Small businesses, how are you doing?

Small business operators rely on grit, resilience, creativity, and sheer willpower to survive this pandemic

By | Mon 7 Jun 2021

It has been more than a year of on and off pandemic regulations and the once crowded streets of our city are desolate and deserted. Hotels are closed and restaurants struggling to stay open, even those which are well established and were previously successful.

Yet, and against the odds, there have been a number of budding businesses, specifically cafés and small restaurants, mostly run by younger entrepreneurs, sprouting up all over Chiang Mai. These new enterprises join hundreds of coffee shops, hip souvenir outlets, hostels, and restaurants braving through the pandemic and persevering through what seems to be a time impossible for any sort of survival, let alone growth.

Are these entrepreneurs privy to some sort of information we aren’t? Are they just delusional? Perhaps they have savings or parental funding or loans to help them survive. Or they just have that elusive quality so many entrepreneurs have, and that is sheer determination and moxie to defy the odds, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Whatever it is, let’s talk to some of these young startups to find out what they are thinking.

Mitte Mitte, on Sittiwong Road, is a restaurant and café which opened in December of last year with the promise: “The serious brunch for everyone”. Mitte Mitte looks small from the outside, but they are able to utilise their space smartly with a bright and airy open interior. It is cosy, sleek, and modern all at once. The café offers fusion food as well as sweet and savoury bagels so packed with goodies that they can be substituted for full meals or desserts. There is also a menu of drinks and other sweet and savoury dishes that you can choose from as well.

As everyone else in the restaurant business Mitte Mitte had to close shop following recent regulations. In response to COVID-19, Wave Pongruengkiat, owner of Mitte Mitte said, “Our sales got affected because our business is based on our food and the way our shop is uniquely designed. Customers tend to want to come in person and we have to adjust to making delivery food compared to what is served in the restaurant.”

If you own a restaurant or any kind of food and beverage business, I am sure that you can relate. Though the quality of food and drinks are crucial factors in the success of any restaurant, they are all that matters when it comes to a smooth transition to a delivery business. With so many of Chiang Mai’s cafes and smaller venues attracting customers over the past many years on more than just food, it has been hard for them to transition. For many years, many businesses have focused on a combination of their design aesthetics, architecture, tastes, services, and that elusive je ne sais quoi that makes some businesses work while others fail. Such abstract, and IG friendly, attractions don’t fare so well when ordering food from home.

Take Mars.cnx on Arak Road, for instance. Upon arrival, customers will be instantly transported to a different world – baristas serve customers in a metallic and spaceship-like area and every visit to the café is like an exploration of another planet. The draw is in the venue, and let’s face it, it has always been more about the check-in than the dine-in. So how can that possibly translate into an off-site delivery service?

Mitte Mitte’s Wave continues, “Our space is designed for the customers to come inside the shop to enjoy with friends or family, but now we are limited to delivery. Our menu hasn’t adjusted entirely to the delivery experience compared with the in-person experience.” For instance, Mitte Mitte’s elaborately decorated dishes will, of course, not be used in their delivery packaging, taking away a unique element of their business’s personality.

Mitte Mitte offers an insight many surviving small businesses face over and over, “We learn to continuously adjust to our circumstances. We try to see which menu item works well with the delivery experience and we adjust, such as selling more cold dishes for delivery.” To that end, Mitte Mitte opened the Mitte Markt offering customers dry and cold food items such as their homemade Caesar dressing, classic granola, or tomato sauce so customers can take the café experience back home.

Another business is 123glamp in San Phi Sue which takes a creative approach with its camp-themed store. Customers can enjoy their coffee in the natural outdoor space overlooking the Ping River while feeling COVID-safe. The unique part of this café is that the furniture is not set in place. Like a big campground, customers can freely move the chairs around and sit wherever they choose. This gives a socially distanced feel without being detached from the café itself.

Take a drive around town, a socially distanced stroll, or even a scroll through social media like Facebook or Instagram, to see how these new businesses are adapting to the new normal. Whether changing their menus or spreading out their reach through social media, many new businesses have to continuously come up with solutions to tackle the uncertainly of the pandemic and its regulations. In this new normal, they have to lean into change and confidently command the use of social media to promote their businesses in beautiful pictures, customer-grabbing promotions, or provide customers with products other than what was originally on their menus.

Mitte Mitte and 123glamp are just a few examples of small businesses that are still operational, but this is not a reality that most businesses face. During this time, it is all up to survival and adaptation. Some make it, and some, unfortunately, won’t; closing as quickly as they open. Many have already folded in face of the brutal reality of COVID-19. At the end of the day, a business is still a business even if it is masked by carefree, relaxed, or Instagram-grabbing aesthetics.

I thought that maybe it would be interesting to turn to one of the most successful and well established restaurants in the city: The Duke’s, and ask its owner David Anichowski what he thinks of these new startups valiantly braving the current climes.

“Usually, bad times or a restaurant failure can teach someone more than a successful and thriving business,” said Anichowski, who says he too has not come out of this situation unscathed. Serving all-American comfort food, The Duke’s has been more fortunate than most in that it is an already well known brand, its menu familiar to many, and the large portioned-comfort food being particularly ideal to a pandemic.

Anichowski warns that customer captivation through trends and style can make a business be more competitive, but it does not mean that the energy lasts, especially during such challenging times. Having been in the restaurant business for decades, Anichowski offers three pieces of advice to newer businesses facing these current challenges; firstly, work hard, do everything, cut staff to a minimum; secondly, be creative with social media, don’t spam your own site with non-inspired posts, boost your specials on Facebook and drive in new business, but keep it at only one or two posts a week; and lastly, don’t be afraid of not making it this time. Take some time off, learn a few things and try again.”

He concludes, “Unfortunately there is no secret sauce and no one wins the lottery. It’s old-fashioned hard work, dedication, and inspiration.”

It is clear that older and more experienced businesses are struggling just the same as newer ones, but they have years of experience under their belt, and that has value. The uncertainty, unpredictable future, and adjustments over and over again are part of this reality.

As admirable as it is to see young entrepreneurs be so courageous by starting a business at this time, perhaps, for some, it may be more judicious to hold off. At the end of the day ther is no secret to success in these unchartered waters and we can only do what we can. Whether success or failure, through sheer hardwork or creative brilliance, with the help from others or going alone, it is all part of the journey.

There is no doubt that Chiang Mai’s exciting café culture and restaurant scene will bounce back again…it is just a matter of when. We love dining out, we love good design, we love good food and we love to support our up and coming businesses. So when we can, we will again. In the meanwhile, the resilient, the creative, and the lucky businesses continue the fight. Those who haven’t made it should feel no shame, just learn from your experiences and hopefully one day bounce back even better and brighter. We are all seeing the light at the end of the tunnel now, so hold on everyone. We are nearly there.

Businesses mentioned:

Open: 10am – 5pm every day (closed Tuesdays)
Location: 86 Sithiwongse Road, Chang Moi
Contact: 086 363 6415

Open: every day 9 am – 6 pm
Location: 27/12-14 Arak Road
Contact: 091 092 9999

Open: 9 am – 4 pm every day
Location: 185 San Phi Sue
Contact: 085 030 7904

The Duke’s
Contact: 053 249 23
Check for different locations and opening times