Phuket variety: Don 's story
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phuket Leisure: Don's story

 Who's a rocket scientist?

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 sausages.'

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 dining area.

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.


- August Issue, 2002

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