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Restaurant serves up compassion

For Tapanee Damrongwatanasuk, the clincher was seeing a 7-year-old Thai boy's forlorn face flash across her television screen.

The boy lost his entire family in last week's tsunami. Had Damrongwatanasuk lived in her native Thailand, she would have tried to adopt him. But nearly 10,000 miles separate her from the orphan and the thousands of other people devastated by last week's tragedy.

Still, she wanted to help.

"When we compare the money with the damage, it is nothing," said Damrongwatanasuk, who owns Royal Palace Thai Restaurant on Howard Avenue in South Tampa with her three sisters. "We have to do something to get more money."

The sisters decided to donate their livelihood. Starting this week, through the end of the month, they are opening the restaurant on Mondays, their usual day of rest. They, like proprietors of other local businesses, hope to pitch in. Volunteers will serve food and wait tables, then donate all proceeds and tips to relief efforts in Thailand.

Damrongwatanasuk said the sisters have several reasons to contribute. They are grateful that none of their family members, including Damrongwatanasuk's American husband, Randall Knowles, were harmed. Had a twisted knee not sidelined Knowles' plans for a Christmas holiday in Phuket, Thailand, he might have been getting a massage on the beach at the exact moment the tidal wave hit Thailand, Damrongwatanasuk said.

"He could have been gone," she said Monday. "I can't imagine it."

Because much of Damrongwatanasuk's staff work other jobs on Mondays, she recruited friends and family to run Monday's lunch and dinner shifts. Although she usually welcomes customers as they come in the door, on Monday she took their orders.

Shaun Tucker, a marketing and advertising consultant, took charge of the hostess stand. And the restaurant's regular server, Yord Boontham Namhongsa, gave up his only day off to bus tables.

"I have no day off for four weeks," he said, balancing empty dishes on his palm. "But I just feel like it's a human thing. You don't abandon other human beings."

The first dine-in customers arrived well before the doors officially opened at 11:30 a.m..

Isobel Wyatt, a teacher's assistant from Town 'N Country, had never eaten Thai food before. She sought out the restaurant because its proceeds were going to a worthy cause.

That also drew Lt. Col. Nattapol Saengchan, a member of Thailand's armed services who is stationed at Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

"The money is going directly to victims, so I think that's a good thing that they're going to help people in my country," said Saengchan, who dined with his wife, Aimy, and a family friend. "It's the only thing that I can do for the people in my country."

By noon, Royal Palace Thai's 76 seats were completely full. A line of hungry customers snaked outside the door and onto the sidewalk.

Alick Young, who traveled from Wauchula with his wife, Ruth, and two friends, did not mind the wait. They scanned the menu in search of the most expensive items.

"We have to eat anyway," said Young, a snowbird from Newfoundland, Canada. "Here, we can get a meal, and the money goes to the tsunami. I think it's remarkable that a business would do something like this. It's great that so many people are patronizing it."

Rick Croup, a real estate agent from Davis Islands, said customers could aid the restaurant's efforts in more than one way.

"If we really want to help, we need to go in and bus tables or something," said Croup, leaning against a railing outside. "If they'll let me, I'll do it." (Damrongwatanasuk later agreed to allow him to wash dishes.)

Before she opened Monday, Damrongwatanasuk had already collected nearly $3,000 in donations from the public. A local beverage company dropped off six cases of wine to help offset expenses, since the restaurant donated all the food it sold. And an electronics company gave the restaurant a banner to advertise its fundraising efforts.

Monday's lunch crowd alone brought in $2,110.95, twice what the restaurant normally makes on the midday meal, Damrongwatanasuk said, and dinner was still ahead. She hopes to raise at least $20,000 in the monthlong effort.

Whether or not they meet their goal, Damrongwatanasuk and her husband were heartened by the community's support.

"This is unbelievable," said Knowles, who plans to take donations to remote villages in Thailand next month. "We didn't expect to be swamped like this."