By Tony Norman
When Ling Robinson was a child in Thailand, her father said: “When you have a gift, you don’t use it to make money.”
Ling usually took most of his counsel to heart, but she was a born entrepreneur with a passion for pleasing people with her cooking talents.
Consequently, there was only one calling in life that made sense to her — opening a restaurant to showcase her gift for cooking.
“I’ve been doing business since I was 16, 17 years old,” the petite 48-year-old said at Green Mango, her Thai restaurant in Wilkins. “I love to challenge myself in business — [but] always in the food business.”
Even before she was a teenager, she did a lot of business in the food markets of Chiang Mai on behalf of her family. It was a skill that foreshadowed her career as a restaurant owner decades later. Cooking for her relatives beginning at a very early age sharpened her knowledge of how to please a table full of people with eclectic tastes.
In the mid-1980s, Ling found herself briefly married to an American citizen who was of Chinese/?Vietnam descent. When she was four months pregnant, her husband left her alone in Thailand to cope with the birth of their daughter. Her daughter, Kathy, was born in 1987, but was recognized as an American citizen because it was her father’s citizenship.
At the advice of a friend, Ling and her baby daughter moved to the United States. It was her intention to get a green card and eventual citizenship. They arrived in Pittsburgh in 1991. She immediately liked the scale of city. It was relatively easy for a foreigner to navigate.
She initially lived in Shadyside where she worked at Thai Place, one of the city’s first Thai restaurants.
It wasn’t long before Ling’s ambition went into overdrive. Even though she was a single mom, she took on the burden and responsibility of working seven days a week “working as a waitress, a manager, whatever it takes” at Thai Place.
She was struck by the region’s unfamiliarity with Thai cuisine and the low number of restaurants that served it in the early ’90s. It was a vacuum she intended to fill.
Ling regularly walked from her home in Shadyside to a restaurant in Squirrel Hill that would become Bangkok Balcony, often with her daughter in tow. Her sense of mission and the belief that she would open a Thai restaurant of her own one day could not be extinguished by lack of a car or long hours working for someone else.
What she lacked in start-up capital, she more than made up for with drive, charm and a keen intelligence for business. As driven as she was, even she had limitations.
Raising a daughter alone in a foreign country with limited resources was difficult. Eventually, she met and married an American of Thai descent named Mark Robinson. They have two boys, Steven and Jason.
By the late ’90s, Ling was ready to embark on her dream of owning her own restaurant. She and Mark found a tiny storefront at a shopping plaza on Edgewood Avenue in Edgewood.
It wasn’t long before the popularity of Ling’s dishes necessitated a move to Braddock Avenue in Regent Square where Noodle Hut/Green Mango became one of the early staples on the once-neglected strip.
A few years ago, Ling moved Green Mango to Wilkins for more space and easier parking. Her customers followed her. Along the way, she mentored several other Thai entrepreneurs, many of whom started in her kitchen as cooks before embarking on their own businesses.
She rattles off the names of more than a half-dozen restaurants in which she mentored the owners or gave crucial advice and support to open Thai restaurants — including Thai Cottage, which replaced the location of Green Mango in Regent Square. They’re friends and family, not rivals.
“My restaurant gives lots of people a chance,” she said. She pointed to several people working in the restaurant whom she has “adopted” as members of her own family, stressing that helping them achieve their goals is as important as serving great food.
“I’m always the boss,” she said with a laugh. “I came here [to America] to be a boss. I want to be an example of a little woman who can do it. If I can do it, then anyone can do it.”
But it is not about the money, she insisted, echoing her father’s advice from decades before.
“I show my kids who I am every single day,” she said. “I want them to love life, not for school or money. I want them to enjoy life and learn from my ‘college’ before they go to another college. I teach my kids. What they learn outside is extra.”
She included her staff among her kids and would not make distinctions.
Ling will open another restaurant at Bakery Square in Larimer by year’s end that she has named Asiatique Thai Bistro. It will have a different menu from any restaurant she has ever opened, she said.
“I believe this country gives you a chance to be who you want to be and do what you want to do,” she said.