With business struggling, somtam vendor Charoen “Tony” Phochaisee (center), 38, decided to doll up his stall with male and female pretties dressed to resemble Thai mythological beings Thevadha and Nang Fah. And it’s worked. The newly-opened Som Tum Tard Arb Sub at Chatuchak Market has caused a big stir thanks to its shirtless array of eye-candy waiters. BK met with him to talk business.
What did you do before selling somtam?
I was born in the Northeastern province of Roi-Et. After moving to Bangkok, I started off making a living as a cigarette importer and had my own shop. It wasn’t very lucrative, though. As I loved cooking as much as doing business, I decided to become a somtam vendor. However, the market is so competitive I found it hard to make much money.
 
So this isn’t the first time you’ve sold somtam?
No. My old stall was barely recognizable. It was within Chatuchak, too, but in a very obscure corner no one would remember. I used to stress out about how I could make ordinary Thai food like somtam stand out when everybody is doing the same thing. Then I came up with the idea of dolling up my waiters and waitresses in fancy dress, like they’ve literally walked out of classic Thai literature.
 
Who are your waiters and waitresses?
They are part-time models. I sourced them from either Facebook or friends who work in the entertainment industry. Some even came to ask me personally whether they could work as my waiter or waitress, too.
 
Why do you want them to wear such costumes?
Because I want to get everyone’s attention. I want to be rich. This is the only way people are going to recognize my stall. A troupe of shirtless hunks and beautiful girls that resemble those in Thai literature—what else would drive people nuts like that?
 
Have you ever been involved in likay (Thai folk operetta) before?
Well, people always mistake my costume for those in likay. That frustrates me a bit. Actually, I wear molam (Isaan folk music) clothing. I always wanted to be a molam performer, but never had the chance.
 
How much does each of your staff get paid?
B2,000 per day and I sell on both Saturday and Sunday according to Chatuchak’s schedule. Actually I sell on Friday, too, but the pretties are absent on this day.
 
Have you ever had any trouble?
Some jerk customers harassed my waitresses once or twice. I told them to stop and also warned my waitresses that they have to take care of themselves, too. As for the waiters, some customers have even proposed to “buy” them from me to stay the night or whatever. But I’m never going to let that happen.
 
What’s next?
I’m planning to expand my business as a form of pop-up food truck and drive to random destinations; places like Rod Fai Market at Ratchada Road. I’m even thinking about selling franchises. But I don’t care if people copy my idea, because it’s not just about the semi-naked waiters. My food also wins people’s hearts, too.