When City Hall once again ordered Bangkok’s bars shut and banned restaurants from serving booze, ostensibly to stem the spread of COVID-19, an uncertain future loomed. Or so it seemed.
Bangkokians have always adapted to crises, from floods and upheaval to forced closures. The alcohol association estimates the closure could cost the industry up to THB9 billion (USD$300 million). Now, Bangkok’s bartenders are once again proving their resilience.
Whether it’s Studio Lam selling spicy Thai dishes as “Studio Yum” or Khaosan Road’s Hippie de Bar reopening as a flea market, the city’s revered nightlife institutions have pivoted left and right, launching revenue-generating side hustles that might help them to survive until business gets back to normal.
Less than a week into 2021, Niks Anuman-Rajadhon and Gunn Leelhasuwan, two of the minds behind Soi Nana bars Teens of Thailand and Asia Today, launched Dim Sum International, an ad hoc project using recipes for old-school shumai (pork dumplings) for THB10 a piece to help unemployed bartenders pay their bills.
Rather than carving ice or shaking up craft cocktails, bartenders are also preparing dumplings and dishes like shoyu pickled egg yolks (THB30), spicy noodle soup khanom jeen nam ngiew (THB85), northern Thai laab (THB100) as well as cold brew coffee (THB75).
“People involved in the bar and nightlife industry have had to shoulder more of a burden than those who are involved in gambling or even human trafficking,” Gunn said.
Like Niks and Gunn, the crew at Silom cocktail lounge Vesper wasted no time shaking up their business model. First, they rolled out “buy now/drink later” vouchers (e.g., buy THB2,000, get THB2,500 to spend). Then the team announced that the bar would rebrand as Vesper Cafe and serve mocktails, fresh juices, premium teas, coffee and food in collaboration with Il Fumo, La Dotta and 1919.
Playroom, Ekkamai’s seductive speakeasy, has likewise rebranded as a cafe. From now until further notice, the velvet-draped bar is offering cafe bites, freshly brewed coffee and mocktails.
“We’re doing everything we can [to stay afloat], and every member of our team has been doing a lot more than what their job description says,” said Playroom owner Sainisa “Jay” Sangsingkaew. “We’re lucky that some of our bartenders know how to make coffee—some of them were baristas before.”
While many venues are leveraging the talent of their bartenders, some of the people who make your drinks are doing double duty, maximizing their skills to help their employers generate revenue while finding ways to supplement their own income. For them, the pandemic has provided unexpected opportunities.
At Thonglor hideaway Find the Locker Room, the management team was prepared for the “second wave” pain. Not only is the bar offering sangrias, margaritas, and mocktails for takeaway, it is also operating as a cafe serving non-alcoholic beverages, from cold-brew coffee and bubble tea, as well as bites that are some of the bartenders’ side hustles: Bartender Thanachot “Ong” Lohanimit’s vegetarian-friendly I Want To-Fu Tonight (deep-fried tofu, fried shallots, pickled radish and onion sauce for THB100) and Navaphol “Pete” Uengsatienpong’s Keep Calm and Curry On (rice, deep-fried pork cutlets and yellow curry for THB120).
“I had been experimenting with my tofu recipe since the first lockdown in April,” Ong said, noting how he discovered his appetite for vegan cuisine when he was sheltering at home with the rest of Thailand. “I’ve been wanting to do a project of my own for a long time, and I guess the opportunity presented itself in the most unusual of ways.”
Fellow Find the Locker Room barman Pete has found a means of income in the form of cutlet curries.
“It’s something I’ve always loved to eat, and I thought that trying to sell it now wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” Pete said. However, the barkeep couldn’t hide the feeling that he has been left out in the cold by the authorities.
“I personally feel that the government is doing nearly nothing to help us out. Sure, they’ve allowed restaurants to open until 9pm, but what about us? They’ve completely shut us out. In my opinion, bars, specifically cocktail bars nowadays, have been good for Thailand’s image. People around the world look at Bangkok and see great cocktail bar-hopping opportunities. But I feel like we’re the forgotten ones,” Pete said.
There seems to be a consensus among bartenders and bar owners that the government is not doing enough to help their businesses stay afloat during this quasi-lockdown. These periods of forced inactivity, however, have given many time to reflect on ways government officials should be working with Bangkok bars, both now and in the future.
“In my opinion, the government should come down to see how their actions really affect people,” said Supawit “Palm” Muttarattana, bar manager at Vesper. “There are many different kinds of bars and restaurants… there isn’t only one rule that applies to them all. Just think about fine dining and street food. There’s a big difference between the two and how they operate, right?”
“The bar and nightlife industry is hugely important for the Thai economy, so it would be better if the government allows us to reopen, but with measures to curb the effects of the pandemic, like allow a certain amount of people in a given time while sticking to social distancing measures,” adds Jay.
“We always comply with their regulations and orders,” says Ong, hinting at a recent legislation that bans online alcohol sales. “They should give us more opportunities and platforms where we can sell or advertise our products, or else we really can’t survive.”
While all the bartenders and bar owners we’ve spoken to acknowledge they will be doing what they’re doing indefinitely to survive the latest alcohol ban, one in particular has advice for everyone to keep going, and keep believing in what they’re doing.
“Don’t just wait and hope that someone will help you, whether it’s the government or some other organization,” says Gunn, offering nuggets of life-coaching not as a side hustle but rather as a rallying cry in a period of uncertainty.
“I want everyone to do whatever they can to survive. Don’t give up.”
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