Survival Strategy! The New Normal for “Faak Tong Isan Style”

Over the past April, Mr. Jack-Duangtawan Kesorn, owner of the Faak Tong Isan Style Restaurant, an Ubon-style Isan restaurant, has experimented with lots of things.  Although problems are hard to solve, he has kept trying to think and learn different things until he finally came up with a solution for handling the situation.

Mr. Jack overhauled his entire plan for overcoming his current obstacle. He applied his lessons and experience from the first year after he opened his restaurant (about four years ago), when he was so affected by electric railway construction that no customer sat to eat at his restaurant. He kept adapting by doing things like engaging in in-depth marketing in finding customers and transforming a wide variety of his menu items to eventually consist of only Isan food, which customers love.

The Decision to Fight and How to Handle Covid-19

One big question restaurants are asking during the Covid-19 pandemic is, “Should I stay open, or is this the end?” The same question was asked by Mr. Jack. Eventually, his answer was, “Keep going!” Then he made adjustments to his restaurant by cutting expenses and creating new things to suit the situation.

“At first, I weighed it in my head on whether or not to stay open or to close down. ‘If I stayed open, would I have money to pay employee salaries if no customer arrived?’ ‘Will I be able to sell?’ I consulted some senior people in the restaurant business. I consulted P’Kasem (Mr. Kasemsan Sattayarak), the general manager of Copper Buffet, and he said that I would still be able to sell if I stayed open but that I would earn zero baht if I closed down. So I have to keep fighting, and I have good work team to fight together with me.”

“I’m lucky my landlord is sympathetic. My landlord said I could pay later on any month when I suffer a loss while Covid-19 outbreak is ongoing. So, I filed documents to ask my landlord to lower the rent, and there shouldn’t be any problems about it.  As for electricity, I unplugged my four beverage refrigerators.  So, from having six working vegetable refrigerators, chillers and freezers, I have only two left. I’m not using the dish washer, and I’m using less ice and am only turning on the ice machine at night, since the electricity cost will be lower at night than if I left it on during the day. As a result, my normal electricity cost of about 20,000-30,000 baht dropped to just a little over 10,000, and water fees have dropped by 50%.

Isan Bento and Menu Changes to Fight Covid-19

Changing menu items was one of the first things I did, because it determined other variables such as ingredient costs and kitchen and inventory management. I did this by retaining only the outstanding menu items that sell easily and that are popular with customers and by creating new menu items that particularly attract people during this period.

“Because our restaurant has quite a lot of menu items, the first thing my team and I had to do was reduce the number of menu items. Menu items that do not sell or those at risk for being easily spoiled were removed. For example, wild foods, fresh oysters, and cockles are no longer sold every day but only on market days now. In the past, I ordered these ingredients through suppliers, and prices were pretty high. Now I drive to buy every other day. As a result, costs have dropped a lot. It’s a little tiring, but customers get to eat more, and prices are lower.”

“Then I changed Isan foods by selling them in sets. I took the menu items that customers enjoy eating the most and the ones they feel are worth the prices; then I calculated low profits for them. I think that’s okay, for as long as my employees have work to do and customers get to eat worthwhile food. If Covid-19 disappears, I think customers will come back if they know the food at our restaurant tastes great. That’s how we came up with the Isan bento project. It includes four main sets.

1. The Khon Diao Fiao Dai Set is priced at 100 baht. It’s made of Tum Pla Ra/Tam Thai, pork Nam Tok/pork Laarb, fried chicken wings and glutenous rice. Normally, the price for these menu items separately is 175 baht. For one person, buying it as a set is more worthwhile. The responses to the set have been quite good.
2. The Saab Po Tua Set is priced at 250 baht. It’s made of Tum Pla Ra/Tam Thai, grilled chicken, grilled pork neck, fried pork, Jaew Pla Ra and two packs of glutenous rice. Its normal price was 420 baht.
3. The Nua Sood Khoom Set is priced at 250 baht. It’s made of Tum Thad Pla Ra/Tum Thad Thai, grilled chicken and two packs of glutenous rice. The normal price was 289 baht. Normally, the Tum Thad portion is small, but the size has been increased for this set.
4. The Faak Tong Yok Krua Set is priced at 619 baht. It’s made of Tum Thad Inter Pla Ra/Thai with River Prawns, Tom Yum with fish eggs and young tamarind leaves, Thai salad with Thai pork sausage with egg yolks, Pla Ra/Nam Yum, grilled pork neck and four packs of glutenous rice. Because its original price was 850 baht, this set is a great value for three or four people to eat together.”

We’re also offering a promotion of three boxes of food for 100 baht and free deliveries for orders up to 100 baht within a kilometer radius, 500 baht within a five-kilometer radius and 1,000 baht within a 10-kilometer radius, along with special promotions for free steamed snakehead fish and Jaew Pla Ra usually priced at 350 baht. Additionally, the restaurant still has tables set up for selling rice and curries at 40-60 baht per bag.

