Among Thailand's Failed Eateries, Finding Hope

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Jarrett Wrisley


Opening a restaurant is like climbing a great set of stairs. The first step, in my case, was an idea. Then I struggled with investment proposals and profit and loss projections. Shareholders agreements shrouded in mind-numbing legalese followed. There were trips to law firms and finally—the fun part—researching recipes throughout Thailand. I've also been meeting with farmers who grow unique and delicious things here, and trying to piece together a supply chain. But the hardest part has been finding a home for my restaurant. This haunts me.

For the past three months, I've been following in the messy footprints of failure. Of restaurants left to rot. Of empty massage parlors, with oily plastic bottles still resting beside beds. Of shag-carpeted barstools and dusty karaoke machines, and bathrooms where the only thing that goes down the drain are rats. I look at a line of old hair dryers in a shuttered salon, with their jaundiced plastic globes, and try to imagine the manicured heads of customers instead. It's hard to find an affordable space in a big city, and a fertile imagination is essential.

There are reasons for these difficulties. Like a generous tax structure that allows Thai landowners to sit on property for as long as they like, rather than lowering the asking price. And cheap operating costs that enable failing businesses to stay open for longer than they should.

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Jarrett Wrisley

Plus, Bangkok is hot, and people don't usually walk more than a block or two to eat. So parking is crucial, and proximity to our limited public transportation is too, because of the perpetual traffic. If a space has all these things, rest assured they'll come at a cost, usually in the form of a "key fee"—a one-time payment to buy out a lease, which can be 10 or even 20 times the price of a month's rent. All that to rent a few rooms that reek of lost promise.

As I pick my way through others' mistakes, I try to imagine how they happened. Did the lunch crowd never come, or was the shop too far down the street? Were the prices too high? Was the concept too complex, or too simple? Did the staff steal? Sleep doesn't come easy for a first-time restaurateur.

And as I wandered through Bangkok two weeks ago, snapping photos of metal shop doors where the owners' cell phone numbers are scribbled, I was passed by pickups and motorcycles trailing banners of red. The country's color-coded political troubles have flared up again, and the city filled with protestors demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament. The city's busiest commercial intersection had been occupied for nearly half a month, closed for business, choked by protests.

During my search, I walked down the street where PM Abhisit lives. Police, in heavy riot gear on a blisteringly hot day, sat under the awning of a bar called Hard Times. That was before the violence erupted last Saturday, which took the life of 22 Thais and one Japanese photojournalist.

But life in Bangkok will go on, and with it my business plan. As I prepare, I'm gaining a greater respect for those who've succeeded in this industry. I thought I knew how hard it was to run restaurants when I worked as a critic, but the critic's mind is focused on qualitative aspects of restaurants: the kitchen, the service, the drinks and atmosphere. Restaurants don't get extra stars because the owner had the foresight to buy the lease on a washed-up barbershop for an outrageous price in a time of political turmoil, then sink more money into tearing it apart. Did I mention that sleep doesn't come easy?

But contained in this restlessness is a blind excitement. Dreams of a busy bar. The sound of cocktail shakers competing with conversation. Of a kitchen full of motion and smoke, and serving a kind of food one might not find in other places, because of the trouble I took to find it. Soon, some of that will start to happen.

At night, after scouring Bangkok, I find peace of mind in my local market. I buy a fish, gut it behind my house, and light charcoal in a small grill, blowing on the coals. I neatly prep my herbs and vegetables, whose bright colors remind me of a palette of oils. I squeeze limes and pound garlic and lemongrass and peppercorns into fragrant pastes. I create order. And as another meal hits the table, I imagine serving it to someone besides my wife and a few friends.

I nervously search their faces for pleasure as they eat, while picking at my dinner. And then, when that's all over, I try to get some sleep.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.
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