4 Expats Who Started Successful Businesses During COVID
Located in the heart of Ari district within a five-minute walk of the BTS, Martin’s English Café boasts a cornucopia of homemade confections and reviving hot and cold brews all served in a genteel setting inspired by Old England’s classic tearooms. The assiduous work of writer and journalist Robin Westley Martin and his family, Martin’s English Café opened its doors in early June of last year amidst a pervading climate of uncertainty.
Resident in Thailand for 32 years, Martin’s idea for the business stemmed from what he perceived as a lack of a ‘true English’ bakery-café in Bangkok. Both he and daughter Anchalee or Sarah, 26, would look forward to their annual trips to the UK and in particular afternoon tea and cake in a traditional English tearoom. It was on a summer 2019 visit to such an establishment in the historic city of Bath in southwest England that Martin became determined to bring the experience to Bangkok.
The extra costs of regular hand sanitisation, hand gels and so on, and social distancing have to be taken into account. Everyone thought we would lose money in the first year.
On their return to Thailand father and daughter began planning for their tearoom in earnest and by January last year had found the venue in Ari and signed a lease agreement with a view to opening in early April. A hectic few weeks of dealing with back-office systems, fixtures, fittings and establishing supply chains followed. And then came Covid-19 and lockdown. Suddenly, on top of the already stressful nature of opening a new business from scratch, the pair found themselves with a host of unforeseen issues to deal with while facing a very uncertain future.
“People thought we were either mad or incredibly brave to go through with the cafe,” Martin recalls. “The first problem we encountered was a disrupted supply chain for all sorts of things—restaurant equipment and custom-made furniture in particular, much of which was due to be shipped from China, the epicentre of the outbreak.” Undeterred but maintaining a watchful brief, the Englishman and his team pressed ahead and eventually the café quietly opened last June, two-months later than anticipated. “For us budding restaurateurs this was a very worrying time,” Martin says. “First April approached and receded, then May. When we were able to open we had no idea of how it would go. Bearing in mind, as a family we had invested a significant amount of money in the business. It was a very anxious time.”
As it happens, the delay in opening gave Team Martin a chance to better refine the café’s service (taking Covid safety measures into account), interior décor and offerings, so that when lockdown restrictions were lifted in mid-May it was perfectly prepared to welcome patrons. “We were incredibly lucky that our first customer was a blogger,” Martin laughs. “He came in five minutes after we’d opened and wrote about it there and then. People who read his blog started coming by too and by afternoon we were full!”
From Day 1 the café has seen a steady flow of daily customers—expats and locals known to Martin and members of the general public tapping into the outlet’s social media presence. The man himself is grateful for the support but admits there are still challenges to face. “There are absolutely no tourists so we’re relying solely on Thais and expats,” he says. “The extra costs of regular sanitisation, hand gels and so on, and social distancing also have to be taken into account. Everyone thought we would lose money in the first year.”
To combat this, Martin has made sure to highlight the unique selling points of the café—great decor and location, its homemade English cakes and pastries, hot and cold drinks designed by his daughter and premium ice cream. “An English master-baker provides all our baked products,” he says. “People love our homemade scones because you cannot get them anywhere else and our cream cheese carrot cake paired with a cold drink is already a best-seller.” The café is also proving popular with the young crowd who appreciate it for its Instagram-friendly setting as much as its toothsome high teas.
Keeping an optimistic outlook has been important to the novice restaurateur and when asked for his biggest take-away on business so far he smiles. “I’ve learned it’s no use trying to argue with your daughter, especially when she is your business partner. Seriously though, in any enterprise teamwork is vital. We’re all learning as a team and pulling together to make it work, Covid or no Covid.”
Martin's English Cafe
77/1 Phaholyothin Soi 5 (Ari Soi 1), Samsen Nai
Open Monday-Thursday 10am-7pm, Friday-Sunday 9am-8pm
Nestled in a verdant garden in metropolitan Sathorn, Hide Park is the brainchild of Ston Tantraporn, Adam Sutcliffe and Pooky Sirirat Kasemsuwan. A family- and pet-friendly garden restaurant, chill-out spot and bar that had a soft launch in March last year, the venue has been designed as an oasis for Bangkokians to enjoy a well-deserved break from busy city life, but establishing an identity in these turbulent times has been difficult.
Having worked in the real estate industry in Thailand since 2013, Sutcliffe was familiar with the area in which Hide Park is located. “I spend a lot of time around here because Ston’s cousin and our third partner, well-known restaurateur Pooky, owns a business down the road,” says the Englishman. “When we saw that this space was up for rent, the three of us knew we could turn it into a unique nighttime venue. We imagined something resembling a small park that you might see in metropolitan London or Paris.” The green space was key. “We wanted room for many things that would appeal to a wide clientele,” Sutcliffe continues. “Somewhere with a relaxed ambience where friends can meet and gather, as well as a creative venue for live music and events. There are many high-rises in the area so we’re offering local residents a green space in which to kick back and relax.”
