soi to boba teas and creative cocktails, “it’s a big menu over here,” she said. The goal is to offer lots of delicious and wholesome Thai-inspired options, where each person can discover their own personal favorite.
“I love to cook, but it’s not just the love of cooking. I love to eat,” she said. “And I love to prepare good food for my loved ones.”
Zen Thai Cafe is open 7 days a week at 110 N. Central Avenue.