Cooking up community: The UCLA student behind Poom Thai Cuisine

Poom, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, poses in his restaurant. On top of classwork, Poom works six night shifts per week. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

By Alicia Carhee, Sam Mulick

May 20, 2024 at 1:13 a.m.

“Dine in or takeout?”

Holding the door open, Poom Yoodee greets you with a smile and heavy bags under his eyes. The 22-year-old is clad in a navy blue suit – unexpected for a modest family restaurant. He directs you to a small dining room with flourishing plants, an antique cash register and two enormous fish tanks. In the corner atop a small wooden table, a vintage record player serenades diners with Frank Sinatra’s “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

The storefront of Poom Thai Cuisine in Santa Monica is pictured. The Thai spot is owned and operated by UCLA student, Poom Yoodee. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

It is around 8 p.m. on a Friday evening – a rush hour at the restaurant – and Poom is about to begin the 31st hour of his 54-hour work week. And that’s not including class time.

Poom is a full-time, fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student at UCLA. He is also the co-owner of his family’s restaurant, Poom Thai Cuisine. Just four months before graduation, the former Undergraduate Students Association Council presidential candidate made a sudden shift in February to run the family restaurant following his mother’s death. Now, he juggles the demands of school with the weighty responsibility of caring for the restaurant six nights a week to preserve his mother’s legacy.

A 20-minute drive from UCLA, Poom Thai’s inconspicuous storefront sits down the street from Mel’s Drive-In off Interstate 10 in Santa Monica. Since it opened in September 2003, Poom Thai has built a reputation as the local Thai restaurant with guests’ signatures lining the walls, according to Poom. Open six days a week from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., the restaurant is a home for locals, tourists and college students in search of a hot meal after midnight – especially the pad see ew.

The roles are seemingly simple. Poom handles customers and the business’s finances, while his father Saran Yoodee whips up appetizers and curries and Chef Martin prepares main courses. At the end of the night, Poom closes the accounts while his father washes the dishes. Poom tries to pitch in with the dishes, but his dad tells him not to.

Yet Poom’s average work day is anything but “average.” When he’s not in class, he’s attending meetings for Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity, the USAC Judicial Board and CityLabatUCLA. And after his eight-hour restaurant shift, Poom finds time to finish up his homework.

A customer’s plate features a mixture of rice, noodle and curry dishes prepared by Poom’s father and their cook, Chef Martin. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

Poom didn’t always play this large of a role at Poom Thai.

On a Tuesday in February, Saran called Poom from the restaurant. Poom’s mother, Salila Yoodee, was having trouble breathing. Poom soon learned that she had suffered a stroke, which he said he believes to be from overworking herself at the restaurant. He recounted that a particularly unsympathetic doctor said she had a slim chance of survival.

“That was the day that really changed my life,” Poom said. “I didn’t get any sleep that night.”

When describing his mother, the first thing Poom said is that she was the kindest person he has ever met. He remembers Salila giving cookies to children who walked through the restaurant, as well as free Thai iced tea to delivery drivers. She knew what grueling minimum wage jobs were like.

“She would just be here, and even though she couldn’t speak English, they (customers) would just know her for her smile,” Poom said.

Poom said he would carve out one free day in his weekly class schedule to take his mom out for lunch. They would go wherever she wanted, such as having lunch in Thai Town or grocery shopping in Monterey Park. Poom never wanted to do these things when he was younger, he said, but he enjoyed learning more about his mom during these outings.

After her hospitalization, Poom visited her in the hospital every day until she died a week later. During their final moments together, Poom promised he would take care of the restaurant and attend law school.

Now, Poom said he thinks about her the most at the end of a long day in the restaurant and when imagining graduation.

“I think about all the things she had to go through. So many years of hard work,” he said. “And only to not see me walk.”

Poom took a long pause. As he composed himself, he reflected on how difficult Salila’s job was.

“There’s not a lot of people like her left in the world.”

But Poom is certain that his mother would not want him to be sad when there is a restaurant and a community to take care of.

“I knew that if she could speak, she would not want me to just be sad and have the restaurant closed,” he said. “This was her life. So for me, it was a sense of pride and also a sense of duty. I had to do it. And it was exciting. It was exciting. Really exciting.”

Picking up his mother’s ownership stake at their restaurant was a no-brainer for Poom. After all, he grew up at the business that bears his name.

Saran said he immigrated to the United States from Thailand when he was 21. He spent years working in restaurants as a waiter, cook and delivery driver, where he then met Salila while waiting tables together. Years later, with a newborn baby and a family to support, Saran knew he never wanted anyone in his family to answer to someone else again.

“Nobody can tell my family that,” he said. “That’s why I don’t like to work for somebody anymore. I want to be my own boss.”

Poom stands with his father, Saran Yoodee, in front of the plants that decorate their family-owned restaurant’s dining room. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

He began searching and searching for a place to start his own restaurant. One day when Poom was a few months old, Saran was driving around Santa Monica when Salila called, asking if he had found a location yet for their dream. Saran pulled over to take the phone call and looked up to see a vacant storefront – a stroke of luck. He immediately knew what to name the place.

“We believe that when you have a baby, it’s the most lucky,” Saran said. “I opened this restaurant, and then for the lucky thing, I have my baby that I put their name on it.”

“I opened this restaurant, and then for the lucky thing, I have my baby that I put their name on it.”

