My cravings for it struck so strongly concluding this interview that I ordered it early the next day, and it was incredible. Specifically, I had shrimp in a blanket, ginger chicken stir fry, yum woon sen, and a Thai iced tea. I would honestly recommend them all. Check out what owner Mickie Phetchareune has to say about the restaurant, from her menu to operations.
Smile Politely: Hello! Can you introduce yourself and tell us your role(s) with Sticky Rice?
Mickie Phetchareune: Sabaidee! (That means “Hi!” in Lao.) My name is Mickie Phetchareune. I am one of the owners of Sticky Rice, alongside my parents. I am a woman of many hats here at Sticky Rice. My roles vary from time to time! I am our general manager, dishwasher, line cook, server, busser, runner, and cashier — you name it!
SP: What type(s) of cuisine do you feature?
Phetchareune: Most of the items on our menu are Thai dishes with some Laotian dishes. Our cooks are all Lao, so some dishes may taste different from other Thai restaurants. We also have phở on our menu, which is a Vietnamese soup. You may also find a couple Chinese dishes such as cashew chicken, sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and general Tso’s.
SP: What inspired you to open up your restaurant?
Phetchareune: My parents are my biggest inspirations! They have been entrepreneurs since they’ve immigrated to Urbana, Illinois from Laos in 1990. They’ve always been passionate about running their own business. I’ve been working in the restaurant business since I was 15 years old. Since then, it has helped me become social, patient, and business savvy.
As I was studying business at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was intrigued when I learned about the back-end business operations. I always knew I wanted to open up a business, but I was never sure of what kind until I realized there was a lack of Southeast Asian cuisine in Downtown Champaign. Every dope restaurant in Chicago that I’ve eaten at has truly inspired me to bring something dope to Champaign!
SP: What is your favorite offering on your menu?
Phetchareune: This is definitely a tough question! I am for sure addicted to our shrimp in a blanket. When I feel like eating light, I would have laab kai with a side of sticky rice. My main go-tos are pad se-ew with tofu or Bangkok fried rice with braised tofu. Also, spice is essential in all of my meals!
SP: How has the stay-at-home order affected you and your day-to-day operations?
Phetchareune: In the beginning of the pandemic, it was very slow. I had to cut back on staff to a point of it being just me and my mom. I had a small staff anyway — about 10 — so it was really hard. And with people staying home, I had to figure out delivery. I had offered small scale delivery before, but with just one or two people running the restaurant, I had to consider third party delivery. They take such a big cut of their percentage, so I had to consider that, too. But I did it, and we’re on DoorDash and Grubhub for now.
SP: What’s your other favorite local restaurant(s) to grab a bite?
Phetchareune: That’s a great question. Gosh, I go to Baldarotta’s in Lincoln Square Mall, and I visit Chef Curtis’s C & C Kitchen food truck in Urbana. I also had Farren’s and Esquire. Oh, and Fernando’s Taco Truck.
SP: What’s it like being a part of the Downtown Champaign restaurant scene? Are there both pros and cons?
Phetchareune: I love it. I like the part of downtown I’m in. I’m not in the center, but I still feel like I’m a part of this community down here. During the pandemic, restaurant owners reached out to each other and checked in to see how we were doing; it was so nice. I love the summertime, too, when there are festivals that bring more people to the area.
I don’t really have any cons. Maybe that it might be hard for customers to find parking, but we still manage to have a full house.
SP: Asian cuisines provide some of my absolute favorite flavors, and just prepping these questions has me craving some Lao food. How can I order from Sticky Rice?
Phetchareune: You can order online via our website. Or you can order via our trial run with DoorDash and Grubhub. Honestly, I prefer when customers call, so that if they have any modifications, we can make them. It’s just easier. Sometimes with those third party sites, you can’t make any changes or modifications like gluten free. I just want the food to be 100% correct.
SP: Can you talk a bit about where you source your ingredients?
Phetchareune: We farm. This is our fourth year farming, and our farm is located in Villa Grove. We try to grow as much produce as possible, but we also have deliveries from Chicago twice a week, and we source from Decatur and St. Louis. I like to also get ingredients from the Urbana Farmers Market. My favorite grocery store is Far East on 5th and University.
SP: What is your outreach approach during these difficult times? Have you found staying in touch with the public community more difficult?
Phetchareune: I haven’t found it difficult since social media is very powerful. That’s what I’ve been doing to reach out to customers. Word of mouth is great, too. It can be a little tough to reach those customers that are not on social media so I hope that they can drive by and see that we are still here to cater to them!
Photo from Sticky Rice’s Facebook page.
SP: With such a shake up to local businesses caused by the pandemic, what accommodations have you made?
Phetchareune: Our hours are shortened to 12 p.m. to 7 p.m., and we’re closed on Tuesdays. I figured closing earlier can help folks grab dinner. We also now have a table at the front with orders for contactless pickup when you pre-pay. Curbside is also available, and we have our own parking spot for pickup behind the patio. The spot was for staff, but with our downsize, it worked out to make it for pickup. Just give us a call, and we’ll bring it out to you.
SP: Can you share what plans you’re considering when things begin to get back to “normal” business?
Phetchareune: We will resume our normal hours of 12 p.m. to 9 p.m., and consider staying closed on Tuesdays. With the habit formed during the pandemic, staying closed that day leaves time for us to run errands.
SP: Should customers order online or over the phone? Cash or credit?
Phetchareune: Cash or credit is accepted. We also accept through virtual money apps like Venmo. I have regulars who do that three times a week.
SP: Anything else would you like to share with the readers?
Phetchareune: Thank you for reading this interview! I hope this article attracts new, adventurous foodies. I opened up Sticky Rice so more people can expand their palates and learn about the Lao culture that exists in our city.
Also, I want them to understand that my diners are like guests in my house. I love meeting new people and making them happy with good, quality food! Hopefully we can get our liquor license soon and offer Laotian and Thai beer. Fingers crossed!
415 North Neil Street
W-M 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.