Tigard-based Typhoon's decision to shutter all four of its Oregon restaurants last week capped years of troubles for the once acclaimed Thai restaurant chain, which has faced a series of allegations of worker discrimination, pay violation and tax evasion.
On a less litigious note, the fall of the house of Typhoon offers a snapshot of the changes facing ethnic restaurants in Portland, a city recognized nationwide for its culinary prowess.
One change hinges on the E-2 Visa program, which allows foreign investors to enter and work in the United States. Employees can also be hired under the E-2 program, but only if they possess highly specialized skills essential to the operation of the business.
Fifteen years ago, “E-2 visas were probably critical, if you valued truly authentic Thai cuisine,” says Kurt Huffman, a Portland restaurant consultant who owns eight restaurants, including Ping, an Asian restaurant in Old Town/Chinatown that opened in 2009. At the time, it was difficult to find local workers skilled in many types of ethnic cooking, he said. There also weren’t many U.S. nationals operating authentic ethnic restaurants.
But today, says Huffman, “the restaurant industry and the level of education and competency around a diversity of ethnic foods have grown so much.” As a result, the E- 2 visa program is much less important, he says.
Exhibit A is Pok Pok, the nationally acclaimed Thai restaurant run by Andy Ricker — “a white guy,” as Huffman puts it.
Huffman consulted with Ricker on Pok Pok, and Ricker was one of Ping’s original partners. Neither restaurant employs E-2 Visa workers.
Founded by husband and wife team Steve and Bo Kline—the latter is a Thai native —Typhoon opened in 1995, earning rave reviews for ushering in a new era of original and authentic Thai cuisine. "More complex and interesting than any other Thai restaurant we’ve visited, anywhere in the United States,” gushed the Food Lover’s Companion to Portland.
But that authenticity came at a price.
"Typhoon's business model is what I found fascinating,” said Beth Creighton, a lawyer who represented a former Typhoon chef and E-2 visa employee in a 2008 lawsuit against the company. The Klines "claim they can't find workers to cook Thai food because it's so complicated. They recruit from 5-star restaurants in Thailand and describe them as specialty chefs. “
But once in Portland, these so-called speciality employees labored overtime as line chefs for minimum wage, Creighton said. "This is not the way the E-2 visa program was intended to work."
Hiring E-2 Visa employees is a difficult and laborious process, said Robert Donaldson, a Portland attorney who handles such visas for restaurants and other employers. “I never understood how (Typhoon) was able to get so many,” he said. According to Creighton, Typhoon had about 35 E-2 employees. Restaurants with E-2 visa employees typically hire one or two at most, said Donaldson, who was an expert witness in Creighton's case.
Bo Kline declined to be interviewed for this story. Steve Kline died of a heart attack last summer. This past July, Creighton's client, Sarinya Reabroy, was awarded $268,000 in workers' compensation claims and unpaid overtime.
Seventeen years after Typhoon opened, Portland restaurants still bring in E-2 employees, Donaldson says. “But it’s not as common as it was,” in part because of the city’s sophisticated food scene. “I’ve had foreign restaurant owners set up restaurants in Portland because the amount of local talent is so good,” he said. “You can get really sharp people and hire them and the training time is fairly short because they already know how to do basic culinary skills; they just need to be brought up to speed.”
One month before Typhoon closed its doors, the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries charged the company with unfair labor practices. But even as the investigations continue, it's easy to read the rise and fall of Typhoon as more than a tale of worker abuses and financial mismanagement. A few days before Typhoon closed its doors, Willamette Week published a cover story on Pok Pok’s expansion into New York City, calling Ricker "Portland’s most celebrated chef.”
The simultaneous shuttering of one of Portland’s pioneering Thai restaurants and the expansion of another is something of a metaphor for the region’s changing food scene, and Portland's evolving interpretation of culinary authenticity.
Linda Baker is the managing editor of Oregon Business.