College buddies Peter Ringold and Patrick McCredie started Satay with the scent of the roti and satay from Malaysia still fresh on their minds. After a backpacking trip throughout India, Malaysia, and Thailand, the idea for the restaurant we now know as Satay started growing in their minds. However, the process was not without elbow grease, and hard lessons learned. McCredie and Ringold started Satay with no prior restaurant experience. From ramen and pb&j's to putting Malaysia's skewered meats on the Seattle map, the two restaurant owners look back at the rocky journey of breaking through the unspoken barrier to entry.
Ringold: No, neither of us had any idea.
McCredie: Neither of us even knew how to cook!
Ringold: Yeah no, we had no kitchen experience.
What did you make in college?
McCredie: Uh, ramen and eggs. Peanut butter sandwiches and Nutella!
So how did the idea of opening Satay come about then?
Ringold: We were in KL, that's Kuala Lumpur, and the great thing is that you can get street food any time of night. If you're out at 2 in the morning and wanted to get some satay, some roti, you can. You can get it at 6 in the morning, or whenever. We loved the street food in Thailand, Malaysia, and India, but Malaysian food was our favorite. We knew this was very good, and you couldn't find it here (Seattle). Most of the Asian restaurants here have big, elaborate menus. What we really liked was the street food. They specialize in a few things and they just do those things really well. So we just thought, why not try that? My aunt is Malaysian. We stayed with her and her family in Malaysia. We knew she made really good food so she taught us how to make the food.
McCredie: The idea basically came when we were over there. We were over there for about a week and a half, and five out of seven days, we would go down to this little food court and have satay and roti, and just sit there for a couple hours and gorge ourselves on this great food.
Ringold: We started going to this Malaysian restaurant in college and we sort of just thought this could be a good idea. We don't really see anything like this, we know the food is really good and there really isn't anything like it. There wasn't one moment, but we liked the food, there was this idea, and we didn't really know what we were going to do when we graduated.
Did you have any problems getting started?
McCredie: We were figuring out what purveyors had certain products. We had to have certain products imported because they're specific to the food, some of the Asian food is harder to source than ingredients for a regular restaurant. We went to this place called King's Oriental, which was like a purveyor in the International District. She, [the owner], thought I was joking when I went in there. She thought, "Oh, it's just two white guys starting this restaurant." It was kind of hard just to break in. You have to earn people's trust saying, "You know, this is actually a legitimate enterprise. This is something that I actually want to start out doing." You kind of come in with these preconceived notions like, "Oh, I told them I was opening a restaurant, why don't they give me their pricelist?" Once you build a relationship with someone, it's easy. But there's definitely a barrier to entry where it's not like you're a standard diner and you can just get eggs and flour, and stuff like that.
Ringold: The curry powder, candle nuts, which we use in our peanut sauce, are the hard to find. The malay curry powder, have to find an inport-export house that'll sell it to you in bulk. That was all part of business-learning. I enjoy it. The amount of work starting out, it's a lot of work. That just comes with the business, just building systems and tweaking it. We're still working on projects all the time.
What has been the response from the local Malay community and other customers?
Ringold: It's surprising how many people have gone to Malaysia. We get some Malaysian customers, but we probably get more Indonesian customers and also some customers from Singapore.
McCredie: Indonesians, Singaporeans, and a lot of Indians too, and a lot of ethnic Chinese people as well.
Ringold; Because there are a lot of similarities between the cuisines. We have a loyal following of Malaysian customers. They like the satay, or mee gorang, or laksa. Especially laksa. Our Malaysian, Indonesian, and Singaporean customers order laksa a lot.
Do you plan on incorporating new dishes as time goes on?
Ringold: We might do a dish here and there, but it's basically going to stay constant. We've done a couple of specials but basically, it is what it is.
Has your aunt been able to try the food here?
Ringold: Oh yeah, all the time. She lives in Kirkland. We'd go to her house, and she'd teach us recipes. When we were setting up, she helped us a lot making sure all the food was up to par.
McCredie: She was our quality control.
Ringold: Now she brings her friends in, she comes in, has lunch on Saturday or Sunday.
So does everything that happen in Asia stay in Asia? Any interesting stories along the way?
Ringold: There's a story in India where we were going to a jungle lodge -- Patrick, myself, and our friend from India. The day before, Patrick got food poisoning. So we're going, and these are the worst words we've ever been on, and it's bumpy, bumpy, bumpy for four hours. We had to pull over three times so Patrick could puke out the window.
Was there anything about starting the business that you personally did not expect or weren't prepared for?
Ringold: The biggest thing was just how hard the industry was, how physically and mentally taxing it was going to be, but you can't fully appreciate it until you actually do it.
McCredie: I would have to agree.
Ringold: Yeah, when we started, we were working 50 to 100 hours a week.
McCredie: But, the silver lining is that we toughed it out. We're so much more productive than we used to be. We've gotten time off for ourselves. We've been able to have more like a real life now. The busy is still your baby, but things move out. That's what I tell people is that things do get better over time. It's not just the restaurant business. Any new job you take on, you do for a while and you get more confident.
What advice would you give to the next pack of young people without kitchen experience looking to start a restaurant?
Ringold: I would just say, talk to the people who are in it. We talk to a lot of people before we started, who had experience and good advice. Do as much research as you can, and talk to as many people who are in it as you can.
McCredie: My other advice would be, be focused and driven. It's a tough business so you [should] come into work with a fresh mind every day. I would say, tenacity, perseverance. If you tough it out, you have a great product, and you're friendly with people, you're going to make it. It's just like any other business. You've got your wear and tear, your good days and bad days. You've got your long hours but just have perseverance, just stick it out.