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Founders of Pumpui on Perfecting Takeout Service and Selling Merch to Finance Better Restaurant Working Conditions

Founders of Pumpui on Perfecting Takeout Service and Selling Merch to Finance Better Restaurant Working Conditions

When Jesse Mulder started Thai delivery service Chak Wow in 2012, he had aspirations of introducing Montrealers to the tastes he discovered while living and learning culinary skills in Thailand for nearly four years. 

Fast forward to 2017, Mulder’s aspirations of legitimizing Chak Wow with a brick and mortar space led to a partnership between him, Jesse Massumi, former manager of the Mile End’s Voro and Waverly and L’Express and Pied de Cochon, and Xavier Cloutier, a mechanical engineer looking to get into the foodservice industry. 

From that partnership, Epicerie Pumpui was born. Inspired by Ian khao gang (which means “shop rice curry”), Mulder and company wanted to bring this concept to Montreal for the first time. 

Since then, Pumpui has cemented itself as a destination for Thai food enthusiasts and rightfully garnered a cult-like following. But even beloved institutions have felt the impact of COVID-19. 

We caught up with Mulder, Massumi, Cloutier and Pumpui’s Manager, Hannah Rose Barry to learn how they’ve navigated their business through the pandemic up to this point, the challenges that come with supporting more takeout orders and how they’re using capital from merchandise sales to offer better working conditions for their employees. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity). 

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I remember Chak Wow, the Thai food delivery-only operation that essentially morphed into Pumpui once you all joined forces in 2017.

Let’s start off by telling our readers outside of Montreal what Epicerie Pumpui is and how it came to be?

Mulder: The idea for Pumpui came about after the birth of my son, which kind of kicked my butt into gear and made me seriously think about how I could legitimize my business at the time, Chak Wow, really build something for the future. 

At the time, I had only one partner and he exited pretty much right after we started Pumpui, which definitely left a void. At the time, my soon-to-be partners, Jesse and Xavier, were in the middle of starting their own business and initially wanted me to be one of their food suppliers, but I saw another opportunity. 

In our first meeting, I suggested that they drop their business idea and come onboard with me. They both had really specific skill sets that I didn’t have and, in my mind, it seemed like a really balanced, perfect partnership where each person brought something unique to the table that would help us run a successful brick-and-mortar operation.

What initially started as a way of me getting my act together, so to speak, led me to partner with Jesse and Xavier and turn Chak Wow, the underground delivery operation into Pumpui, a legitimate brick-and-mortar establishment. Since then, we’ve picked up a lot of momentum and things are going well. 

There certainly must have been challenges to starting a brick and mortar operation. What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome in the early days, transitioning from a delivery-only operation to a full-fledged brick-and-mortar operation? 

Mulder: I’m not a classically trained chef by any means. I actually started out as a home chef, so for me, the biggest challenge was just learning the ins and outs of the chef position in a restaurant setting and everything that comes with a management position. There was a steep learning curve for the logistics and people management side of things that I never really had to deal with before. 

Hannah: I also think that a big part of transitioning from Chak Wow to Pumpui was just adjusting to the increased sales volume and demand from customers. I don’t think we anticipated that big of a spike and that definitely came as a surprise. The hours we worked, the amount of food we prepared…we needed time to find our flow and adjust to a bigger workload. 

Mulder: That’s very true. Chak Wow had garnered a lot of hype and a really loyal customer base, so there was an anticipation and build-up for Pumpui. We knew we would be busy, but I don’t think any of us expected to what degree. I was blown away. 

Cloutier: Coming from an engineering background, I had no experience in the restaurant industry and remember a few times in that first couple of weeks seriously questioning whether or not it was something I wanted to continue pursuing. 75 to 80 hour weeks was tough, especially since I don’t think I really knew what I was getting into. It was a shock.  

Once things leveled out and we found our rhythm, we all got used to it and were able to focus on how much fun it is to interact with customers and have someone love what you’re producing for them. 

