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Different styles flavor marriage of Davis Island restaurant owners

Penn and Clay McElmurray are the owners and operators of Thai Island restaurant on Davis Islands. Clay, 57, is originally from Tampa, and Penn, 49, is from Thailand. They opened the restaurant in 2003. Penn’s mother is the head chef.

JULIETTE LYNCH | Times

Penn and Clay McElmurray are the owners and operators of Thai Island restaurant on Davis Islands. Clay, 57, is originally from Tampa, and Penn, 49, is from Thailand. They opened the restaurant in 2003. Penn’s mother is the head chef.

TAMPA

They met on the elevator. He was a software engineer and she worked at a bank. He asked her out to Thai food, knowing she was Thai, and told her he loved it. She soon found out he was lying. He had never tried Thai food before.

He complimented her on her legs, a move that could have backfired. But it didn't. Clay McElmurray was the first American man Penn Karach recalled who took the time to really talk to her. She grew up in a rural village in Thailand before making stops in India, Egypt, Qatar and New Zealand. But her move to Los Angeles had been a tough transition. Clay helped her get accustomed to the vast United States, taking her on trips to the beach, Joshua Tree National Park and skiing in Big Bear, Calif.

After the Internet bubble burst about 10 years ago, Clay moved back home to Davis Islands in Tampa, where he was born and raised. But he couldn't leave without Penn. So they moved together in 2002, married and the next day began remodeling a former restaurant on the island that they turned into their dream business: Thai Island.

Together, Clay, 57, and Penn, 49, have spent the last eight years together chopping vegetables, balancing budgets, waiting tables, cleaning them and then heading home for even more time together. On top of it all, Penn's mother, Pat, 66, serves as the restaurant's head chef and also lives with them. But it has worked, and the secrets behind their live-work-love partnership aren't really secrets at all but principles successful couples have preached for years: Compromise, communication and cooperation.

How have you been able to work together in such a small space?

Clay: I can't cook Thai food but I can chop vegetables.

Penn: Chopping. He's good at chopping. If the dishwasher's sick, he does that, too.

Clay: She's the brains of the operation and I fix the sink and the toilets. She works on the books.

Penn: But basically we're both waiters.

What's the key to dealing with conflict and important issues?

Clay: We have different styles. Penn is very assertive. If there's a problem, she wants to face it right away. My coping mechanism is to escape, get in my car and go to the other end of the island. I'm trying to get better.

Penn: My thing is we have to talk.

Clay: Her thing is to talk and talk and talk till 3 o'clock in the morning. I need sleep. There's so many opportunities for confrontation. Maybe we need a new sign. She wants bamboo. I want metal. So we might make it out of both.

How do you separate work from home?

Clay: I don't think we do a good job of separating. We talk about work things at home and kid things at work. It's a constant conversation. Our relationship used to be a lot more intense. My kids rebelling. Trying to open this place up. We moved five times.

Penn: I think the Thai way of thinking helps me: Everything will work out. Every problem can be fixed.

Money issues often doom couples. How do you handle them, especially running a restaurant?

Clay: We opened this up and paid it all in cash. So that was a big thing because we started without debt. I was nervous, though, when we signed an eight-year lease. But Penn had it figured out: If you make $500 a day you'll be all right. It seemed like a lot but she was right.

What else do you rely on to keep your relationship strong?

Clay: Just the commitment we're going to make it work. The determination we're going to work through things. We've had big arguments, but we've made it through.

Penn: Mine is communication. Talk and be honest. Be honest about what you're feeling and be honest about what you say.

Do you ever take breaks from each other?

Clay: Penn likes to be together all the time. That's her thing. I'm like, "Have fun in Vegas!"

Penn: For me, I treat work time like work time. I don't count it as relationship time when we're working. Which is why I want to go out to lunch between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., when we have a break. But Clay views all our time together as the same.

Clay: I don't like going out to lunch because she'll suggest going to the Nordstrom cafe and soon I'm stuck shoe shopping with her.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

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Heartfelt is a summer series that features interesting affairs of the heart, such as wedding romances, reunions and special family ties. If you have a "heartfelt" idea, contact editor Sharon Tubbs at (813) 226-3394 or e-mail tubbs@sptimes.com and put "heartfelt" in the subject line.

Different styles flavor marriage of Davis Island restaurant owners 08/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 5:30am]
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