A number of customers are still working in the area, including merchants and taxi drivers. So, I’m selling rice and curries at 40-60 baht per bag. With the situation like this, rice and curry helps us to a certain degree. We’re making 7-10 menu items per day, all of which have been well-received. That’s because their prices are affordable, and they taste good. We also have quite a few regular customers visiting us and telling us to keep doing what we’re doing after Covid-19 is over.

Personal Delivery Service

In the past, up to 90-95% of the sales of Faak Tong Isan Style came from the storefront. Now that Mr. Jack has had to adjust, he’s using his experience from when he was a pizza delivery person familiar with all the routes of Bangkok and is now offering food deliveries by himself.

“I used to rely on delivery services through different applications, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, since I had to pay GP fees, which I don’t think are worthwhile. So, now I’m making deliveries myself. Most customers order by [email protected] or the restaurant’s fan page. We have two motorcycles, so we invested in bags and restaurant stickers to brand ourselves. I’m already quite familiar with the routes in Bangkok, and now there’s Google Maps to use. SO all customers have to do is send their locations, and I will be able to find them. But there are both advantages and disadvantages. If customers are located far away, it’s cheaper for them to order through an application, but the food will be a bit more expensive. So, customers can pick the best values for themselves.”

Packaging for Deliveries and Safety

Some basic things Mr. Jack considers in making adjustments and choosing the right food packaging, transportation safety and convenience and aesthetics.

“When thinking about packaging, we had to first know how many types currently exist and where we can get them. Then we mainly looked at value, followed by the fact that fans ask for things to be attractive and for customers to be able to take attractive pictures.”

“We were able to find some for each category such as for Laarb, Thai salad or boiled menu items or Som Tum. They’re microwaveable containers. For example, the Saab Po Tua Set has pizza boxes for its packaging. I feel that they’re effective and attractive. When you open it, you see Som Tum, grilled pork neck, fried pork, grilled chicken, glutenous rice and Jaew Pla Ra inside.

“In addition to looks, we also see if packaging is convenient to transport. At first, when we thought a packaging was good, we drove out and ran into bumps and found out that curry sauce leaked out because the packaging we’d selected was too big and everything wouldn’t fit properly when arranged. So, we changed the packaging appropriately and bought accessories to help block food boxes, so they could be transported conveniently without problems.

So, even though we thought we had done the best we could, we have to keep making adjustments when we run into problems. The benefit of Covid-19 is that it made us think and do things right away. We have to do anything that is good now. There’s no guarantee for tomorrow. You need to do things now.”

Safety is Top Priority during the Covid-19 Outbreak

Food safety is one of the top priorities for Mr. Jack. That’s because it is like consumers are entrusting their lives to Faak Tong Isan Style.
“For safety, I divided things into two parts. The first part is the kitchen. Employees have to dress cleanly and wear gloves, masks and hats and clean the entire area and all containers and utensils very thoroughly and place objects at least 60 centimeters above the floor in line with district regulations. I believe my restaurant is no less clean that any other Isan food restaurant. I have to really admire the chef for being someone who loves cleanliness and checks things very thoroughly.”

“The other part is customer service. If customers buy at the restaurant, we have thermometers, alcohol and 1-2 meters of distancing. In addition, food deliverers wear gloves and carry alcohol and towels to clean delivery boxes.”

“I think our basics for ensuring safety while dealing with Covid-19 is about 100% achieved, because we got to see examples from the Copper Buffet Restaurant and Klong Saen Suk Restaurant, which are doing things very well. We consulted with them and got their advice that we have to first build customer confidence and that customers will dare to eat our food if they have confidence.”

Employee Work Adjustments

In the past, Mr. Jack had to take care of over 30 lives that are part of the Faak Tong Isan Style work team, and employee expenses reach six digits on a monthly basis. With the Covid-19 crisis, it was necessary to let some employees go and adjust work procedures.

“For employees, I decided to pick people who could work in this situation. People who have been working for less than three months were told to quit first, while migrant workers happened to be going home during the Songkran, so we didn’t replace them. Now we’re helping out those who didn’t go home. We’re offering accommodations, three meals a day and coverage of all expenses.”

“Right now, I have six people working on my team. I have one chef, three kitchen employees and two delivery employees. Before the restaurant had a kitchen for Laarb, a kitchen for Thai salads, a kitchen for Som Tum, a kitchen for stir-fries, and a kitchen for fried foods. The chef handled everything. Four people were needed to work together before you could get a plate of pork basil stir-fry with a sunny-side-up. Now the chef, who used to just wait to stir-fry, has to pluck the basil leaves, pick things up and load them in boxes personally. It’s necessary to work hard in helping out for now. Right now, teamwork is vital. I also hold a meeting with my work team nearly every day after work to ask about the obstacles they encountered and brainstorm about solutions.”