I’m interested in how you were early adopters of delivery and takeout before it was commonplace. Since COVID-19 hit, it’s basically become the standard for how to serve customers and a lot of restaurant operators are totally new to that world. 

Has the experience of running takeout-only models at Chak Wow helped you at Pumpui, especially since the crisis hit? 

Hannah: It’s interesting you mention that because we aren’t saying “no” as much on a daily basis as we used to. Pre-COVID, if we got requests for takeout orders on a Friday night, for example, and we’d always say no. We felt like people coming in and out of our restaurant to pick up their orders would compromise the experience of our table service guests. 

Now, though, it’s obviously a different situation. With no table service, we’re saying yes to any takeout order that comes in.

Massumi: Chak Wow was entirely delivery-based, so when we opened Pumpui, we really wanted to prioritize the experience of people eating on site. We didn’t take any advanced orders or schedule any pickups, it was really a first-come-first-serve mentality where we basically did a 180 from what Chak Wow was.  

Because we were so focused on the dining experience of people inside our establishment, pivoting back to delivery and takeout was actually a challenge. One thing we didn’t struggle with, though, is creating demand. We used to turn down takeout orders every day, so it was just a matter of saying yes to those orders and rolling with it. 

With seating capacities likely to be reduced post-pandemic, do you see Pumpui reverting back to that “no takeout and delivery orders” policy once you’re allowed to reopen for table service, or finding a way to balance that on-site customer experience with off-premise orders? 

Massumi: There isn’t really a way for us to know in advance, but, for a restaurant of our size—  about 450 square feet—we’ll definitely feel the effects of any seating restrictions. 

I think our strategy for reopening is to just not be part of the first wave rushing to get back to normal. We’re going to see how the dust settles and plan our own reopening based on how that goes. 

For the foreseeable future, we’re going to continue operating a strict takeout model while opting not to reopen for table service until we feel it’s safe and financially viable to do so. If the regulations around outdoor seating are loosened, expanding our patio out front is certainly something we’d explore as well.

With takeout and delivery now being the only way for people to support their favorite restaurants, have you noticed any differences in what type of food people are ordering or how often they order? 

Hannah: We run a pretty tight menu that consists of a few main dishes and a bunch of add-ons, but I’ve definitely noticed that people are feeling more experimental. They’re ordering a lot more food and there seems to be a desire to try a little bit of everything and explore dishes they might not have usually been open to trying. 

Massumi: Definitely. We used to take for granted that we could get whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted and that pretty much changed overnight. I think having that 24/7 access stripped away has made customers appreciative they can still enjoy some good food that’s prepared safely and with care, despite not being able to actually dine out. 

Cloutier: I think something that’s affecting how often people are ordering from restaurants is that takeout is one of the few experiences that people can still enjoy while respecting social distancing guidelines. Maybe that desire to experience something out of the ordinary is part of why we’re seeing more orders now. 

Mulder: To build off of what Xavier was saying, we’re using this situation as an opportunity to add some really playful, experimental dishes that we wouldn’t normally offer to our menu and seeing what’s well received by our customers. 

For example, now we have a hotdog on our menu. Four months ago, offering a hot dog at Pumpui was unthinkable, but we noticed that customers were being more adventurous with their orders and decided to follow suit by making our menu more experimental as well. 

Have you run into any logistical issues around delivery and takeout? 

Massumi: Over the past two and a half years, finding compostable, eco-friendly packaging that’s also durable enough to hold a curry, for example, is tough. Now, we’re spending upwards of $1,000 each month on compostable containers. It’s tough to find eco-friendly packaging that can also transport food well and, once you find it, it isn’t cheap. 

Another thing we’re dealing with is that takeout food has been historically perceived as cheaper than if you were to eat at a restaurant, but for a restaurant, it’s actually more expensive since there are more costs associated with that order. 

