As a kid, Piti Sukavivatanachai hated working at his family's Thai restaurant, Your Choice. “I never liked helping out there when I was younger,” he laughs. “My friends would always ask me to hang out with them on the weekends but I could never go because I had to help out washing glassware or busing tables.”
Still there was at least one perk of working at the family business: the ice-cream parlor across the street. “Our parents would take us for a treat after work and we made so many good memories there,” Piti remembers. Years later, after leaving a career in emergency medical services to return home—and back through the doors of the restaurant—Piti and his wife, Kathy Dao, are poised to be the ones facilitating the memory making with Creaminal, their distinctly modern brand of ice cream.As told to SeaVees. Photography by Johnie Gall
“I’ve had multiple plans for what I would do with my life. First I played guitar in a rock band called Freaks in the Wild and then became an EMT in Los Angeles. I saw that job as a stepping stone into the medical field and figured I’d go on to work as a fire department paramedic or in a hospital emergency room. My main goal in life has always been to make a positive impact on somebody, to make things better.
“My main goal in life has always been to make a positive impact on somebody, to make things better.”
No one wants to be an EMT forever. It’s a low paying job, you’re working really long shifts, and you’re always showing up on someone’s worst day. Then came a really intense call that changed my perspective on life. In 2011, there was a mass shooting at a local salon, and I was one of the first responders on the scene. It was gut wrenching, and it made me realize how short life is. None of those people expected their lives would be cut short like that—they were just getting their hair done—and it made me realize I wanted to spend more time with my family.
My parents had been struggling with their restaurant for a while—they aren’t the kind of people to ask for help directly but I knew they needed me. I was newly engaged to my wife, Kathy, at the time, and her family had owned a Vietnamese restaurant so she had a lot of experience with managing a kitchen. We started coming back to Santa Barbara whenever I had time off to help with daily operations and the logistics—I never thought in a million years I’d be walking back through those doors in that capacity, but life just kind of happened.
One day, when I was up from LA helping out at the restaurant, I saw my mom making coconut ice cream the old-school way, which involves combining ice and salt and sugar and hand mixing — it was taking forever so I jumped in to help her. I became fascinated with ice cream almost immediately. There’s a lot of science behind good ice cream. I mean, go to any store and some of the ice creams are really good and some are really shitty, right? That’s because the sugar, the fat, the moisture, the air, all those things affect the texture and flavor of the final product. I dove into researching ice cream; it became a relaxing way to wind down after stressful days working as an EMT.
In my head, helping at the restaurant was always a temporary thing—I don’t know exactly what happened, but Kathy and I ended up staying. I put some new flavors of ice cream on our menu and people bought them right up. That made me so excited and gave me the fuel to try even more of my ideas. They were not all winners. I had some flavor fails—Pomegranate Chocolate Chip was a disaster. The Biscoff Cookies and Cream, though? Instant crowd favorite. I love taking flavors people aren’t super familiar with, like ube or Thai basil, and combining them with flavors everyone already loves. It’s like creating a cultural bridge through food.
So many conversations between my wife and I are just tossing flavor ideas around. Kathy and I actually connected over food—I’d picked up an overtime shift taking the ambulance to a local fair where kids could take a look inside and sit in the driver’s seat. She was there with her sister and she came into the ambulance, and we started talking about food—this was back in the day when you exchanged screen names on AOL Instant Messenger and we really hit it off in the chat [laughs].
Creaminal wouldn’t be here without both COVID and Instagram. When COVID hit is also when I started separating Creaminal, the ice cream brand, from the rest of the restaurant by doing ice cream deliveries. I also had a lot of time to think about branding and taught myself how to design new menus and logos on Photoshop. The name wasn’t even my first choice, but Kathy vetoed some of the stupid ones I came up with and we landed on Creaminal [laughs]. DJ Javier, a local artist, made our main logo, which is a burglar carrying an ice cream cone—it’s just really cool and people love the merch we’ve made from it, too.
“I was just hoping a few people would show up. By the third time we hosted, the line was around the block.”
When restrictions were lifted, that’s when the concept of No Sad Sundaes started—it’s an ice cream social we do here on Saturday nights where people can come in and get served different sundae concepts after the restaurant closes. On the first night of No Sad Sundaes, I was just hoping a few people would show up but we surprisingly had a small line out the door. By the third time we hosted, the line was around the block—and it was a cold, rainy day! I was like, ‘Dang, people are willing to wait for us. For my ice cream.’ My wife had said I could get a Creaminal tattoo once I had a line for ice cream so here it is [laughs]. My next dream is to have a stand-alone Creaminal shop right here in town because it would be such a full-circle moment, giving other people the kinds of memories I made with my family at the ice cream parlor.
Of course I make stupid mistakes, ruin an entire batch of ice cream, and it bums me out because I wasted it, but it’s not the end of the world. I can start again. I have to come in early and stay late to work on ice cream but it’s something I love to do. I wish I had formal training, but teaching myself means I try things that are unconventional. It’s a blessing and curse to constantly have to figure things out for yourself.
“It’s okay to try a bunch of different things, and you don’t have to fall in love with them for them to count as successes.”
I don’t know if this was ever a dream for me. If I told my kid self I’d be working in a restaurant he’d be so mad at me [laughs]. It’s weird we expect little kids to know what they want to do when they grow up—you need to go through your life and have different experiences before you can know what excites you. I’d been chasing different things and this is the one that reeled me in and ignited something inside of me. But I feel like I had to be in a band, I had to become an EMT, I had to do all of this stuff in my life in order to arrive here in this place where I wake up every morning excited to go to work. It’s okay to try a bunch of different things, and you don’t have to fall in love with them for them to count as successes. I think we’re scared to go down the wrong track, but if you box yourself in too early, then you probably won’t end up doing the thing you actually want to do.”
Piti wears the Royal Runner in Cumin.