Lay and Lilly Sihapanya, proprietors of Thai Basil in Largo, went from tenants to owners when they purchased the building that houses the restaurant they started 18 years ago.
They plan to expand the restaurant and add a brewery in what is now vacant space in the building at 1700 West Bay Dr. in Largo.
For the couple, who immigrated to the United States from southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, owning a business and commercial real estate is living the American dream, said Lay Sihapanya.
It took along time for the couple to save the money for the purchase.
“It took over 10 years and was not easy. There was a lot of saving and we were careful spending, but when you have a plan and a goal in mind, that’s what you have to do,” he said.
Panya Plaza LLC, a company established by the Sihapanyas, paid $1.25 million for the 10,000-square-foot shopping center in a deal that closed April 30, purchasing it from their long-time landlord.
Helping with the deal were Kurt Gleeson, a real estate attorney with Bailey & Glasser in St. Petersburg and a loyal customer at Thai Basil, and Tony Wagner, senior commercial loan officer at Centennial Bank, where the couple got a Small Business Administration loan.
While the transaction size was relatively modest, the couple’s story makes the deal stand out.
They were children whose families lived in Laos when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Many Laotian citizens who were suspected of supporting the United States or South Vietnam were killed or sent to re-education camps by the newly installed Communist government. Their families fled Laos to refugee camps in Thailand, before immigrating to the U.S. — Lay’s family to California and Lilly’s family to Georgia. Neither spoke English at the time.
“When I grew up, I went to Georgia to be with my sisters and my cousins. That’s how I met my wife – she was my cousin’s neighbor,” Lay Sihapanya said. “We got married and then moved to Florida to open the restaurant.”
For many immigrants, restaurants are the American dream, wrote Nation’s Restaurant News in a 2017 report.
“Anyone who starts a business has to have a lot of courage,” Charley Shin, CEO of Gosh Enterprises, said in the report. “When someone is leaving their own country and going to a foreign land, they are inherently more courageous people. They are much more entrepreneurial.”
The Sihapanyas’ first restaurant was on East Bay Drive, where Lilly worked the front and Lay worked the back for five years. When Lay’s sister came to visit, they hired her and several family members, and in 2003 they opened a second restaurant, the current Thai Basil on West Bay. They sold the East Bay location three years ago.
Thai Basil features traditional Thai food, modified slightly for American tastes, he said.
“I like to cook,” Lay said. “When people eat my food and they are happy, it makes me happy.”
They started to think about buying the West Bay property just a couple of years after opening the restaurant. They told the owner, the late Harold Huber, if he ever wanted to sell, they would be the first to buy. Huber died six or seven years ago, Sihapanya said, and his son and grandson recently decided to sell the property, which also is home to a furniture consignment shop.
The Sihapanyas plan to expand their Sushi bar and add a brewery in the vacant space between the consignment shop and the existing restaurant. They are applying for a liquor license so they can sell craft beer.
Legal, financial help
While Thai Basil saw some impact from Covid-19, Sihapanya said they have a loyal customer base that helped them get through the pandemic.
When they got the opportunity to buy the building, Chris Sanford, president of CKS Tax Inc. in Largo, introduced the couple to Wagner at Centennial Bank in St. Petersburg. Wagner helped them get an SBA 7(a) loan and advised them to get a good real estate attorney to help them through the process. That’s when they turned to one of their loyal customers, Kurt Gleeson, who had been dining at Thai Basil since it opened in 2003 and became friends with the couple.
The SBA 7(a) loan program allows a borrower to make a real estate purchase with a cash down payment as low as 10 percent, compared to 25 percent or more down payment required for a conventional loan. “Borrowers can get into a building or equipment for a lower dollar amount and cash flow is king for small businesses,” Wagner said.
The SBA typically charges a 3 percent fee to borrowers, but it currently has a program waiving all costs and fees for borrowers who apply, are approved and close by Sept. 27, 2021, Wagner said. In addition, because of Covid, the SBA is making loan payments of up to $9,000 for up to five months for loans that close by Sept. 27 and not requiring repayment, he said.
“It’s a great program to help people get kickstarted. You are saving tens of thousands of dollars you don’t have to pay back,” Wagner said.
Centennial, part of Home BancShares (Nasdaq: HOMB) in Conway, Arkansas, became one of the larger banks in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area after buying Bay Cities Bank in 2015. Centennial had 11 local offices, including one at 4845 4th St. N. in St. Petersburg, and about $850 million in local deposits as of June 30, 2020, according to the most recent data available from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.