Kulapat “May” Kanokwatanawan, 29, owner of the incredibly popular dessert café After You, talks to BK about the sweet success of her business and explains why she really doesn’t begrudge her many imitators.
I’ve always liked eating dessert. For a long time I dreamed about opening a dessert restaurant. I was afraid someone would do it before me.
I taped cooking shows and watched them over and over again as a kid. I always enjoyed seeing the women beating eggs or whipping cream. Over time, I realized I wasn’t really into savory cooking. I just love the sweets.
Being a foreign exchange student in Australia changed my perspective on life. I was cut off from all the people I knew, which made me realize that I could do whatever I want. When I got back, I didn’t want to be just another ordinary person.
I asked my dad if I could open a dessert shop in grade 11, but he said no. He wanted me to finish a degree first, not go straight to cooking school.
There was nowhere to have dessert at 3pm. Starbucks was new at the time but it didn’t really fulfill my craving. I wanted to start a dessert restaurant, so I began catering for my friends.
I wrote a series of dessert cookbooks called May Made which quickly found a big following. This gave my dad more confidence in me, so he gave me B2 million to chase my dream. I used the money very economically. Everything possible I did by myself in order to save costs.
I didn’t plan on expanding or anything. I just wanted my business to survive, to not lose money and to be able to repay my parents.
We learned through our mistakes. I would prepare my own desserts and then serve the customers, so that I could get their feedback and learn to handle money. Bit by bit we improved. Success doesn’t happen overnight.
Running a business when you’re young makes things much easier. You’re less scared of failure. You have the guts to do anything.
I gained 8kg developing After You’s signature honey toast. From the moment I saw the Shibuya toast in Japan, I knew it would be our centerpiece. I went through 50 trials before finding the right recipe.
It would be nice to replace staff with robots. It’s pretty standard to say that dealing with people is the hardest thing about running a business. I can forgive many bad habits, but not stealing. If staff are willing to learn, I’m happy to teach them.
After You probably wouldn’t be such a big success if the first restaurant I helped my family with hadn’t failed. I was ashamed that we lost a lot of money.
If you don’t try to do something different and risk being hurt, you are not experiencing the fullness of life. You’re looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses.
I knew I was a success when people started queuing up outside. It was so dreamy. Three months before that, such a notion was just a sketch in my notebook.
Being a pioneer is rewarding. Dessert cafés like this didn’t exist five years ago and now everybody’s craving them.
It’s only natural to copy. I was a little shocked when other eateries started doing the exact same things that I do. But I learned to deal with it. No one can stop people copying, you just have to move on. Focusing on maintaining a high standard is more important.
People want to know you when you’re famous. That’s normal, I suppose. But if one day, After You wasn’t so successful and people acted differently towards me, that would be expected, too. I’d be fine because I’d just hang out with my friends, like always.
Thai people are a little strange. They’ll cheer you on when you start doing something, but once you become successful, they’ll get envious.
I’m not the smartest or the luckiest. I’ve been rational enough to run a business, and I have a great partner, my cousin, to work with, so it was just a case of perfect timing.
Logic is essential in both business and life. Having a passion for cooking and the brains for running a business are totally different things. If you love cooking, you can do it at home, but to run a restaurant you also need to enjoy the business side of things, too. I actually prefer doing business now.
I would perhaps be on the design path, if I wasn’t doing what I am now.
My parents didn’t raise me. That’s the answer I always give when people ask me about how my parents brought me up. My mum and dad just let me learn and were always there for me. They never put any pressure on me. I’m so blessed.
Experience counts for more than anything else. I graduated from a business program and it has helped on certain levels, but in the end studying is not everything.