6 brands in 5 years: Building an f&b empire with your significant other, with Choti and Debby of Foodie Collection

Power couple of Foodie Empire
Love does conquer all. For Choti and Debby who founded Foodie Collection, working together definitely strengthened their relationship, built trust, and made both their business and marriage more successful.

“If you can go through the ups and downs together and surpass that, your love will be stronger. You argue a lot and work together a lot more,” says Debby Leenutaphong. From Vesper Bar, which consistently ranks in Asia’s 50 Best Bars (#26 in 2019), new-wave Portuguese cuisine il Fumo to quaint Italian La Dotta, this power couple has been pushing the hospitality and culinary envelope of Bangkok’s food scene since 2014. Choti and Debby Leenutaphong have known each other since they were 12 years old and started dating when they were 18. This month, June 2019, marks their 13th wedding anniversary.

Bangkok, 2014
Vesper Bar, 2014 / Bar, single storey shophouse
il Fumo, 2016 / New Portuguese, House
Via Maris, 2017 / Mediterranean bistro, single storey shophouse
La Dotta, 2017 / Italian Pasta Bar and restaurant, 2 storey shophouse
80/20, 2018 / Progressive Thai fine dining, single storey shophouse
Vesper Bar, 12 (original space before transforming the other half to Via Maris)
il Fumo, 18
Via Maris, 5 (interior), kitchen shared with Vesper Bar
La Dotta, 7
80/20, 5.5 (extension of existing space)
Vesper Bar (new), 85
il Fumo, 800 including terrace & 2 private rooms
Via Maris, 168
La Dotta, 160
80/20, 200
Vesper Bar (new), 30
il Fumo, 80
Via Maris, 35
La Dotta, 30
80/20, 50

Key Learnings

  1. As business owners, you travel the world, experiencing different concepts. However, your staff do not. Try to understand from their point of view and work around their capacity. As a restaurateur, you need to know how far you can (and cannot) push them to their best abilities. Most importantly, help them improve. 
  2. Talk to diverse people and learn from them. Research and maintain good relationships with your suppliers. From coasters, glassware to equipment, Choti and Debby still use the same suppliers to this very day.
  3. Deliver what you promised your staff. Focus on what your visions are. Be clear on your expectations to your team and steer them in the right direction. If your team gets confused, your customers will get confused too!
  4. Considering breaking into the food and beverage scene? There are 3 ways of looking at it, according to Choti: 

Be worried, so don’t do it

Be worried but still do it in blind faith, which is not good

Be worried and find out what you can do on your own and collaborate with someone else in the areas you have no expertise. You cannot do everything yourself.

Advice for couples who are considering working together

From Debby

  • Divide and define your roles clearly.
  • Be patient with one another.
  • Choose your battles. It can get stressful, especially when you know each other so well. Know when to let go and when to talk to each other.
  • When you first started, give time to each other for things your partner is not good at (yet). It takes time to fine-tune working together.

From Choti

  • You have to live it. If you share the same interest and passion, you should do it.
  • Do not let work arguments affect your relationship with each other. Keep in mind that we all mean well for the business


  • Choti – Visionary of Foodie Collection, Marketing & Creativity, Finance
  • Debby – Operations, Human Resource, Execution of concepts 

Choti: There will be conflicts. We separate our divisions very clearly. However, I will also ask for Debby for advice as well.

Debby: If he makes the final decision in the areas he is overseeing, I will not step over. It will usually be his ideas, and he will let me know what his visions are. We decide together whether to proceed ahead. He is the creative one, with an eye for interior decor. I will be the one executing and fine-tuning the concepts.

What comes first – love or business? 

Choti: That is a tough one… We have known each other since we were 12 years old. We started going out when we were 18 years old and got married in 2006.

Debby: We share best friend type of relationship. Our interests naturally aligned over time. Vesper Cocktail Bar was our first opening (April 2014). In those days, I never had a good impression of cocktails – it was either too sweet, too sour, too artificial. My perception changed when we visited London in 2013. We fell in love with the cocktail scene, and Vesper Bar is a tribute to the Vesper cocktail that we had in Duke’s London. It was this cocktail that inspired us to bring home this culture to Bangkok.

Choti: We came back in July 2013, full of inspiration but without any experience in the food industry

Debby: …and we set up everything ourselves. If you can go through the ups and downs together and surpass that, your love will be stronger. You argue a lot, you work together a lot more. Do you agree?

C: yes. It was love first…

Vesper Bar was Choti and Debby’s first outlet together without prior F&B experience.

What was it like when Vesper Bar (first outlet) opened in 2014?

Debby: We were lucky with our first one. Our first day was fully packed.  Marketing was entirely organic. Probably the location helped. Vesper Bar in a prime location. Many people walked past during construction. I believe that helped.  

Choti: In the beginning, we realized that we have many limitations in our experience. We always asked ourselves – What don’t we know – and how do we delegate? Can we partner up with someone? Can we hire someone? We learned along the way.

Debby: It was scary when we opened our doors. We were very hands-on as we want to learn everything. We were at Vesper every day. We are here all the time to take care of the customer’s need. We fix issues immediately. We want to see what customers want.

What is your routine together at work?

Choti: When we first started, we talked about work 24/7, mixing our professional and personal lives. When we ate at other restaurants, we continued to talk about work.

Debby: After our second restaurant, Il Fumo, it became a little too much. Currently, we put our discussions in group chats with our managers instead, like I would say, “Choti, what do you think?” There is no routine, but we are better now at not talking about work 24/7

We trust each other to do what we have to do

Debby Leenutaphong, Foodie Collection

Six years into the restaurant business and six outlets later, how do you decide on what risks to take?

