foodpanda rain

Bangkok Bites 2: Special Delivery

In our second ‘weekly’ (ahem) Bangkok Bites, published a mere 2.5 weeks after the first, we find Bangkok in the grip of increased Covid-19 restrictions. Today we look at the booming food delivery scene and the dominance of the big delivery apps, plus some great options for ordering direct. Subscribe to stay up to date with Bangkok Bites and regular posts from around Thailand.

Well, here we are again. Bars are closed, you can’t go to the park, and restaurants are takeaway and delivery only. As Covid unfortunately ramps up again in Thailand, Bangkok has taken a giant leap backwards into mid-2020.

It must be another dreadful time for restaurateurs and particularly for service staff. The Restaurant Business Association is claiming a staggering 200,000 jobs are at risk as a result of the latest restrictions. Even taking those numbers with a pinch of salt, there are a lot of livelihoods at risk and a lot of dine-in space being paid for but not used.

I think that Bangkok is better-placed than most cities for this kind of restriction, though. When was the last time you came across a restaurant in Bangkok that didn’t offer takeaway. Higher end and bigger restaurants will be disproportionately affected; translating the Michelin experience to a plastic box and still making money must be near-impossible, but for your average mom and pop shophouse takeaway is a fundamental part of the model. Bangkok is a city of food on the go – in Bangkok Bites 1 we looked at the delights of Soi Convent; on which almost every restaurant and cart will happily and actively serve takeaway.

When we were in the UK last year, a lot of restaurants under similar restriction were caught unawares and takeaway and delivery were the exception rather than the rule. Growing up in the UK there were only 3 categories of restaurant that did delivery – Pizza, Indian, Chinese (what do you mean there are regional variations?). Chippies and fast food did in-store takeaway. Bon appetit.

In Bangkok takeaway is often woven into the fabric – dining inside but a stall out front to dish out meals in boxes and bags. You only need to watch a vendor magically tie a perfect rubber band seal on a bag of soup in half a second to know that they serve a heck of a lot of meals to go.

We actually struggled a bit with takeaway when we first came to Bangkok. Our mindset of takeaway was that it’s a guilty pleasure, an unhealthy and expensive treat you have once in a while. It was difficult to come around to the Thai version of takeaway which is essentially that someone is going to cook you whatever you like, but better, cheaper and faster than you could.

The agony of choice

Delivery is likewise extremely well-established, but much trickier for restaurants. Open up Grab or Foodpanda and you’ll have endless options to choose from for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At this precise moment, Foodpanda tells me I have 3,528 restaurants at my beck and call waiting to send a kid in a pink jacket to my house with delicious food. How do you even begin to pick?

Rain or shine

The rise of delivery apps has been marked even in the few years we have lived in Bangkok. Foodpanda, Grab and to a lesser extent LineMan are the ‘big 3’, but there are any number of smaller also-rans and newcomers like Gojek, Get, RobinHood. If this is a tough time for restaurants, it’s a boom time for the delivery platforms.

I have no idea how many bike delivery drivers there are in Bangkok, but it’s rare to go 30 seconds without seeing a green or pink uniform go tearing past. I would love to know what proportion of trips in Bangkok are now for food delivery, I’d wager it’d be surprisingly high.

At face value, the delivery apps are a good thing. Like Amazon or Lazada for food, they centralise restaurants in an easy marketplace for the consumer. They connect restaurants to customers they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. They expand orders by offering an easy delivery solution. More orders, more customers, easy solution. Great!

As a customer I have a ton of choice (almost too much), lots of offers and specials, and any food I could possibly want under one roof. In all honesty I love the convenience of Foodpanda and evidently so do millions of others.

They downside – with the notable exception of Robinhood and a couple of other small players – is the solid 30% cut of orders taken by the platforms.

At that level, what starts as a benefit can quickly become a trap. On one hand, the fee level wipes out any margin on deliveries, but on the other hand restaurants which aren’t on the major apps have less visibility and could potentially lose out on even ‘normal’ trade as a result. It puts restaurants between a rock and a hard place.

For sure there will be plenty of restaurants that do very well from delivery apps. Those who adapt their delivery menu and get a huge bump in sales can make it work – perhaps a small set of specials that can be cranked out at high volume – but that may well be the few rather than the many. Flipping to a profitable delivery model would be easier said than done – and what happens when restaurants allow dine in again? One of the many cruelties restaurants are suffering is a distinct lack of choice and planning, having to reinvent their businesses almost overnight as restrictions change at speed.

All that said, Foodpandas of the world fill an obvious need and it’s no surprise they’re popular. I’ve discovered a host of places both near and far through Foodpanda that I never would have known about before. We do order more food because of the ease of delivery platforms. There is a place for delivery platforms, but at present it seems they may have a little too much power and examples from around Asia show how they could be hurting restaurants as much as helping them. You would hope that eventually the big platforms start to compete with each other on fees before they strangle the golden goose – but who knows when that will happen.

One thing we have started to do (other than just walking up to the local restaurants) is to use platforms more for discovery, and if we find a good place – find out if we can order direct on LINE, Facebook or through their own platform.

With that in mind and to round off – here are 5 direct order favourites to try. There must be a million and one great restaurants that would fit the bill, but these are some that we like a lot.

5 direct delivery options (with links)

Pizza Mania

Of course. The doyen of delivery in Bangkok. Gigantic and gorgeous pizzas which should last for days but inevitably end up going in a single, debauched evening of cheese and happiness. Be sure to order the side of garlic knots without fail. Customer service is also second to none – we ordered a couple of weeks ago and they phoned to check we were ok with a 1hr wait before charging us. It turned up in 40 minutes.

Wok Star Express

Chinese food ‘in the British style’ i.e. totally inauthentic, but delicious. Come for the kung pao pork, stay for the sesame prawn toast. Bonus points for writing nice things on their delivery bags.

Fowlmouth

Nashville Hot Chicken which is also available in mercifully non-hot flavours. The Death level sauce is reputedly one of Bangkok’s spiciest if that’s your bag. Crunchy chicken, brioche bun burgers, curly fries. What more do you need?

Eats Payao

One of my favourite dine ins that has moved around a bit in recent years. They seem to now be doing a roaring delivery trade of Singaporean favourites, plus an almighty khao soi which is tough to beat.

Lon Lon

Thai staples and lesser spotted dishes done to a very high standard. A varied menu and currently 20% off all orders. Their lunch sets are particularly good and only set back about 120 baht at present with the discount.

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