English café! Where? Bangkok. When? Now!

by Robin Westley Martin

These were the thought processes early in the New Year of 2020, of my daughter Sara, my partner Noi, and myself. I had recently returned from a trip back to the UK with Sara, and we had visited the quaint and historical city of Bath. We explored this spot extensively (very popular with Thai and Asian visitors) and to rest our tired tourist toes we had plonked ourselves down in one of the many cafes offering a traditional English afternoon tea. Sara and myself stayed there rather longer than we had intended, sampling several of their cake offerings, and Ye Olde English Scones. My daughter was enamoured with the homemade cakes and the whole cafe atmosphere, and it had planted a seed of an idea in both our minds. Last Christmas, over a family meal, we discussed our trip to Bath, and we decided that to offer a similar experience in the heart of Bangkok would be a good idea. 

Sara began scouting locations, and Noi, myself and she eventually decided upon the Ari district, a very popular area in which to hangout. We found a site, premises, and set about making our dream of an English café in Bangkok come true. Our research had discovered that Bangkok, over the last few years, has been the most visited city in the world, with 22.7 million international visitors per year. The next closest cities were London and Paris, with about 19 million.

All these plans, of course, predated the onset of the Corona virus pandemic that bombed out international air travel, and devastated the hospitality and service industries worldwide. But we had made our bed, had begun fitting out the café, signed contracts, and made heavy investments already. There was no going back. 

The first problem we encountered was the supply chain for our fixtures and fittings, that we had carefully chosen for the restaurant, much of which was going to be shipped from China. Uh oh! The epicentre of the outbreak. However, it did not turn out as badly as we expected. China was the first to suffer the consequences of the deadly spread of Covid-19, but was also the first to start its recovery. The lockdown in China began to ease in April, and shipments out of the country once more resumed.

When we had initially signed our contracts with the owners of the complex in which our café was to be located, the opening date had been set for April 1st .  Bangkok was deep in the throes of lockdown, and the city was as quiet as a teashop in an English country village might be. There was no traffic on the roads or on the pavements, and hotels, pubs, restaurants, and cafes had all been told to shut their doors by the Thai government. Opening in April was a no no.

For us budding restaurateurs this was a very worrying time. The first of April approached and receded. The first of May approached and receded. When were we going to be able to open our restaurant that we had sunk all our money into, and how would the business fare in the ‘new (ab)normal’.

We were looking closely at the effect this global disaster was having on businesses, and people’s lives in general. Millions of small to medium businesses around the world are not likely to survive the losses they have made during the enforced closure of their premises, which was enforced to avoid the contact spread of the virus. 

And the further burdens placed upon them, such as the restrictions on inner city mass transit systems means that footfall will likely be reduced. Places that rely on customers will also suffer from a reduction in clientele within their premises due to social distancing rules, resulting in less seating and table space. The extra costs of regular cleaning of their public and private spaces, and the cost of hand gel, etc, etc all have to be taken into account. All of this is going to eat into the profit margins, even of those establishments that survive and are able to reopen.

So, is this a good time to be opening a new place, without even the benefit of having created a name for itself, and having loyal customers. Errrmmm … no, I think not. But never say die, mai pen rai (never mind), forge on and let’s see what happens. 

The Thai government, halfway through May, announced that restaurants and cafes would be allowed to open their doors again on June 1st, and we breathed a sigh of relief. At last we could open, and hopefully begin to recoup some of the money we had invested in creating this little corner of England in one of SE Asia’s greatest cities. The extra time we had been given had allowed us to refine the décor, and get all the equipment fitted. The stuff from China had finally arrived, the freezer and chilled display cabinet had been delivered, the sink, ice machine and fridge had all turned up. And the Thai contractors had quickly completed installation of these essential café requirements. The interior décor, lighting, and seating was taken care of by the two ladies on the team.

As we readied ourselves for ‘go’ we set about sorting out our food and beverage deliveries and supplies. Our vision was of a little piece of England transported to Thailand, and our menu had to support this vision. I wanted to go the ‘homemade’ route, as I am not a fan of factory made mass produced food… I wanted our café to be special. Luckily, Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city, with a large expat presence, and many foreigners have made Thailand their home. In my work as a freelance journalist, I have been a gadabout in the city when times were more normal. I have had to attend numerous different types of function, and at them have made many contacts and friends, from just about every sector. Some of the English people I have met are in the restaurant business and when I had told them about my café project they were more than willing to help. Thus it is, that my new café has on its menu traditional English cakes, biscuits, pastries…  and of course that essentially English favourite, freshly baked scones with homemade strawberry jam.

The complex in which my café is located was due to have seven different outlets within it, but as of June 1st, only my place and a full service restaurant had opened. Governments and landlords all around the world, to greater or lesser success, have been doing their bit to lessen the adverse effect of the economic downturn caused by the strictures that have been put in place due to the Covid-19 virus. Many landlords have waived or reduced their rents, and I am grateful that the landlord of my property followed suit. 

We found two Thai staff who had previous restaurant or café experience, and on the first of June we nervously opened up for business, not knowing what to expect, as Bangkok was still nothing like as busy as it had been pre-Covid. The first two customers we had were two well-known bloggers in Bangkok, which proved fortuitous. A few more people trickled in during the morning, and by the afternoon more were coming, possibly having seen the review by the Bangkok bloggers. Over the next few days more customers and bloggers came, including some photographers and writers from magazines, for which I thank my friends in the media industry. The café is also proving very popular with the young crowd who are busily taking photos of the café and our food, which they post straight to the two most well-known social media sites, Instagram and Facebook… thanks!

I hope other places that are struggling with their new or established mode of business can do well for themselves and flourish during these difficult and challenging times. I extend a welcome to you all to come and chill out at my place… MARTIN’S English Café, Bangkok!

MARTIN’S English Café can be found on both Instagram and Facebook.

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