On Sunday, the Thai government allowed some restaurants and eateries to re-open after a month of closure. The government had shuttered many businesses in their attempt to keep coronavirus infection numbers low.
The re-opened restaurants will still have to adhere to strict social distancing rules but the ability to resume somewhat-normal service is a lifeline for an industry that has struggled mightily since the coronavirus outbreak began.
For many restauranteurs though, there is no rush to fully re-open and many are choosing an optimistic wait-and-see approach.
Suranand Vejjajiva, the owner of Brianwake Cafe, a chain of 10 eateries around Thailand, told Thai Enquirer that he would not be doing a full reopen yet. Instead he would only be opening three of his ten branches.
“I am not only worried for the health of my customers, I am also worried about the health of my staff,” he said.
“Basically, everyone should continue to be cautious and as a business, I have to try to build up the confidence for my customers and it will take time before they fully return,” he said.
Over the course of the lockdown, Brainwake had offered takeaway options but Suranand said that those options came with added costs at a time when revenue was already low.
About two-third of Brainwake’s income has been lost since the lockdown began so taking to opening only one-third of its shops with minimum number of staffs is also a financial call.
He said he does not want to let go any of his staffs because he personally feels bad and it takes time and money to retrain them.
But some of them have to be let go so that he can keep on hiring at all ten of his branches.
According to Suranand, the coronavirus pandemic will change the income structure of restaurants completely.
“With less number of seats, there is no way that we can break even at every shop so the model has to be changed at some of them because customer behavior is changing,” he said.
Restauranteurs interviewed by Thai Enquirer say that raising prices is a last option at a time when everyone is struggling financially.
Suranand said some measures that Brainwake are investigating include cutting overtime and lowering wages for senior staffs.
But in the end, having ten chains might not be financially feasible.
“I might be left with 2-3 branches but I will still be the last man standing, if I can find my niche,” Suranand said.
Pornrutai Kanchanarat, an owner of a noodle shop call Phaeng Thong in Paholyothin 60, opted to continue to open for takeaway during the lockdown. With things reopening, Pornrutai said that she is concerned about the logistics of running a restaurant with social distancing measures.
“The customers could be coming from everywhere and the large gathering at my shop could lead to a possible spread of the virus to myself, my family, my customers, the shops around us and this community,” she said.
Phaeng Thong, which is situated in front of a village, is usually full during lunch time, especially over the weekend, with ten tables and 40 seats both inside and outside the store.
This means that there could be up to 40 customers sitting her shop on a normal Sunday afternoon with more than a hundred people coming in and out every day.
“What I am worried about the most is the cleaning up process since both myself and my staffs have to do the cooking and the cleaning up at the same time,” she said.
“We have to figure out how to do this safely first before we can fully reopen.”
By her estimation, her restaurant may be down to four tables.
She said the prospect will certainly eat into her revenue as some customers do prefer to sit and eat at the shop because noodles taste better when the soup is still hot.
But as the takeaway option has been working for her since the lockdown began, she can afford to wait for a month to figure things out. She acknowledged that most other shops do not have the same option.
“Not that many shops can wait nor do they have the knowledge to do online delivery, or have an experience of taking out loan from the banks,” she said.
Others are choosing not to open things back up at all until the situation becomes more clear and the restrictions are eased further.
Chalee Kader, the head chef at 100 Mahaseth, told Thai Enquirer that the current rules “defeat the purpose” of eating at a restaurant. 100 Mahaseth has operated a takeout service over the lockdown and have no plans to re-open.
“We are not opening yet, as the rules and regulations surrounding the reopening is making it difficult to be a normal restaurant,” Chalee said.
“I fully understand that they are taking precautions and trying to keep everything as safe as possible but it doesn’t make sense to have to sit 1 meter apart and have a barricade/partition between tables, defeats all the purposes of a restaurant.”
“The [curfew] is still not lifted making it really awkward to have to work and call last order at 8 or 830pm and quickly clean up and get home before the curfew comes in to effect.”
Suranand of Brainwake said that the government has the right idea with soft loans for small and medium businesses like his own but many restauranteurs are not used to dealing with the banks.
This means lengthy approval processes for those applying for the first time.
There are also restaurants that have been badly hit by the economic slowdown even prior to the outbreak. Many have already applied for loans and some will have bad credit.
“These restaurants will likely die first from the sudden loss of revenue and indebtedness before they can get their hand on the liquidity from the banks,” he said.