Pawn is beaming as she finishes wrapping a burrito – stuffed to the brim with marinated pork, beans, and salsa, amongst other fresh ingredients and swathed in a homemade tortilla – and leans across the side of her truck to hand it to her customer.
Pawn is the owner of Border Run, a food truck in Chiang Mai, Thailand that sells burritos. As she bustles around, wrapping burritos, stamping loyalty cards for her customers, and calling out orders, it’s easy to see why Pawn is good at what she does. But it’s taken time and a lot of work to get to this place, and Pawn herself could never have seen it coming.
Before Border Run, Pawn worked as a maeban, a house helper. It was during that time that the first seeds of Border Run were being planted, though Pawn didn’t know it. Laurie, Pawn’s first employer who was a foreigner, would teach Pawn how to make Western food.
“I really enjoyed it. I like everything about cooking, it’s fun for me,” she says. “And in the past, I had never made Western food. Some Thai people I know said, ‘It’s probably hard to make,’ but it wasn’t.”
By the time Pawn became the maeban for Lauren and Steven Sauder, an American family who had come to Thailand to start a missional business with SIM, she knew how to make all kinds of non-Thai foods.
“She had this recipe book of all these things she knew how to cook. And one day, I saw that bagels was one of the recipes,” Lauren says. She saw a business opportunity for her friend as she and Pawn began getting to know each other better, spending time together and cooking. “You couldn’t really get good bagels here five years ago, and we thought that maybe a lot of farang (foreigners) miss bagels.”
Pawn is a single mom raising two daughters – one is Pawn’s niece, her late sister’s daughter – and at the time, her maeban’s salary wasn’t enough. Since Pawn didn’t work on the weekends, making and selling bagels over the weekend could be an extra source of income.
So Lauren and Steven helped Pawn set up her first business: mentoring her in buying her ingredients, developing bagel flavors, paying herself a salary, setting aside savings, and the like. Ou-eh Pawn Bakery (Blessings Bakery) began with six customers and eventually expanded, and Pawn still owns the business today.
Exploring another business venture in food might have seemed like the natural next step, but it took a while for Pawn to make up her mind to do it. Though her dream was to open a bakery or restaurant, fear of the unknown loomed larger. Pawn had never gone to high school and only had a sixth grade education – she couldn’t imagine not being a maeban, let alone starting a full-time business.
“She couldn’t see the future of owning your own business and how that might help her,” Lauren says of Pawn’s misgivings. “But with being a maeban, you’re no better off once that farang family leaves – you’re still a maeban.”
Despite the Sauders’ offer to help her open a full-time business, Pawn left the family in 2014 to work for another family who offered her a higher pay. But after that family left, she found herself back at the Sauders in August 2015, finally ready to take the leap.
“I get why it took time – for a Thai person who has been a maeban like Pawn, the thought of her running and doing her own business seemed so far-fetched,” Lauren says.
Pawn grew up in a village in Northern Thailand. Her father died when she was a baby, and her family was poor. She stopped going to school after sixth grade and left home when she was 14 to go to the city in order to work and earn money for her family.
“I don’t think she had the confidence in herself, and that’s always been the biggest thing holding her back,” Lauren says. “So it was a year of ‘Can I do this?’ and then deciding she could.”
From there, plans slowly came together – figuring out a menu, buying ingredients, pricing, and building the truck that would house Border Run’s operations. Her bagel business had given her a good foundation, not just with skills and money, but also a vision to see long-term benefits of having her own business.
“Pawn was able to pay for half the Border Run truck because of her savings from Ou-eh Pawn Bagel,” Lauren says. “So it was a cool moment for her, to see how her work and savings could help her invest in something else.”
“I had some knowledge from the bagel business,” Pawn says about getting things going with Border Run. “I knew about checking the ingredients, the costs, the time – looking after all the details.”
It was truly a team effort – Pawn would do her normal maeban duties for the Sauders in the morning, and the afternoons were spent testing recipes, buying supplies, and such. Lauren would often spend mornings running errands, and Steven built the Border Run truck and off-site kitchen for Pawn to prepare all the food.
Border Run opened in February 2016. Though the Sauders have returned to the States, Pawn has been standing on her own two feet, taking care of business. She’s hired two employees and on busy days, sells up to 60 burritos.
“When you’re a maeban, you don’t have to think about much – you work, you clean. When you’re done, you’re done. You can just go home and relax,” Pawn says. “But with having my own business, you have to think and make your own decisions.
“There are more worries too; I have more responsibilities. Like what if there’s a day we don’t sell as well, will we be okay on money? Or what if people complain about the food?” she says.
These are the concerns Pawn will keep grappling with as she moves forward. She’s also still working to pay off her loan of $12,000, which the Sauders helped raise through crowdfunding. Once the loan is paid back, it will act as a revolving door fund and go towards any new business ventures. Despite this, she is doing it – she’s running a full-time business, something that seemed unimaginable before, and has also paid back 75 percent of the loan.
“Pawn is the first successful model I know of where she will pay back her loan ahead of time,” says Matt, who oversees and promotes missional business ventures within SIM.
More than that, Pawn’s found something within herself.
“The first week that Pawn sold bagels, she couldn’t even look the people in the eye when she delivered bagels,” says Lauren. “Now looking at her, it’s like night and day. She feels proud of herself.”
Pawn’s smile reaches all the way to her eyes as she talks about Border Run.
“In the past, when I was a maeban, I had to look for another job whenever a family left. But now, I don’t have to,” she says. “Everything I have right now I received from God. Everything has been God’s plan, and God has blessed me the most. I’m so thankful.”