There’s no easy time to open a restaurant and if you attempted to open one during the past 18 months — where we’ve been bouncing between lockdowns, curfews and alcohol bans — you could be considered a little crazy. That’s why I really wanted to share one story that has tested that theory.
Meet Jip Taweesirin, a Pai local since around 2003, she’s originally from Chiang Mai. She’s hard to miss with what are arguably the longest locks in the valley and now she’s got something new to hang her hat on – some of the best sandwiches in the north.
Before the pandemic hit, Jip was busy running her hotel, Pai Yard Guesthouse. With weekend tourists, packed during high season, she had a thriving little business. But that all stopped in its tracks with the Covid situation and she found herself with no customers or income.
One of the highlights at Pai Yard was the restaurant and a popular item on the menu was a delicious grilled cheese sandwich. So Jip decided to take that item as the building block for a new idea.
Starting at the street
As the first lockdown eased in the second half of 2020 Pai partially reopened. There were very few tourists but we still had the local community and over the weekends we were getting some domestic tourists looking for a short getaway.
Pai is well known for its walking street with local food and craft markets and though much of that had disappeared there were still some vendors. So Jip decided to launch her sandwich enterprise outside Vespa Bar, a funky spot that attracts bikers, who often pass through Pai when travelling the Mae Hong Son loop.
“With the exception of when we’re asked how fast we were going, bikers never lie! All of the guys and girls agree that Jip’s sandwiches are amazing! Cheese Madness is now the Chiang Mai bikers’ go-to lunch stop in Pai.”- Kevin William Marsh, Naked In Thailand
I drink at Vespa Bar and remember Jip starting out. I’m never one to kill the spirit of a good idea but have to admit I had my doubts that a cheese sandwich could win over the dwindling crowds. How wrong I was!
Within a few days of opening it was not uncommon to see a queue of 6, 7… 10 people looking to get their chops into a grilled whole-wheat sandwich with thick layers of melted cheese and a crispy crust. There were a few variations with cheddar, mozzarella, blue cheeses and the obvious accompaniments of ham, tomato and so on, but essentially the concept was simple, and great value at just 69 baht.
It was a big hit, people loved it and Jip’s best selling spree on the street was 62 sandwiches in under 4 hours.
Time for some wine
I like a glass of wine so could not have been happier when she took the next step with her little enterprise and decided to go from the street to a shop, Grilled Cheese Madness. It was six months in and time to scale up.
“As more customers came it was getting too difficult to work on the street with only an ice box. Now with a shop, I can offer a larger menu and serve more orders. It’s also a space for customers to sit, eat and socialize,” said Jip.
Today Jip has more than 10 different kinds of cheeses on the sandwich menu, with customer favourites being bacon, blue cheese, mozzarella & cheddar. There’s also the famous chicken buffalo grilled cheese and side orders such as her homemade mozzarella sticks and breaded chicken strips.
Grilled Cheese Madness has been running since April this year. Jip and her team are still up against it with challenges brought by the new lockdown, but being continually adaptable seems to be driving success. She sells about 20-30 sandwiches a day, makes deliveries all over town, and that includes wine with the grub, if it’s your tipple.
It’s all too easy to be pessimistic during these tricky times and so it’s encouraging to hear people who simply push forward with their ideas and ignore the potential negatives – as Jip and her team have done with the shop.
When we get the biker groups coming through I’ve seen many of them tucking into some of Jip’s creations. Times are quiet right now, but if you are passing through or if you’re here later in the year when the lockdown subsides do check out a bit of Grilled Cheese Madness.