Hannah: Yeah, how customers perceive the value of a dish is another hurdle, I would say. For instance, when you order our Panang curry for sit down service, it looks beautiful, but in a takeout container, it doesn’t look like a $30 curry. Even if the ingredients are the best quality, the presentation kind of takes away from the dishes perceived value. 

I’m interested in how you’re approaching your menu these days. How do you go about building a menu that’s takeout and delivery friendly? 

Massumi: There are a few items, like soups, that we refuse to include in a takeout order because they don’t translate well into a takeout context. We want to serve good food at a decent price point and while keeping the customer experience high-quality. For takeout orders, that pretty much meant us eliminating any dish where transportation would compromise the dish’s quality or integrity. 

That was at the beginning, but now, since basically every order is for takeout, we’ve just eliminated those dishes from the menu altogether to simplify things. 

Cloutier: We also made a conscious effort to keep takeout dishes at a manageable price point. Usually, expensive dishes use high-quality ingredients and the portions aren’t as big. While that’s totally okay in a table service setting, it can make for a pretty lackluster experience for takeout—especially if that’s the only thing you ordered. We don’t want to risk our customers being hungry and dissatisfied after ordering from us. 

We’re pretty lucky to be serving the type of food that we do, though. There’s something that just feels right about eating pad thai out of a classic takeaway box. That certainly made transitioning our menu for takeaway a lot easier than it might have been for restaurants serving smaller, more refined dishes. 

Some pundits are claiming that this is the end of the restaurant industry as we know it. Once social distancing measures are relaxed, what do you think will be the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the industry?

Massumi: I think this whole situation has opened a lot of consumers’ eyes to how precarious of a situation a lot of restaurants are in, even in the best of times. We’re working on thin margins and face quite a few regulatory burdens, but since those issues didn’t affect a lot of people, most weren’t really aware. 

Now, though, we’re seeing restaurants close at an unprecedented rate. If there’s a second wave, we’ll see even more close for good. While the underlying issues that make restaurants so vulnerable used to be easy to ignore, now, they’re at the forefront of people’s conscience and I think that’ll have a lasting impact on how they perceive and value restaurants. 

We’ve seen a lot of resourcefulness and innovation from brands as a result of this pandemic, but also in how consumers interact with them. Have you noticed a change in consumer psyche over the past couple of months?

Hannah: Building off of what Jesse just said, I think that this whole situation has given consumers a newfound appreciation for what restaurant owners, operators and employees go through to run a safe, successful establishment. 

Nothing gives you a greater perspective for the things you used to take for granted like having them taken away from you, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here with COVID-19. 

Massumi: Yeah, that and just awareness of how integral small businesses in general—not just restaurants—are for the community. Not only do we employ a large portion of the Nation’s workforce, we’re also big contributors to grassroots initiatives, and support and enrich the boroughs we operate in. 

Let’s talk about merch. Something I find really interesting is that Pumpui has a legit online store, where customers can buy branded merchandise, to compliment your a-la-carte menu,  online delivery and takeout service. 

For our readers, what led you to explore partnering with local artists and selling merch?

Massumi: I think a lot of our desire to get into merch came from how we grew up skateboarding, doing graffiti and living in the city. Everyone wanted to make t-shirts and just do cool stuff and, now that we have a platform and a customer base, we had a great opportunity to partner with some of our creative friends and make cool merch. 

We’re all creative at heart, and branching out into merch gives us the opportunity to do more than just food. Merch that’s made in partnership with local artists also lends itself really well to our restaurant’s culture, what we support and stand for. 

Jesse Massumi (left) and Xavier Cloutier (right) wearing Pumpui merch

At first, I resisted setting up an online store and selling merch. It all felt very capitalistic and disconnected, but Ryan and Marley from Elena planted the seed to set up an online store and sell merch because theirs was catching on and selling like crazy all over the world. 

