“It’s not a straight, linear thing,” says Wayla owner Erika Chou of how each of her concepts have developed over time, but the statement characterizes her professional path just as well. With a background spanning fine arts and fashion, and experience in the fast-casual and full-service realms in multiple U.S. cities, the restaurateur brings unique perspectives to this LES Thai hotspot. So today — as we celebrate Wayla becoming our newest NYC partner — it felt like the perfect opportunity to ask her how this particular project came to be, and what makes it so special:
I remember the very first time I came across your name, it was in an article about a restaurant on Clinton Street…
Yes — Yunnan Kitchen! That was my first New York project. We opened it back in 2012. That was ages ago in restaurant years. To think: Instagram existed already but wasn’t really a thing yet.
Ah, the glory days of photo filters. Speaking of, do you feel like Instagram changed how you think as a business owner, and specifically as a restaurateur?
Yes and no. My background is in fine arts, so I have always been very creative, especially digitally. I also worked in fashion for a bit, on production photography, advertising campaigns, editorials, that kind of thing. Instagram has definitely made people pay much more attention to the experience and design of things, which I think is awesome. Now, as a team, we are able to focus more on those aspects than we might have once upon a time.
Do you feel like you focus on those things a lot here at Wayla?
I am a business owner — I focus on everything! [laughs] I am friends with Chef Tom’s [Naumsuwan] wife, and she asked me if I could help them with the design and branding for a Thai restaurant he wanted to open in Manhattan. But we [at Rivers and Hills Hospitality Group, of which Chou is the managing partner] are a small team, so we’re used to being involved in every aspect. We have to look at a given project holistically. For us, what was different with Wayla is that the partnership really came together through friends and with friends.
Some people might argue that that makes things even tougher.
The way I see it, the project is very important, but — in a lot of ways — who you work with feels more important. I think part of the reason this works is because of that pre-existing friendship. We trust each other.
That trust is paramount. Your neighbors have to trust you, too. We’ve all had that experience where a new place opens on our block and it’s like “Oh, look what the cat dragged in” because it doesn’t feel like they’ve paid attention to the neighborhood at all.
Totally. It has to be the right fit. Funny thing is, a lot of our regulars on Clinton Street were from the Upper West or Upper East Side. For a time, we thought we’d open up there. But when we landed here on Forsyth, the thinking was, okay, what can we do to be good neighbors? We actually opened Kodawari [their coffee shop upstairs from Wayla] as an amenity to people living upstairs and in the area. Little Wayla [their takeaway spot next door] is meant to be the kind of affordable but delicious lunch you could eat everyday. It wasn’t just about diversifying our spaces. Community really matters.
Absolutely, and we’re glad you all have chosen to be a part of ours. Could you explain why you felt Wayla and inHouse were a good fit?
Of course we all crave human connection. But we all work so hard in this industry, it can be hard to make the time to forge relationships with one another. At the same time, we are all responsible to each other as business owners. I like how inHouse is kind of a bridge between guests and restaurants, as well between industry professionals.
As an industry veteran — having experienced restaurant openings, closings, rebranding, successes, and failures — what are some of the things you’ve learned, that you could share with these peers?
Maybe the big lesson for me was: don’t keep anything too precious. Each business is going to take on a life of its own. You have to be in tune with what’s developing there organically, keep observing, listening to what our customers want, and seeing what’s happening in the market. In short, always be ready to pivot. I try my best to have that open attitude, that sense of adventure and discovery about things.
What have you discovered about Wayla so far?
It’s a tricky space. When you first walk in, you don’t have a clear visual on everything. It’s cut up into these different little compartments. So we had to embrace the fact that we are in this cavernous, maze-like space. In terms of design, we tried to play with textures, to make it so that there are all these little hidden details you can discover. There’s that huge contrast between going into this dark, intimate basement and emerging into this free-flowing, open outdoor area. We focused a lot of attention on the backyard
And in terms of Thai food — far from an underrepresented cuisine here in New York — what do you feel like Wayla’s niche is?
The food here is grounded in homestyle cooking. I feel like that’s what really resonates with people. Sometimes I think we almost over-exoticize ethnic foods here, as if Thai food must be all about super spicy or really weird cuts of meat, and so on. The honest, simple food really strikes a different chord.
Totally hear you. It’s not boastful, not trying to show off…
It’s just, you know, normal… in a really good way! [laughs]