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Easy as Thai

10 August 2001 by
Easy as Thai

When Philip Harris sold his Thai restaurant in London's Frith Street three years ago, he thought he had left the catering industry for good.

However, once back in his wife Anna's native country of Thailand, he began to miss being able to buy a proper English breakfast for himself, or wholesome burgers or milkshakes for his family. He believed that if he missed these things then other expatriates would too, and so he opened the Easy Diner in November last year.

Located in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city, about 700km from Bangkok, the restaurant serves a British and US-style menu, with dishes ranging from cooked breakfasts and burgers to pastas, salads and some Thai dishes. Chiang Mai has a population of about 1.7 million and, unlike Bangkok with its 10 million, is a quiet, provincial place - but more than 50,000 expats live there and there are as many as 200,000 tourists at any one time.

The diner's clientele is about 90% foreign and 10% local. Of the Westerners, some 70% are Anglo-Saxons - British, Canadian and American. There are Chinese, Japanese and Italians, too. Word of mouth brings them in, because the diner has not yet appeared in the tourist guides. Fast-food alternatives are Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's, but Harris says that although his menu is a little more expensive, he serves larger portions of better food.

Contrast with UK

The contrasts between his London restaurant, which had 32 staff, and the diner, which has four, including both the Harrises, are as great as those between the countries' cultures and economies. In Thailand you can eat, sometimes rather well, at street stalls for less than £3 a day. Costs are absurdly small - but so are profits. The Easy Diner's staff costs are budgeted at 10-20% of turnover, which is forecast to reach between £25,000 and £60,000 in its second year. "We used to achieve that level of turnover in two good weeks or less in the UK," says Harris. "However, the costs are generally much lower."

Experienced chefs in Chiang Mai earn £116 per month, an assistant £60 per month, and waiters about the same, for a six-day week of 15 hours per day. Harris pays slightly more, with additional perks including a weekly day off. Most employers give one day a month, if that.

The diner occupies a single shop on four floors, rented on a three-year lease at £335 per month. Once a jewellery shop, it had to be gutted and refurbished, which cost about £20,000, including sound and TV systems.

Harris didn't need to import any European equipment to kit out the open-plan kitchen. "I have my own set of chef's knives and a few pots and pans from my restaurant, but I didn't need them," he says. "I could have sourced everything locally. The Thais are very good at copying foreign equipment, so I was able to sketch my ideas and have the cooking range, for example, made." Including installation, this cost just £265.

The diner can take as many as 60 covers and operates as a sports caf‚ with the television on at all times, showing football, sumo wrestling, Thai kick boxing and cricket. Daytime customers come in mainly to watch, or read the papers, and spend about £1 per head on drinks, but rarely eat. Those who come for sport or music in the evening spend as much as £3.50 on drinks and average about £4.20 for meals. Gross profit is approximately 70% on food and 30% on drinks.

Best sellers include burgers, salads and home-made US-style apple pie. Concessions to local styles are few, although the signature dish, Easy Fries, is chips seasoned with salt, dried chilli and powdered spices. They sell twice as well as ordinary chips.

Other local touches include palm sugar used to sweeten breakfast porridge, and lemonade made with fresh lemons. Harris's mastery of Thai cuisine is not wasted, as a blackboard lists Thai daily specials, ordered mainly by Westerners but sometimes by locals, too. Flavours and ingredients are 100% Thai, but some dishes are deliberately Westernised by using meat leaner than is usually found in Thai restaurants and discarding inedible ingredients, such as lemon grass sticks and kaffir lime leaves, before dishes are served. Among Thai specials are chicken, pork or beef fried with Thai basil and chilli, or Penang chicken curry, all with rice and a fried egg on top. The price is 60-75p, roughly similar to Thai restaurants, and only a little higher than the street stalls.

Finding good staff is a global problem, as Harris has discovered. "It is difficult, because our menu is unlike any others, so I need to find people who are willing to be trained," he says. The first chef was trained to cook everything in the two months before opening, but he left a week before that day. Harris thus became an unwilling chef-patron while training the promoted assistant. Then he went, too. Then Harris found a woman who took great pride in her work. However, he says: "She is rather emotional - on top of the world if complimented, but unhappy if there is a problem."

Sourcing Western ingredients also presents problems - some solved by asking friends to bring, or send, parcels from the UK. But local produce is used as much as possible. "Many local restaurants and hotels cater for the cheap end of the tourist market," explains Harris, "but our burgers, for instance, are made from raw beef in our kitchen when we are not too busy, or by our butcher using specified cuts."

Streaky bacon is also produced in Thailand, but back bacon is unobtainable - the concept doesn't exist. And free-range chickens are hard to find.

There are no Heinz baked beans either, and although the Harrises used to bring them from the UK, they now use the local ones which cost one-tenth of the price. Heinz tomato ketchup and Heinz chilli sauce, made here under licence, are on the tables, and English Breakfast and Earl Grey teas are imported. Good cheese is an expensive luxury, so Kraft Cheddar is used for Welsh rarebit.

Although Harris decided long ago not to enter the family business - the famed Harris sausages of Calne in Wiltshire - he admits that he was tempted to make sausages from family recipes, but resisted. Instead, these are produced by his meat supplier, Morgan Farms, based outside Chiang Mai. However, he is planning to manufacture and distribute a range of sauces and condiments used in the diner.

Harris appears to be a happy Thai resident and a contented restaurateur. He shows no trace of homesickness until you notice the clock in his office, which rings out the Westminster chimes every 15 minutes. And his parting words suggest that there is one thing he does miss: "Please tell my old customers, especially the restaurateurs, that they will be more than welcome at the Easy Diner - and at my home, too."

Examples from the Easy Diner menu

Fill-up breakfast - two eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, baked beans, grilled tomato, toast, fresh fruit juice and a cup of tea or coffee, Bt145 (£2.26)
Daily spaghetti choice with meat or cream sauce, Bt115 (£1.80)
Easy rarebit (version of Welsh rarebit), Bt50 (78p)
Tuna salad niçoise, Bt85 (£1.33)
Toasted bacon buttie, Bt65 (£1.02)
Cheese burger, made with 100% top-quality ground beef steak, Bt100 (£1.56)
Bread and butter pudding, Bt60 (94p)
Apple pie, Bt60 (94p)
Imported teas, by the pot (English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Ceylon), Bt55 (86p)
Local beer, Bt65-Bt70 (£1.02-£1.09)
House red or white wine (Italian), per glass, Bt85 (£1.33)

The Easy Diner

27-29 Rachdamnoen Road, T Pra Singh, A Muang, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Web site: www.easydiner.homestead.com
Philip and Anna Harris, former owners of the Bahn Thai restaurant, Frith Street, London

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