Don Battles is an icon in the Phuket community.
His renowned restaurant, simply called Don's Café, is
a landmark and the visitors, expatriates and Thais who frequent
the cafe are always guaranteed a hearty breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The history of Don's Cafe is engrossing enough, but what about
the man? Don, who has always dreamed of being a merchant of the
Orient; Don the rocket scientist. Don the inventor and Don the philanthropist.
Don Battles has led a remarkable life.
"Well I guess it all began 43 years ago when I graduated from
aerospace engineering', he begins modestly. Back in 1958, space,
the final frontier, was still totally unexplored and as American
enthusiasm mounted the demand for aerospace engineers increased.
As part of the U.S. space programme, Don was responsible for designing
and developing rockets and worked as launch control officer, pushing
all kinds of important buttons in California and Cape Canaveral.
Don says, "The work was intensive; we launched 13 rockets in
18 months.' In April 1961 President Kennedy dreamed of sending
the first man to the moon, a project to be achieved within only
a decade. The pressure was on and at times the aerospace industry
employed nearly 300,000 people to work on the Apollo project. History
was made in the same year when Captain Alan Sheppard became the
first man in space. Don remembers the exhilaration of that achievement
and adds that his son, Alan Battles, born the same year, was named
after Captain Sheppard.
Work continued eagerly after this and by 1969 Neil Armstrong was
taking his big steps. The day the moonwalk happened, Don was in
Huntsville, Alabama, still involved in the space programme but working
on other missions. He recalls the day well, "the greatest excitement
and fear, was the landing of the lunar excursion module. We were
worried about the amount of fuel, whether it had enough to make
it to the moon and get back. We watched and we were all delighted.'
The next challenge was a mission to Mars, but unfortunately President
Nixon needed funds for Vietnam and the Mars mission fell out of
favour. At this time, forward thinking Don decided to retire from
the space programme and apply his talents to other fields.
Using his expertise, Don invented a small rocket engine, designed
to increase the temperature of steel furnaces. These engines became
very popular because they accelerated the whole process and reduced
costs. He received a world patent for his invention and embarked
upon worldwide travells selling the engines.
Don moved to Thailand in 1984 deciding it was, "a country
of firmly wonderful people!' For the first year he studied
an intensive course in Thai language and culture, established an
office in Bangkok and continued travelling extensively for the next
ten years. Somehow he also found time to help develop and equip
commercial ships with mechanics for easy unloading and he assisted
in setting up new steel mills in Thailand.
These projects captured his whole attention after 1994 when he
ceased international business travel, but the 1997 currency crisis
changed a lot of peoples' lives and Don's was no exception.
With no work for his staff, he moved everyone down to his Phuket
vacation house to await improvements. At the time, the area where
Don's Cafe is now located was very undeveloped. There was only
one mini-mart across the street that had closed and Don was approached
to re-open it. Seeing the opportunities, he accepted and the mini-mart
started serving the local community.
Don was raised on a farm in Alabama and has always enjoyed steak,
so the mini-mart soon acquired a barbecue grill. Don says his father
was "the best of the best at barbecuing steak!' Apparently
Don inherited the gift and soon his customers were asking for some
of his aromatic steaks. So it began. One table grew to another and
another and now Don's Cafe is one of the most popular restaurants
on the island. The menu boasts 271 items of international appeal,
but this impressive repertoire wasn't developed overnight,
and here's another story.
Before fully entering the restaurant business, Don did some research;
sampling steaks all over the country. Not only were they all inferior
to his father's standards, but the supply of the raw materials
needed for the restaurant was very limited. Disappointed but not
aghast, Don decided to take things into his own capable hands and
established a cheese plant, a bakery, a meat smoking facility, a
sausage plant and a butchery, all down the street from the restaurant,
forming "Don's village".
More hard work was in store as Don and his staff got busy learning
new recipes and important techniques. "Food is more about technique
than ingredients,' says Don reflectively, "We spent almost
two years developing recipes and the technique for making tasty
Surprisingly, most items on Don's menu come from customer
suggestions. He was once asked why his menu didn't include
shepherd's pie. Don's reply was, "Well, why don't
you teach us and then we'll put it on the menu!' He asserts
that people want to eat the food their mother cooked for them and
as his customers' recipes have generally been passed down from
their mums, Don's Cafe serves truly home style meals.
Don's specialties are steak and barbecue ribs and the flow
of people in and out of Don's Cafe seems endless. Interestingly,
60% of the clientele are Thai Nationals with the remaining 40% being
an even mix of tourists and expatriates. With this growing demand,
the restaurant has become a bit cramped. Don's Food and Entertainment
Mall will open in October this year after 17 different designs were
considered during two years of planning. The mall, covering 3200
square meters, will include an American and European style bakery
and delicatessen, a butchery, a wine shop, an international food
store, a cowboy theme sports pub and a spacious 250 seat open court
Don is modest about his personal success but praises his "Thai
staff-family' for their loving support and hard work over the
years. Don rewards all his staff members by paying for their education
in any field they choose to study. Currently, five part-time workers
are in schools achieving "a good, sound education', as
he phrases it.
So, a rocket scientist turned merchant of the Orient, what a life!
Don slyly admits that now he is "going on 70 years old.'
May he continue to satisfy all our mightiest cravings for many more
years to come.