Eddie Watana was only half-kidding when, hours after permanently shutting his Thai restaurant in Cooper City, he posted on his Facebook wall, “Anyone hiring funny-looking Thai guys?”
“Holy crap, now I’m getting all these leads, bro!” the namesake owner of Eddie’s Thai said Wednesday. “I’m getting all these offers to be a real-estate agent. I might never go back into the restaurant business again.”
After five-and-a-half years of dishing pad Thai, homemade curry sauce and self-deprecating humor at his strip-mall eatery, Eddie’s Thai closed without fanfare or a final meal on Tuesday. He said a bankruptcy filing pre-COVID nearly ended his restaurant but the pandemic was the “final nail in the coffin.”
The shutting of Eddie’s Thai effectively ends a family restaurant legacy that started 30 years ago with his parents’ popular Sukhothai eatery in Fort Lauderdale’s Gateway Shopping Center, and continued when Watana’s successor opened to acclaim in suburban Cooper City in October 2015.
That all ended Tuesday, when an Eddie’s Thai server spotted the Broward Sheriff’s Office eviction notice taped to the front door and called Watana. Since then he’s been gutting his restaurant, giving away food to longtime customers, donating pots and pans to his strip-mall neighbors, Joe’s Old School Pizza and La Brochette Bistro. He sold the freezer to another restaurant and spent most of Wednesday canceling utilities and crying with his wife and co-owner, Roberta.
“It’s moving so fast,” said Watana, of Fort Lauderdale. “I thought I would have a going-away party but now we can’t have any blowout.”
Watana, who broke the news to Eddie’s Thai fans on his personal Facebook page, said that while the pandemic helped drive him out of business, he’s waited 18 months for the eviction axe to fall. Watana’s financial woes began pre-COVID, in October 2019, when sluggish dining-room sales put him a month behind on rent, forcing him to pull money from retirement savings to keep Eddie’s Thai afloat. He filed for bankruptcy in February 2020 with $37,000 in unpaid back rent.
A Florida Department of Health-ordered shutdown in November 2019 didn’t help Eddie’s Thai’s reputation, either, Watana said. Inspectors observed “bloody residue on [the] walk-in cooler floor” and live roaches in the kitchen, including in a container of fried rice. Meanwhile, closings of Winn-Dixie and lots of storefront vacancies made his Embassy Lakes plaza “look and feel dead” long before the pandemic, he said.
In between bankruptcy hearings in court, Watana kept Eddie’s Thai on life support. When takeout orders slumped in Cooper City, he created a low-key pop-up in the parking lot of a Fort Lauderdale Best Buy, selling pad Thai and red curry sauce out of his trunk. “I literally sold 30, 40 orders of pad Thai a day,” he said. “It was more than I sold all day in Cooper City.”
Last spring, during lockdowns, he received $50,000 in Personal Paycheck Protection loans to cover back-owed rent, which he finally repaid last September. But he was finished paying rent.
“We only had $13,000 left, and I wasn’t going to pay these guys anymore,” Watana says. “My business sucked because of COVID and I was going to milk it until they kicked me out. I was just tired of losing sleep and barely scraping by. At first my attorney said I would be evicted around Halloween. Then it was Thanksgiving. Then nothing happened until I got my first eviction notice Feb. 22.”
Eddie’s Thai was a success from the moment it debuted in October 2015, buoyed by traffic from longtime customers of Sukhothai. Watana worked at Sukhothai for 25 years with his parents, Susie and Paul, building a reputation as one of Fort Lauderdale’ top neighborhood Thai eateries.
That reputation continued at his 1,600-square-foot eatery, where Watana created dishes with his mother’s recipes. His bright charm, fist-bumps and sometimes bawdy personality quickly turned Sukhothai fans into Eddie’s Thai regulars.
A 2017 restaurant review from former Sun Sentinel dining critic Michael Mayo awarded Eddie’s Thai 3 1/2 stars, writing, “One visit to Eddie’s Thai and I felt like I was home.”
Now for the first time in 30 years, Watana, 51, is officially unemployed.
“We were the Thai Cheers, bro,” he says. “Anyone that came into my restaurant wasn’t a stranger. They were just friends I hadn’t met yet. The food being great helped, but being able to curse, being who I am, people could appreciate that genuineness, because I never tried to hide it.”
Friends on Facebook have already started speculating Watana’s next act. A Thai food truck? A brick-and-mortar storefront in Fort Lauderdale, near the old Sukhothai?
“I’m happy,” Watana says. “This has been my entire adult life, it’s all I know, and that’s why I have all these nervous feelings. I’m a lion. I’ll come back. But I might stay away from restaurants for awhile.”