Restaurants are open, but what exactly does that mean? These top restaurateurs in Bangkok explain how they are adapting to the abstract idea of a “temporary normal” now.
When Bangkok restaurants officially shut their doors in March, restaurateurs and chefs went into survival mode, relying on delivery and takeout orders, all the while making sure to support their staff and producers. While many have succeeded in staying afloat, a lot of places have buckled under the pressure and have had to shut their doors—some temporarily, and some forever.
Now that restaurants are slowly beginning to open in a permanently changed industry, many wonder if dining will go back to the way it was pre-pandemic. But with masks, gloves and temperature checks having become the “new norm” when leaving the house, and cryptic regulations announced from government officials that allow restaurants to function under major restraints, that seems unlikely.
Pictured: Kuppadeli Asoke
The Bangkok Post recently reported BMA measures to ensure public health. They require restaurants covering more than 200 square meters to check employees and patrons for fevers, while smaller outlets must “do the best they can.” Diners are required to be seated 1-1.5m apart and partitions are to be installed, except when tables are at least 2m apart. Buffets are not allowed, and alcohol cannot be purchased for consumption on site—only brought home.
In addition, the 10pm curfew requires restaurants to shut early, as well as limit takeout orders, as Grab service comes to a halt at 8pm.
These are just some of the turn-offs temporarily impacting the new era of dining out.
How restaurants have adapted
Christian Martena and Clara Del Corso, the power couple behind Clara, had just opened the doors to their highly anticipated Italian spot when the pandemic broke out. They saw drastic changes within days.
“Before closing the restaurant on March 21, we were already screening guests for fevers and offering hand sanitizer. We are fortunate to have a large space, so our tables can be placed generously apart from each other to maintain social distancing. We put in place supplementary sanitation procedures in the kitchen and are monitoring our team’s health. We also had to submit a request to receive the Covid-19 infection safety certificate from the government,” says Martena.
While most restaurants will and must resume under these tight restrictions, other top Bangkok spots like Bo.lan and 100 Mahaseth have opted to stay closed until further notice.
Tim Butler of just 22-year-old Eat Me says, “We decided to hold off opening till mid-May or June as we still need to evaluate the situation and potential market.”
He says his focus is making sure they can deliver a dining experience that his regulars and friends have come to know over the years. “My biggest fear is to open too soon and not be able to allow our guests to enjoy the time they are with us. To be bluntly honest, the curfew and alcohol limitations makes it very difficult to achieve that,” he adds.
Not everyone has been so lucky to have the option of reopening, though.
Bill Marinelli of the Oyster Bar announced via his personal Facebook page that the doors to his long-running seafood spot would be shutting for good. “After 11 wonderful years, THEOYSTERBARbangkok [sic] is finally closing forever. Our landlord, who has been extremely supportive, has found a new tenant for the space.”
Another restaurant to fall victim to the pandemic is Mexican restaurant Tacos and Salsa, which closed after eight years of operation and shifted to delivery from its sister venue in On Nut.
Looking for support
Even prior to Covid-19, restaurants have had to endure loads of obstacles, such as rising rent prices or just trying to break even in an already dire economy. With sudden closures and a temporary halt of service, there has been mounting pressure on the government to support employees who’ve had to take unpaid leave or have unfortunately been laid off.
According to official statistics reported by the Bangkok Post, nearly two million people have already applied for Social Security benefits since the outbreak began. Unfortunately, “Of the number, 219,000 were not qualified... On average, 30,000 people have applied for benefits each day.”
Typically, those benefits amount to between B6,000-9,500 per month—or maybe it’s that amount for three months. The law is unclear, admits Dylan Jones of Bo.lan. In light of this legal gray area, many chefs around the city have taken it upon themselves to keep their employees paid by operating as a delivery-only service, sanitizing kitchens or cooking meals for the less fortunate in the community.
While dining with barriers doesn’t necessarily sound appealing when celebrating a birthday or going out on a Tinder date, for now, it’s the only option restaurants have to ensure your safety.
With dining at home playing a key role in our new reality as well, not only will delivery service be something we’ll be seeing more of in the future, many also believe these unprecedented times will encourage the push of local ingredients to help sustain the community and ecosystem.
“We think and hope that customers like us will want to eat more local products to help the environment and their own country,” says Martena. “The crisis has opened our eyes to the world situation today, and we have decided to go even more local than before. When we reopen, we will launch a new menu [showcasing] beautiful local products in a modern Italian interpretation.”
Peter Finnigan, vice president of food and beverage at Accor Hotels, meanwhile, sees a more sustainable future on the horizon. “I think that we will focus much more on ‘cooking to order,’ with little or no pre-made food. We have also observed that guests are now less inclined to simply walk in to a restaurant and will instead call ahead to reserve a specific time to avoid disappointment or to steer clear of queueing. Both trends will help us to reduce food waste as chefs can plan for an exact number of guests,” he says.
“In line with our commitment to reducing food waste we have also been moving away from traditional buffets in recent years. I think the new normal will support this stance—a breakfast buffet might only offer ‘cold and bakery’ items on display with strict distancing measures in place, while offering all hot items made to order. In brief, yes ‘buffets’ are returning but in a different format,” he adds.
But will this “soft” reopening and revamped reality be enough to survive until a vaccine is produced? Top Russell, head chef of Mia, is relatively bullish.
“Other industries have it much worse—tourism, for example, will take months to fully recover even after a vaccine is produced,” he says. “I think F&B will recover more quickly than most people think. It will be almost like a switch. Once there’s a vaccine, things will go back to the way they were, although I think there will be a chunk of restaurants that won’t reopen in time for this to happen.”