Marketing Strategies during the Virus Pandemic

Currently, marketing is mainly geared toward online channels. If anyone’s a follower of the Faak Tong Isan Style fan page, the person will see significant sales points and attractive presentations such as #YouNeedToEatDeliciousFoodsAtHome, #FaaktongAtHome, or the names of Isan bento sets.

“When writing content, we identify our customer groups. Normally, my partner and I come up with ideas together. Since the style of our page is Isan restaurant, my partner will come up with words in the central dialect and I will convert them into the Isan dialect to match the restaurant’s style. Sometimes they’re humorous or funny. I’m a fun person, and I want to be casual with my customers. I don’t want people to be stressed out too much. That’s because the economy and Covid are already stressful enough. I want simple communication in Isan.”

In addition to promoting the fan page in a unique way,  the Covid-19 pandemic has also caused Mr. Jack to learn about some marketing strategies while going back to some basics, which produced very positive responses.

“When Covid-19 happened, I consulted other people in the restaurant business about marketing. They advised me to look for customers near the restaurant. In the past, I never checked whether or not potential customers nearby knew about the restaurant, and when I launched advertisements, I would target an area within a 10-kilometer radius of the restaurant. After checking it out, I found out that hardly any customers around here orders from the restaurant.”

“So I changed my strategy, and I’m now distributing flyers. I distribute them in neighborhoods where I can deliver food as quickly as possible within a radius of about two to three kilometers from the restaurant. I primarily target Ha Yaek Lat Phrao, toward Ratchada-Ladphrao, Sutthisan, Saphan Khwai, and Ratchayothin. I distributed brochures along houses and buildings. When I do so, I put on gloves and spray alcohol, so they know I’m safe, and I also stand about one meter away from customers I meet.

“The benefit of distributing flyers is that we sometimes can directly communicate with our customers. I get new customers like tying bento. Some customers order from us every two to three days or sometimes for three meals on some days. The responses were quite good. I feel that it’s a genuinely useful marketing technique. Even though people use Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube, I use both online and offline marketing. I think that, after the Covid-19 pandemic ends, my customers in the neighborhood around the restaurant will increase.”

Adapt to Survive and Expand to New Opportunities

Faak Tong Isan Style is able to survive because of its courage to adapt to changing circumstances.
“I feel that it’s not a mistake to keep the restaurant open since 21 March. Back then I was deciding whether or not to close down or stay open. After I received encouragement from people in the restaurant business and the work team at the restaurant, I decided to keep it open to this day. Looking at the numbers, they’re not satisfactory yet, but the graph’s continually increasing, and I’m getting new customers and regular customers make large orders, and I got them from actually doing things hands-on.”

“When Covid-19 ends, I think it will be a starting point for expanding upon delivery experiences, because a group of customers will continue to want to eat at home, possibly because they’re still afraid to come out. So, we have to adjust our menu items to most effectively match our customers.

We might conduct research or ask our customers in person, because my fan page now has over 40,000 followers, and I have about another 1,000 people following the restaurant’s [email protected] If I broadcast and communicate with the 1,000 customers in [email protected] and can offer food menu items at 100 baht per order, I might be able to generate as much as 100,000 baht more revenue.”

New Normal for Restaurants during the Covid-19 Pandemic

With some relief measures allowing certain types of restaurants to open and allow people to sit and dine there, such as roadside restaurants and open-air restaurants, with the condition of keeping tables 1.5 meters a part, measuring temperatures and using alcohol gel for cleaning hands and prohibiting customers from picking or grabbing their own foods in buffets and only allowing them to ask service employees to help them, restaurant owners definitely received a bit of comfort. What has to be done now is to consider it as the new normal for Faak Tong Isan Style. We’re prepared and are planning to officially open up the restaurant to customers.

“I always think opportunities belong to the prepared. I am very prepared. I communicate with my work team about keeping tables 1.5 meters apart, screening, temperature measurements, alcohol gel, preparing customer waiting accommodations, and having employees wear gloves and masks and then clearing everything on tables. We’re already doing things consistently. We’re not leaving utensils, seasonings or brochures on tables. We’re keeping them empty so we can prevent the disease.”

“With the relief measures, we’re prepared to make changes. We might have to switch to offering set orders or courses, and we might have to prepare sterilizers for spoons and forks like they do in food courts, or we might have to install air purifiers and perform frequent big cleanings. It might also be necessary to ask for customer cooperation by having payments be by transfers rather than cash, in order to reduce basic contact with money and customers and to ensure confidence in our customers.”

“Whether it’s one month, three months or six months, whatever the government wants me to do, I have to do it to the best of my abilities. We’re already following the basic announcements and specifications, so we shouldn’t have to worry too much. We can solve problems and we can do that well. However, if additional measures are implemented, we have to see how we can adjust and meet the government’s specifications. We have to wait and see.”
Illustrations by: Facebook.com/Faak.tong

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