The name worked. Poom Thai Cuisine is now the longest-running Thai restaurant in Santa Monica’s Lincoln neighborhood, from San Vicente Boulevard to the Santa Monica airport, Saran said.

The restaurant has been Poom’s second home since he was 9 months old. During his childhood naps, Poom and his parents would arrange chairs against the wall as makeshift beds. What started with two chairs turned into three, then four, until he eventually resorted to sleeping in the car. Around third or fourth grade, he began helping his parents in the restaurant, gradually transitioning to an official role on the payroll during high school.

Yet Poom said that growing up in a restaurant did not always create fond memories. Throughout his childhood, he said he could not enjoy weekends or do fun activities with his parents, as his responsibilities kept him tethered to the restaurant.

“I did not have the kind of normal American childhood,” he said. “Our whole lives was the restaurant – if anything, I hated that fact.”

A variety of plants and some lanterns are pictured. This abundance of greenery and antiques sets the tone for Poom Thai’s atmosphere. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

Despite his initial resentment, Poom grew to love the restaurant. Drawing from his upbringing in the tight-knit family restaurant, Poom now strives to foster community on campus — juggling his time as the President of Alpha Phi Omega and as an Associate Justice of the Undergraduate Students Association Judicial Board.

Tim Jun, a third-year mechanical engineering student and member of Alpha Phi Omega, said Poom made a big impact on his college experience. From treasure hunting to wandering around UCLA and rambling about its history, Jun said little moments with Poom have mattered most to him.

When Jun’s own father fell ill, he felt comfortable confiding in Poom.

“Instead of comforting me, there was a long period where he was just crying with me,” Jun said. “It was very genuine, and I really appreciated how much it felt like he was there with me.”

After Poom’s mother died, Poom maintained a strong commitment to the fraternity, Jun said.

Seeking to widen his impact on campus, Poom ran for president during the 2023-2024 election, focusing his platform on collaborating with the Mother Organizations coalition and other retention programs, as well as improving transparency with university-wide spending.

As a commuter student and the son of immigrant parents, Poom said he understood firsthand the importance of stretching a dollar and how college tuition expenses can put a toll on students – especially those who are first-generation, international or people of color.

“Our diverse communities in Los Angeles are probably one of the most underpaid. So why are we charging so much that we (UCLA) advertise that we get our strength from our diversity?” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Despite not clinching the election, community-building remains at the forefront of his mind. Poom said that along with the restaurant’s menu, which his father handpicked, their competitive edge as a business is their community-first approach. That’s why he knows the name of almost every customer who walks through his doors.

Leafy plants and lucky cats adorn the restaurant. Over the past 21 years, the business has become Poom’s home away from home. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

“A lot of customers are meaningful to me because they kind of made up my childhood,” Poom said. “They’re the people that I saw the most.”

Poom’s customers rely on him just as much as the restaurant relies on them. The first customer that comes to mind for Poom is the man who ordered wonton soup every single day for his terminally ill father. The customer later wrote a letter saying he believed the wonton soup kept his father alive for a few more months.

Poom is hesitant to mention recently catering Academy Award-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen’s son’s bachelor party or that NBA legend Bill Walton stopped by for a quick meal. He’s more interested in telling you about a customer who was in her third year at UCLA when Poom was 7 years old – now returning to the restaurant after recently having a baby.

Poom said this is what life is all about – getting to witness the full circle of someone’s life just by working at a restaurant. Although Poom Thai Cuisine doesn’t have a Michelin star, he grins with pride when he says that they’ve had two proposals in the restaurant.

A brown box of fried rice is pictured. Customers can order Poom Thai Cuisine delivery throughout the night and early morning. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

“They don’t forget you if the food is good, and if you’re kind,” he said. “That’s the sense of community that’s around my restaurant.”

Signatures, names, stories and quotes are written in different colored markers all over the restaurant. This tradition began when Poom’s grandmother swiftly rejected their neighbor’s suggestion of a guestbook for their grand opening, declaring instead that guests could just write on the wall. Now, above the middle table and next to traditional Thai hats, huge text reads, “MAKE POOM NOT WAR.” In other spots, customers marked their “first sit-down meal after pandemic,” or a manifesto about how a meal at Poom Thai redefined one customer’s idea of comfort food.

This is the community Poom was thinking of when he promised his mother he would pursue a career in law, he said. He hopes to gain the legal knowledge and community organizing skills to prevent anyone from bullying his family or neighbors, like when he witnessed customers take advantage of his mother because she could not speak English.

“This is my community. No one’s gonna come in and bully. No developer who’s gonna buy out city blocks and make apartments for millionaires. No one’s gonna look down on small businesses,” he said. “I can’t stand that kind of bullying.”

Poom Thai Cuisine has a reputation of letting customers write notes on the walls, including signatures and messages of peace. (Charlotte Bradley-McKinnon/Daily Bruin)

But Poom will not head to law school right away. After graduation, he said he is excited to fully dive into the work of the restaurant with plans to renovate and expand the space. After running the place for months, he admits that he needs to truly learn the family business and practice cooking the menu with his dad.

But this should not be too hard. As his dad said, Poom comes from a long line of men in his family who have a gift of cooking.

Poom knows it may take a few more years than he initially planned, but eventually, he will attend law school. Before that, Poom wants to show his community exactly how grateful he is for their support.

“When I get that diploma, I plan on fully hanging it in the restaurant,” he said. “And then just putting up a poster that says, ‘Thank you, Santa Monica.’”

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