Weird. Just weird. That was the overriding observation last night at Skew, the globalized food-on-a-stick restaurant that Ton Phairatphibon opened at 2070 South University Boulevard exactly one month ago.
A small crowd, assembled on the patio, puffed on smokes, shook their heads in unison and talked quietly among themselves, looking for answers. "It's just incredibly weird," mused one man. "Really weird," echoed another.
They were there for a "shut down" party; Phairatphibon closed Skew last night, and, in celebratory commiseration, was offering free food and alcohol to anyone and everyone hankering for one last skewer, one last drop of booze.
Restaurants come and go for a myriad of different reasons, but Skew's closure was not only one of the quickest shutterings in the history of Denver restaurantdom, but also one of the most bizarre.
To hear Phairatphibon, a self-described monk who's "a great admirer of Jesus Christ," tell his story is sad and bewildering. It's a made-for-movie script that President Obama and Oprah Winfrey have been privy to, in the form of a letter that Phairatphibon has sent to both, outlining, what, he says, is "a lack of moral accountability in this country."
For reasons that may or may not make sense, Phairatphibon hires staff that many of us would think twice about bringing into our workplace: alcoholics, drug addicts, parolees. But that's exactly what he did when he assembled the staff at Skew -- and then, according to him, he got skewered. So skewered, in fact, that within thirty days of opening his doors, he was forced to shut them. "It's organized crime," he insists. "I hired these people, gave them management positions, and then they worked in teams to steal from me."
His office, he claims, was broken into on a daily basis; money was stolen from the cash register; other employees were also targets of theft; and even customers, maintains, Phairatphibon, were the victims of robbery. In addition, he says, he's a victim of identify theft. "The people responsible for this stole my checking account and routing numbers to get their own checks made," he tells me. And, yet, some of the very same staff members, who Phairatphibon accuses of thievery, are still on the payroll. "If I fire them," he reasons, "they're just going to shift their tactics to another restaurant." But that begs the question: If your employees are stealing from you -- and you're holding them responsible for wiping out your restaurant -- why on earth would you continue to employ them?
"I have ethic and morals," he says, "and I will continue to hire people that others wouldn't, because I want to help people who are unlucky and have special circumstances. I don't care how much money I lose if I can just change one life for the better." His point, he stresses, is to prove that large companies -- which he calls "evil" -- can be moral and successful. "I don't care about the money," he reiterates. "I still want to give back, to help the people who stole from me."
And Phairatphibon's mission is to make sure that his message his heard. "I've been tossed back around by the police department and the district attorney's office because people who work there no longer care about people. They look at us as paperwork for them," he says. "People need to know that being moral and good is also rewarding, and I've spent eight years sending this message, but no one listens."
Phairatphibon, who says he made his first $100,000 when he was just nineteen, and his first million not long after that, plans to open seven new businesses in the next year alone, and he's not about ready to give up on Skew. "This restaurant is my passion, I own the real estate -- we have zero debt -- and as as soon as I get the money that was stolen from us back from the banks. I'll reopen Skew," he promises.
And, he says, he'll continue to hire staff from Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and those on parole. "I want to practice what I preach."
As for his letters to Obama and Winfrey, they've gone unanswered. "When Obama comes to see me, I'll be satisfied," he says.
In the meantime, which could be a very, very long time, Phairatphibon wants you to know this: "I'm going to post all of my recipes, my balance sheet, and my personal information from when I was born to now for people to find something about me that can be criticized. I've lived a very moral life and everyone that is close to me knows it, but people in this country like to judge other people. If you judge me like most people, you will get everything wrong about me."
You be the jury.