GREENSBORO — Everyone called him either “Charlie” or “Grandpa.”
Chavalit Chusakul, owner and operator of Rearn Thai, was the face of the restaurant. He died Sunday at 81, leaving behind an indelible imprint on the Greensboro culinary landscape and some warm memories for family, friends and customers.
Daughter-in-law Laura Chusakul, who has worked for the restaurant since the beginning, said her father-in-law was “always welcoming.”
“Everybody loved him,” she said. “He remembered everybody’s name.”
Chusakul and wife, Pat opened Rearn Thai 28 years ago after they immigrated with their two sons, Gunn and Pin, from Thailand.
Before that, Chusakul worked as an accountant for the Thai embassy in the United States. His stint there wasn’t his first time on American soil. He trained at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville after joining the Royal Thai Army as a young man.
But being an entrepreneur was what he liked doing best. His family owned gas stations across Thailand. That’s where he met Pat.
As the cook in a household of nine siblings, she knew her way around the kitchen. Chusakul did, too, having worked briefly for a Thai restaurant in Washington, D.C.
So when the family moved to Greensboro in 1992 to be near Gunn, who was at Guilford College, they decided to start their own restaurant on West Market Street.
Rearn Thai was more of a takeout joint at first. Laura Chusakul, who married Pin, remembers food being served on paper plates.
“We only had seven tables,” she said.
At the time, Thai cuisine was a novelty for Greensboro. The restaurant was one of the earliest, if not the first, of its kind in the Triad. And customers couldn’t get enough.
A few years later, Rearn Thai moved to a former Chinese restaurant just down the street. It had a spacious dining room. Business was good. The restaurant received accolades from newspaper critics and customers.
With a new owner and their lease about to expire, the Chusakuls decided they wanted to build their own restaurant. They purchased property across the street at 5120 W. Market St. and in 2006 opened the new Rearn Thai with a design reminiscent of homes in Thailand.
Customers gladly followed.
“He wanted what was best for the business. It was never busy enough for him,” Laura said.
Even as Chusakul’s health declined following a broken leg six years ago and dementia robbed him of his vitality, he was always thinking about the restaurant.
“He would ask, ‘Do we have customers? Tell the customers, ‘Hello.’ ” Laura recalled.
Chusakul is survived by his wife, two sons and four grandchildren.
Per Thai tradition, Chusakul will be cremated. The family will hold a special remembrance at the restaurant in the future.