CHARLESTON — Siam Thai Restaurant co-owner Maspaka "Mao" Pounginjai has gotten to know her regular customers on a first name basis and to think of them as family since she and business partner Juthamas Wangmune opened their Charleston eatery in 2015.
Consequently, Pounginjai said she was deeply moved when some of her customers visited her at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana after a Sept. 27 crash that put her in the hospital for 27 days, injured Wangmune and their friend and cook Natruedee Srisamran, and resulted in Siam Thai being closed for more than three months.
"They were worried about how we were going to get well. They cared about us. I so appreciate what the customers did. It makes you feel a lot better when you have people who care about you," Pounginjai said. She added that many other customers kept in contact with her via Siam Thai's Facebook page and prayed for their recovery.
Pounginjai got to reunite with her extended family of customers at Siam Thai on Jan. 6 when she, Wangmune and Srisamran reopened their restaurant at 453 Lincoln Ave., located across from Eastern Illinois University's Old Main administration and classroom building. Pounginjai said many of their regular customers stopped by for a meal or just to "say 'Hi' and see how we were doing."
"I am really happy. On the first day back, they came and supported us," Pounginjai said.
Siam Thai's owners, who are both Urbana residents, started building that customer base in November 2015 when they opened their eatery in a storefront at the University Village retail center where a previous Thai restaurant had been located. Pounginjai noted that her husband, Somchai Pounginjai, owns and operates a Vietnamese restaurant, Xinh Xinh Cafe, in downtown Urbana.
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Pounginjai focused on working in the dining room and at the cash register from the very beginning, while Wangmune focused on cooking in the kitchen. Wangmune said her English language skills are limited, so she does not talk a lot with her customers.
Still, Wangmune said she always smiles when she sees familiar faces return to Siam Thai for her pad Thai or pad see-ew noodle dishes, pineapple fried rice, or other food that she prepares. Wangmune said having to be away from her kitchen while she recovered from the Sept. 27 crash was difficult.
"I missed cooking. I love cooking," Wangmune said.
Pounginjai said the crash occurred at approximately 10 p.m. while she, Wangmune and Srisamran were returning to Urbana after their work day at Siam Thai. Pounginjai said their sport utility vehicle was "T boned" by a car that ran a stop sign along Illinois Route 130 near Villa Grove.
All three women in the SUV were injured, and Pounginjai suffered the worst injuries as she was thrown from the vehicle. Pounginjai said her injuries, predominately on her left side, included fractures around her shoulder, two cracked ribs and a broken ankle.
Pounginjai said two months passed before she was able to walk by herself and she is slated to continue going to physical therapy for the next six to 18 months. Pounginjai said she has needed to reduce her workload due to the injuries and hire extra staff to help with the dining room, but she is still thankful that the injuries were not worse.
"It was a really bad accident. I am lucky I am here today," Pounginjai said.