Once COVID-19 hit, I was sitting around home with nothing going on and decided to use that time to put our online store together and I’m very happy we did it. Our online store was actually the base for how we would eventually start taking online orders for the restaurant, so I’d say it was definitely worthwhile. 

And from just a branding perspective, it’s great to see more and more consumers choosing to support local establishments as well. 

Cloutier: Definitely. Working in a restaurant, most of what you sell is consumable. Once the person eats your food, your product is gone. But with merch, your business gets so much more visibility. It’s nice to sell something that lasts a long time and that’s a visual signal of someone supporting a local restaurant. 

Massumi: And this whole restaurant merch thing is a pretty recent development. You never used to see people in the street wearing a restaurant hat or t-shirt, but now, we see it more and more. It used to make me feel weird, but if a customer has the option of supporting and representing a giant multinational retailer or their local businesses, it’s cool that they’re making a conscious decision to shop local. 

Has selling merch and actively pursuing an alternative revenue stream worked out on the financial side of things? 

Massumi: We didn’t really start selling merch exclusively to fulfill some bottom-line objective or garner more clout. Our merch sales actually help us pay our staff well above minimum wage and not have their salary and quality of life essentially rely on tips. That’s something we felt really strongly about. . 

For us, selling merchandise permits us to better the working environment for our staff. They don’t need to go through the same stuff I did coming up in this industry. It’s very important for us to change the narrative and set a better standard for others to follow, and merch helps finance those initiatives, which everyone we’re responsible for benefits from. We are also launching a group health care plan for our team, starting July 1st.

That’s so cool! You’re manifesting the change that you want to see in the industry and walking the talk. 

Massumi: We’re a twelve seat restaurant that sells $15 curry—if we can find a way to pay employees fairly and give them better working conditions and still turn a profit, any establishment can. It’s just a question of being creative, finding solutions to any blockers you face and sacrificing a little profit to make sure your staff are taken care of. 

Cloutier: Every person that works here is integral to the operation. If you want people to feel involved, you need to pay them a fair wage and actually show them that they’re valued. 

Mulder: Yeah, that typical restaurant model just doesn’t align with our moral and ethical values, so what’s the point of pursuing that? We wanted to create a working environment that we wish we could have worked in when we were starting out, and I like to think that we’ve succeeded. 

Let’s talk about brand tone. What do you think is the most important thing for restaurant operators to keep in mind when building and nurturing their community right now? 

Massumi: Honestly, I think that if your business needs to do something out of the ordinary to show its values, then there’s already a problem. Anything you say or do should be a natural extension of who you are as a brand and that needs to feel authentic. 

For Pumpui, specifically, we’re constantly doing fundraisers to support a variety of causes, from supporting healthcare workers to funding the repairs of a temple in Côte des Neiges that had its statues vandalized, and now with the Black Lives Matter movement and doing everything we can to help end systemic racismit’s always been important for us to support these causes. 

We don’t need to fake anything or form a special social media plan because this is just who we are and what we stand for. It always has been. We’ve always felt strongly about playing an active role in our community, so for us, I’d say the focus is on continuing to support the causes we believe strongly in. 

Yeah, authenticity certainly is key. You can’t just turn that kind of initiative on out of nowhere and expect it to work; it has to be a part of the business’s culture. 

Massumi: Yeah, one thing that I thought was super cool was your Lightspeed Local initiative where each Lightspeed employee was given $500 to spend at local businesses. It’s impactful because you’ve always believed in shopping local. It doesn’t feel fake. 

What’s next for Pumpui in the coming months? 

Massumi: We have a few initiatives coming up that we don’t want to announce quite yet, so stay tuned [laughs]. In all seriousness, though, we’ve come a long way in the past two and a half years and we’re definitely not going to rest on our laurels. We still have a lot we want to accomplish.

Cloutier: Of course, if the past couple months have taught us anything, it’s that things can basically change overnight. We don’t want to plan anything too far in advance as a result, but we’re anticipating a busy summer and working to get the business ready for that spike in demand.

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