Nation of Immigrants: How Thailand Came to St. Robert, Missouri
This is the third in a series of articles featuring immigrant- and refugee-owned restaurants in enclaves located outside of major US cities.
All photos by Nick Gomer.
Mobile Thai Kitchen is a little white box that sits in a parking lot between a gray warehouse and a bland, brown strip mall along Route 44, the major drag that cuts through St. Robert, Missouri. In freezing February, the flowers in the trough, which blocks sight of the food truck's wheels, were tinder. But even after 1 PM—the end of the military lunch break—locals were parked, waiting for their food.
The parking lot is filled with a few other food stands now, too. A red barn serving barbecue is doing almost as much business. It's the beginning of a food truck park, a trend that's become ubiquitous in major cities—but in St. Robert, population 4,300, the center of the misty Missouri Ozarks, there were no food trucks until Thippawan and Steven Shutts came to town.
Steven, who's been in the Army for 24 years, was transferred to Fort Leonard Wood, which is due south of St. Robert, in 2014. Thip (pronounced Tip) was born in Roi Et in eastern Thailand. The couple met in Germany in 2004. Thip was visiting and Steven was stationed at a base there.
During his second and third deployments to Iraq, he used all his R&R visiting Thip in Thailand. They got married and when he returned to United States she and her daughter joined him at his base near Colorado Springs.
Thip, the oldest of four girls, left school in the sixth grade for a sewing job to support her family. There was no plumbing or running water in her home. Electricity was limited. She was married, unofficially, at 13 years old and gave birth to her daughter soon after. Her husband left, and she cut rice in the fields. She moved to Bangkok for work, then to Phuket.
Thip likes feeling in control. She laughs at the American work ethic.
In Colorado Springs, Thip went to work as a waitress in a Thai restaurant. Despite a life in Thailand, it was in Colorado that she learned to cook Thai food: Her hometown lacked the refrigeration and abundance necessary for a consistent cuisine to develop. Steven, Thip's biggest fan, claims that she has a photographic memory and the mental acuity of a rocket scientist, and that she picked up the restaurant's recipes just by watching. Soon, she was the de facto manager of the restaurant, overseeing employees with stern glances.
In St. Robert, she got a job in food service on Fort Leonard Wood, making basic meals for thousands of hungry soldiers.
Fort Leonard Wood houses 13,000 military personnel with thousands more coming in and out for short stints. According to the 2010 Census, 2.7 percent of St. Robert's residents were born in Thailand, making it one of the densest Thai enclaves in the country. This, according to the Shutts and several other locals I spoke with, is almost entirely the result of the military: Most are Thai spouses of servicemembers, romances started during stints abroad.
"I used to joke that one single American servicemember was going import three or four foreigners on average," said Margaret Stock, a retired Lieutenant Colonel and attorney at an immigration law firm in Anchorage, Alaska. She's written extensively about immigration law as it pertains to military servicemembers.
"It's not anything new," she said of the immigration patterns of military spouses. "It's been a historical phenomenon that when the US military deploys overseas—and right now we're deployed in more than 120 countries around the globe—servicemembers don't sit on their bunks and play solitaire every night. They go out and they meet people and they socialize. Through work they encounter folks in the foreign country."
To her knowledge, no data has been collected on the number of immigrants who've come to the country as a result of connections to the military, and I couldn't find any either, but Stock estimates that it's substantial.
As the military shifts in deployment regions, the countries from which military spouses are emigrating changes.
"It went on in World War I. It went on during the Philippine insurrection," Stock said. "People would deploy to the Philippines and meet a Filipino lady and want to get married and there are whole communities of Americans married to foreigners in countries around the globe. I was stationed in Japan and there were piles of military and civilian employees of the US government in Japan who were married to Japanese women and men."
The work in the restaurant on base was artless, and Thip was put off by the poor work ethic of her coworkers.
"I got sick and tired of working for other people who are taking advantage of other people," she said. "I was like, 'I've had enough. I'm starting my own business.' We had been talking about it for five years."
She wanted a brick-and-mortar restaurant but they didn't have the capital, so Steven began researching food trucks. He cashed in an IRA and went into debt with a local credit union. They had the Mobile Thai Kitchen built custom out of Florida and, in 2015, they opened for business in a parking lot on the base. Steven would wake up at 3:30 AM, drive the trailer over to the lot to reserve a space at 4:30 AM, level it, set up the generator, and then head to work. Thip cooked with an entirely immigrant staff (women from Thailand, Germany, Mexico, and Nigeria) from about 8 AM to 8 PM. Then the couple would drag the kitchen home and clean until 11 PM.
"There was not a lot of sleep," Steven said.
Thip developed a cell phone pick-up system to accommodate the overwhelming orders but, after a few months, the military told them to move off base. (Neither party was interested in discussing the details.) They bounced around, setting up outside of furniture stores, until February of last year, when Steven pitched the strip mall owner the idea of building a food park with reliable power, water, and sewage.
For now, the trailer has a permanent home in the lot.
Thip's biggest challenge is the same thing she got into the business for: "Doing everything on my own."
She's a quiet bad cop to Steven's good cop and employees know, from her stern looks, when they've made a mistake.
Their eight-year-old son likes to run orders out to customers and collect tips. The pad Thai is the truck's bestseller but regulars who've tried the pad bai kra paw and pad woon sen tend to come back to those. Steven makes the nearly three-hour roundtrip drive to an Asian market in Springfield every week to pick up rice, fish sauce, chili peppers, and bean sprouts. Thip got nerve damage in her arm from lifting double orders in the wok. To give her rest, the family took a three-week trip to Thailand last year. Some regulars bought four or five dishes in advance and froze them. When they came back, regulars, suffering withdrawal, swarmed the truck for two weeks and the nerve damage returned. The truck's kitchen is spotless, equipped with a dozen of Steven's contraptions for catching oil or hoisting order tickets. In the summer, the trailer hits 130 degrees. (Thip, unimpressed: "We survived.") Steven retires this year and the Shutts are hoping to take the truck north when it gets hot.
The online reviews of the truck are near perfect, but for now Thip and Steven are still under water.
"We're still in that period of paying off mode," Steven said. "It's working. We're just in debt but we gotta come out of that."
Steven sticks to the truck maintenance and leaves most of the control, including the menu, to Thip—but earlier this year he added one popular item.
"Thinly sliced apples with cinnamon sugar sprinkled on them, rolled up in an egg roll wrap, deep-fried," he said.
An apple pie eggroll. "Everybody loved it," he said, smiling at Thip.
Alas, this world is too complicated for such an on-the-nose metaphor.
Thip, who doesn't like cinnamon, cut it from her menu. It was messing up her oil.