News broke this week of one of the more unusual ventures to
Thai food festival 2001
capture restaurant goers' imagination and wallets: the government of Thailand is establishing Global Thai Restaurant Co. A business intended to open 3000 Thai restaurants worldwide within the next five years, officials argue it is a bid to create "the McDonald's of Thai food," to introduce to the world the pleasures of Thai cuisine and to capitalise on a rapidly expanding ethic foods sector in the US and UK.

The new company is just the latest in a string of manoeuvres designed to heighten the profile of Thai food abroad. For years now, the government has waved goodbye to many of its best chefs, as they emigrated to spice up the sauces of other countries not yet au fait with the rigours of traditional Thai cooking. Bangkok has formed the nucleus for a near-global network of such professionals, trained at giant culinary centres and highlighted at government-sponsored food fairs around the world. This restaurant venture is believed, however, to be the first of its kind.

Why is the government doing this?

The predominant motivation for the venture, according to the government, which will hold a stake of less than 30%, is the frustration caused by the fact that people cooking Thai food abroad just aren't doing it right. There are too many western distortions in what purports to be Thai cuisine.

The restaurants themselves will be established with start-up funds of over US$10m and split into three price bands, upscale, mid-price and fastfood, and be called Golden Leaf, Cool Basil and Elephant Jump respectively. Experienced franchise partners will run the companies on a day to day basis, but according to Thailand's deputy commerce minister, Goanpot Asvinvichit, the government will be playing a "strong role" in the conception of the menus, and overseeing quality.

What's it worth? How big is the market for ethnic foods?

More than 1,000 of the restaurants are earmarked for the US however, where the rocketing consumer appetite for Thai food must be an important push for the venture. Strong cultural diversity in the US advances the cause of ethnic foods, meaning that sophisticated manufacturers can manipulate the market with time to create a mainstream product. Thus salsa can overtake ketchup as the most popular condiment, and pizza can be thought of as "American."

An uneasy tension may exist, then, between the government's insistence that Thai food remain "Thai" in more than name alone and the long-term strategies of ethnic food manufacturers wishing to reach a mass market, but a compromise could prove extremely profitable.

A 1998 study by PROMAR International, Riding the US ethnic food tide: Strategies for food manufacturers into the new millennium, suggested that Thai food is a candidate for the fastest growth in an otherwise sluggish industry. It is an exciting time, with the National Restaurant Association arguing that consumers are being enticed away from traditional foreign fare such as French, Greek and German to the more exotic Thai cuisine. There were 500 Thai restaurants in the US in 1990; today there are well over 2,000.

In the UK meanwhile, a 1999 article in The Grocer revealed that, "nearly three quarters of British households buy ethnic food now and there's growth in all sectors."*  Indeed, the sector is increasingly profitable and growing fast, valued at over £600m in 1998, and gradually consumers are shopping out of interest and moving away from the ethnic favourites Indian, Chinese and Mexican, which accounted for 90% of the ethnic food market in 1995. The cultural demographics of the UK are different to that of the US, but the appetite for ethnic foods is growing at a similar rate.

*Mary Carmichael (1999) "Focus on ethnic foods" The Grocer August 21 p.54-57

Knock-on effect in export markets and tourism

Market watchers have expressed concerned as to just how much Thai food can be digested in the west, but a glance at export figures shows that as the taste for cuisine in specialist restaurants grows, so does demand for "authentic" Thai ingredients - both for foodservice sales channels and home consumption. Indeed, the government intends to ensure that at least 70% of the foods used by the Global Thai Restaurant Co. are exported from Thailand. The country already grosses over US$6bn from food-related exports annually, and over US$1.6bn from supplying restaurants with both food and cultural merchandise, and the Thai food industry will gain a significant boost from the venture.

As well as the profitable growth in the ethnic food sector, and the related export boost, Thailand also stands to gain from the intrinsic link between exotic food and its destination: the tourist trade is booming. During 2000, the country welcomed nearly 10m tourists, double the amount that arrived in 1990. The increasing availability of long haul flights is a major factor of this, but so too is the advertising provided by popular local restaurants.

People who enjoy Thai food are more disposed to visit the country, and tourist officials are widely distributing leaflets and brochures in eateries. Even the website Thai Food.co.uk (http://www.thai-food.co.uk) sports a promotional banner for Thai Airways International.

Further evidence of the close link between Thai food and the country is in the establishment of cooking schools in Thailand to cater for the tourists' desire to learn more abut the cuisine. One such example is the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts on the popular island of Koh Samui, but similar centres have mushroomed in the tourist hotspots in recent years.

Is there room for the Thai food market to grow further?

A reputation for quality must be maintained for the market to continue growing. One way for the new government-sponsored restaurants to ensure this is to continue exporting its chefs. For many traditionalists, the thought of a non-Thai cooking at an ethnic restaurant is anathema. The government is negotiating with US immigration services to resolve the situation with special work permits for the chefs of the Global Thai Restaurant Co.

Another enormous selling point for Thai food is its healthy approach to ingredients, providing a welcome choice for consumers who desire improved nutrition. Health professionals have long stressed the advantages of a plant-derived diet, with a reduced focus on meats, in producing lower incidence of heart disease and cancer. Herbs play an important role in Thai cooking and the health-giving properties of plants such as garlic (Krat-thiam), holy basil (Ka-phrao), mint (Sa-ra-nae) and lemongrass (Takhrai) is often stressed. The fresh fruit flavour of kaffir lime (Makrut) is also increasingly popular. Indeed, herbs and spices are now the country's fastest growing export commodity, with sales increasing 30% last year alone.

Thai cooking also utilises chilli (Phrik) in many dishes, and the growing tolerance of spicy dishes within countries such as the US and UK is widely noted. The USDA has released figures showing that by 1999, consumers in the US had lifted their annual use of chilli peppers to six pounds per head. And in the UK, the love of spice is evident particularly in the massive popularity of Indian cuisine and Tex-Mex foods.

Is it fair and will it work?

With the advantages of health, taste and spiciness, and a solid culinary reputation, the market for Thai food looks set to increase dramatically, providing substantial returns for the domestic economy through exports and tourism. Others are not so sure, however, that the government's new culinary-industrial approach to the international economy will work to everyone's advantage.

There are fears from private restaurant chains that their own expansion abroad will be threatened by the government's subsidised competition. Thailand's economic development is largely based on strong competition in a free market philosophy however, and the large manufacturing sector cannot but profit from the increased demand for authentic Thai food ingredients. If the government is right, soon we will all be eating regularly at a local Thai restaurant, and picking up a fried rice with shrimps (Kao Phat Gung) or wonton instead of a Big Mac.