One thing across every major mall in America is the presence of Thai food. Whilst Mexican and Chinese restaurants might be more abundant that also has to do with population dynamics. With over thirty-eight million Mexican-Americans and around six million Chinese-Americans, it’s no surprise that these cuisines have exploded on the American foodie scene.
Comparatively, there are only about 300,000 Thai-Americans—less than 1 percent the size of the Mexican-American population. Yet there are an estimated 5,342(today) Thai restaurants in the United States, compared to around 54,000 Mexican restaurants; that’s ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio. It just got me thinking, why is it so. Is this really new age “gastro diplomacy”?
Remember Arthur Anderson? I do. In 2001, I read a WSJ piece which I recalled recently, and was amazed at the far sightedness of the Thai Government. They were raising 10M$ to bring between 1000-3000 restaurants in 5 years to the US and 8000 globally to serve authentic Thai Cuisine. Back then I wondered why?
This didn’t happen overnight. Since the 1990 the Thai Government methodically sent qualified chefs all over the world, they also setup in-country institutions for culinary arts. They set up manufacturing lines across the nation and re-tooled old utensil factories to deploy neo-modern cooking utensils fit for a new class of yuppies, enthusiasts and professionals alike.
The global movement of McDonaldizing Thai Food. Now that’s an idea and something to be proud of. Something we need to still copy and emulate as the government of Pakistan. Instead of making insanely dumb committees and task forces, with a vast majority of dumber people and has-beens who besides self-enrichment have done nothing at scale in this country or any other. The yes sir, ji boss, bull$hit is back.
Without being side tracked, in 2001 or there about the Thai were exporting 6bn$ in food related exports worldwide, meaning ingredients, herbs and spices. In 2017-2018, Pakistan is struggling to export rice greater than 1.3bn$. Spices and other Pakistani-ethnic foods don’t even show up on the radar. You want to see the kicker? Thai exports to just their foreign restaurants were as $1.5bn in 2000…
Some one really needs to just copy this model and get started. Its been tested over time and given dividends in all the areas our current government aspires to draw in-bound dollars. Tourism, Tech to name the two top of mind items. But it should be exploring entire ecosystems of industries as opposed to one offs.
Just to re-cap, in 2001 or there about the Thai were exporting 6bn$ in food related exports worldwide, meaning ingredients, herbs and spices. In 2017-2018, Pakistan is struggling to export rice larger than 1.3bn$. Spices and other ethnic foods don’t even show up on the radar. You want to see the kicker? Thai exports to just their foreign restaurants were at $1.5bn in 2000… Some one really needs to just copy this model and get started. It’s been tested over time and given dividends in all the areas our current government aspires to draw in-bound dollars into. Tourism, Tech to name the two top of mind items. But it should be exploring entire ecosystems of industries as opposed to one offs.
Why did the Thai government do this?
The predominant motivation for the venture, according to the government, which was to hold a stake of less than 30%, was the frustration caused by the fact that people cooking Thai food abroad just weren’t doing it right. There are too many western distortions in what purports to be Thai cuisine.
The restaurants themselves were to be established with start-up funds of over US$10m and split into three price bands, upscale, mid-price and fast-food, and be called Golden Leaf, Cool Basil and Elephant Jump respectively. Experienced franchise partners would run the companies on a day to day basis, but according to the then, Thailand’s deputy commerce minister, Goanpot Asvinvichit, the government will be playing a “strong role” in the conception of the menus, and overseeing quality. How ever mis-guided that sound(s) then or today, It catapulted an export revolution.
Knock-on effect in export markets and tourism
Market watchers had expressed concerns as to just how much Thai food can be digested in the west, but a glance at export figures shows that as the taste for cuisine in specialist restaurants grows, so did demand for “authentic” Thai ingredients – both for foodservice sales channels and home consumption. Clearly this has been a global winner by way of execution.
Indeed, the government played this right, they had intended and made sure that at least 70% of the foods used by the Global Thai Restaurant Co. are exported from Thailand. As stated earlier, the country already grossed over US$6bn from food-related exports annually, and over US$1.5bn from supplying restaurants with both food and cultural merchandise, and the Thai food industry gained a significant boost from the venture and continues to grow to this day. An idea well played out.
As well as the profitable growth in the ethnic food sector, and the related export boost, Thailand also gained from the intrinsic link between exotic food and its destination: the tourist trade is booming even when the politics was at all time low. During 2000, the country welcomed nearly 10m tourists, double the amount that arrived in 1990. In 2018 those numbers were at 22M. The increasing availability of long-haul flights is a major factor of this, but so too is the advertising provided by popular local restaurants. Imagine the mix at play, all well thought and executed correctly to now stand in 2019 at the top of the game. It did not happen by accident it happened by deliberate planning and by way of some thing every Pakistani feels strongly about. FOOD…
Over the course of this exercise it has been fairly evident that People who enjoy Thai food are more disposed to visit the country, and tourist officials are widely distributing leaflets and brochures in eateries. Its an ecosystem of one. One mission, one drive, one end result, brand Thailand.
Further evidence of the close link between Thai food and the country is in the establishment of cooking schools in Thailand to cater for the tourists’ desire to learn more abut the cuisine. One such example is the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts on the popular island of Koh Samui, but similar centers have mushroomed in the tourist hotspots in recent years. We need to learn from this. Whilst Indian food is on the up and up in the West, similar examples of Pakistani food are far and few in between.
What have we been doing and what should we be doing?
We continue to focus on the wrong thing, set in motion by the wrong set of people leading self driven agendas. We need to think outside the box. Pakistan doesn’t have a PR problem, we have an “Idiot” problem, we are taking our versions of political idiots and putting them in charge of solving economic problems. Actually this whole model could be copied by any half decent so called local group or company that has the where with all to think beyond its table stake businesses of being a rent seeker.
The Thai Govt didn’t import the London Bukhar equivalents to dream up these things, they didn’t invite other patrons of high-business and high-friendships to devise new ways to save the Thai Economy. Do remember they have had 12 Military Take overs; yet continue to be perceived as a safe destination, rampant with ease of doing business, tourism and now a center of high tech innovation.