We have learned to be extremely adaptable. We have had to change the identity and feel of the venue to follow Covid restrictions and that’s the biggest ongoing challenge.
— Adam Sutcliffe
As they approached their scheduled opening date in late March, Sutcliffe and his partners found themselves in a predicament when Bangkok went into lockdown and restrictions were placed on the sale of alcohol. He recalls, “We were all unsure about how to proceed. In the first instance our projected sales went down significantly because we expected to open as a bar. With the alcohol ban, that idea had to be re-evaluated.”
It was at this stage that friends and family started to question whether or not opening was a good idea. The doubters had little influence on the trio though and they were determined to go through with their project. “Ston, Pooky and I were adamant about finishing what we had started and so we tweaked our original venue concept to focus on a daytime, open-air vibe instead of a bar, with a much more flexible menu featuring all-day brunch served in a pleasant yet socially distanced setting,” Sutcliffe says, adding, “The uniqueness of Hide Park stems from its colourfully diverse menu. Pooky was the real driver behind the food and all of our dishes are made in-house at Di Farna, her restaurant across the street. We offer everything from fusion Japanese to Thai and Western dishes, even ice cream for your dog. This is a place for everyone.”
Sutcliffe is also quick to admit that every day is a new step in terms of experience. “We have learned to be extremely adaptable,” he says. “We have had to change the identity and feel of the venue to follow Covid restrictions and that’s the biggest ongoing challenge. It would have been easier to open with a complete understanding of what this place is, but I think we are extremely privileged to have been able to open a restaurant in Bangkok anyway. And things will get better!”
His optimism is such that he and the team are already working on launching phase two of the project encompassing an indoor dining area and a pop-up beer garden. “The fun aspect about this space is that we can do what we want with it,” says Sutcliffe. “We have the option to host different types of artistic events and musical performances here, which would put Hide Park on the map from the entertainment aspect. We just look to the day when that will be possible without hindrance caused by a virus.”
122 Sathorn Soi 12
Open Monday-Thursday 3pm-10pm, Friday 3pm-midnight, Saturday-Sunday 8am-10pm
Time Zone at Gaysorn Village is a haven for lovers of a luxury watch. It is the brainchild of Dutchman Erik Meijer and German Ralf Calebow, who met in Bangkok through their tailor in July 2019 and quickly recognised a shared dream to establish a one-of-a-kind independent watch boutique. A mere 13 weeks after that initial meeting, the duo shook hands on a business agreement and the doors of Time Zone Watch Boutique were officially opened.
Both knowledgeable admirers of Swiss watchmaking, particularly rare and limited edition timepieces made by independent producers, Meijer and Calebow’s focus is as much on education and spreading the word about the craft as it is on the bottom line. “We wanted to have this concept of a watch lounge,” explains Meijer. “Our goal is not necessarily to sell but to make people feel good. They can also purchase our watches, but Time Zone is a place where people can come to relax, to enjoy being among other watch collectors and enthusiasts.”
The boutique prides itself on its diverse array of rare and unique watch brands, which include Jacob & Co, Jaquet Droz, Carl F Bucherer, Cyrus, Speake-Marin and Schwarz Etienne among others. Opening their doors at the end of 2019, Meijer and Calebow weren’t in any rush with the business and never imagined themselves having to deal with a pandemic four months after getting going. “The pandemic was completely unforeseeable,” says Calebow. “Just when we needed them the obvious lack of tourists hit us hard and the closing of malls in March took us by surprise; we didn’t have a contingency plan for something like that. But the harder the times seem to get the more we stick together. We’re still here and still making plans.”
The pandemic was completely unforeseeable... But the harder the times seem the more we stick together. We're still here and still making plans.
— Ralf Calebow
Despite the hardships, the pair insists on taking a positive outlook. “There’s a light in every situation but we just have to find it,” states Meijer. “Luckily for us, there is always a high demand for luxury watches. Customers usually go to Singapore or Hong Kong, but due to the halt in air travel they come here instead.” During last year’s lockdown when the malls were closed, the partners turned their living room into a temporary watch boutique. “We often travelled to our clients with the products they are interested in,” explains Meijer, “but the temporary boutique ensured that they could come to us for a private consultation or viewing while abiding by social distancing guidelines.”
Would they, or could they, have done anything differently? They both laugh. “We pretty much did everything wrong in the beginning,” says Calebow, adding, “We went at it like we were charging a wall and didn’t stop to strategise our business model, especially when Covid hit. But we are slowly building a team who can help guide us in the right direction. That’s something we are constantly working on because we want to grow.”
In terms of the future and that growth, the duo are already making plans to open additional boutiques within larger retail stores, as well as pop-up venues in Siam Paragon and at Fashion Island where a more affordable range of luxury watches will be showcased. “Our main goal remains the creation of a luxury watch lounge and community that aficionados can feel part of, a loose club for admirers of a precision art,” concludes Meijer.
Unit 1F-11, Gaysorn Village, 999 Ploenchit Road
Open daily 11am-8pm