Choti: Observe market conditions closely. Hyde and Seek was the first bar in the cocktail scene in 2010. However, even four years later in 2014, there were no other bars. We felt that we could introduce an alternative. Hence, we launched Vesper Bar in 2014.

  1. Is your target market ready for it? If not, what are we going to do to make it more acceptable? For example, when Vesper first started, we know that people love taking “Instagram worthy” photos, and we want people to upload our cocktails on social media. The cocktail was more theatrical – with smokes and all that jazz.
  2. Once you have the concept and think that the market is accepting – what can we do to mitigate the risk? Our risk was not having enough prior experience. We knew that we are not chefs, so what did we do? We partnered with chefs who are aligned with our goals.

Mitigate the risk by finding someone else who does it better. You cannot do everything yourself. 

Choti Leenutaphong, Foodie Collection

Latest venture with equally remarkable husband and wife chefs Napol Jantraget and Saki Hoshino. 80/20 showcases innovative interpretations of Thai cuisine.

After opening 6 restaurants, how important is the location?

Choti:  The better the concept, the less important the location. 80/20 BKK is our best example. A restaurant can help establish a community within a neighbourhood. 

Debby: The rent factor is important. If it’s too high, it will always weigh you down. Every month, you will worry about rent payment, and this might affect other areas of the business. 

If the rent is too high, don’t take it up, even if it is a golden location. My range is always not more than 10% to 20% of expected revenue.

Choti Leenutaphong, Foodie Collection

Amongst the six, which is your most challenging outlet?

Debby: It will be the original Vesper. Many bars closed within the first two years of opening. There was a lot of competition and a realization of what we should do more about it…

Choti: We still had good revenue, but it was declining. At last, it was a simple but effective idea of reducing the size of Vesper by half and transforming the new space to a restaurant.

 What did you do next?

I convinced the existing shareholders of Vesper Bar that:

  1. With our reputation for being one of the top cocktail bars in Bangkok, increased competition and changing customer trends of wanting to see a more focused value proposition, it’s best for Vesper to be a pure cocktail bar.
  2. I also assured them that they do not have to invest further.  Instead, we financed our renovation by raising funds from new investors and selling some of the assets (furniture, kitchen) to Via Maris.  
  3. I presented to them that our plan makes sense financially and strategically. It was about selling the concept of new Mediterranean food and why it’s beneficial to have a restaurant with a separate and focused concept
  4. The existing investors of Vesper had the option of staying in Vesper, exit entirely, move their shares to Via Maris entirely, or split their shares between Via Maris and Vesper – all without having to put in any more investment.  These options gave flexibility to existing investors to decide how they are going to put their shares according to their preference.
  5. We raised more funds from new investors by showing them our concept, forecast and the benefit of being located at Convent Road right next to Vesper, an already well-known establishment.
  6. More importantly, we stressed that because we purchased assets from Vesper like furniture and kitchen equipment, their investment will be lower than what it actually should be.  Not to mention, the amount of time it would take to close to renovate would be much shorter than having to build a new restaurant from scratch (1 month vs. typical 3 months).

In the end, we were able to successfully convince both new and old investors for both Via Maris and Vesper.

All of your 6 outlets have very different concepts. What are Foodie Collection’s values?

Choti & Debby:

Building spaces for passionate people.

The key to delivering high-quality offerings and unforgettable experiences is through our people. We are always on the lookout for talented, passionate and creative people. At the same time, our restaurant business is not just an expression of our creativity or for fun. We are mindful of dollars and cents too.

For example, Chef Joe and Chef Saki of 80/20 BKK approached us when their previous partners left. At that time, 80/20 BKK was a modern Thai bistro. The couple had the vision to elevate this establishment to a tasting menu. As they are chefs in nature, they wanted to focus on food. So we complemented this partnership by managing investor relations, P&L and operations – leaving them to focus on what they do best.

Empower your team to grow your business

When we first started Vesper, 80% of the input came from us – from the concept and menu to operations.  However, when you have more than 1 establishment (6 in total), it would be foolish not to utilize your staff. We work with highly dynamic people who are not afraid of expressing what they do and have the potential to grow. Together, we can scale the business to greater heights.

What is your vision for building a team?

Debby: At every opening of all 6 of our restaurants, Choti always motivates the team by giving a speech. We want our team to take pride in being a part of our group. We aim to be an institution that develops people to be better when they first started with us.

Many of our chefs became our business partners. When our visions align, we want to elevate them, motivate them, and let them flourish in what they are naturally good at.

Foodie Empire
La Dotta, a quaint artisanal pasta store & bar serving hand made pasta and authentic Italian dishes

If you are passionate, it shows. If we keep compromising and oblige to every request, it could be harmful to us. We learned to navigate and yet cater to market needs based on our values.

Debby Leenutaphong, Foodie Collection

What’s next for Foodie Collection?

Choti: For the past five years, we expanded very fast. La Dotta and 80/20 BKK were back to back. Both which came as a pleasant surprise! This year is about building a foundation for the team. Debby and I would love to have the team operating the business when we are traveling or when we decide to expand outside of Bangkok. So far so good, but of course, it is a constant work in progress.

My ultimate goal in the long term is to open a restaurant in London. I feel that if you want to be a restaurateur, aim to be in the premier league.

Choti Leenutaphong, Foodie Collection

-This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Edited by Yilynn Chan. Words by Theresa Burhan. Photo credits to Foodie Collection Group 








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