We should eat humble pie and consider the Thai restaurant business model

Why are there so many Thai restaurants in the US? And so many terrible ‘Irish’ pubs?

Thai restaurants can be found all over the United States. Thai people? Not so much. According to figures obtained from the Royal Thai embassy in Washington DC, there are about 300,000 Thai people living in the US. The same corps diplomatique estimate approximately 5,300 Thai restaurants operate nationwide.

If, for argument’s sake, each eatery was owned and operated by a single Thai ex-pat, that would mean one in every 60 of them were peddling food for a living.

Compare that to say Mexican Americans, who make up an estimated 36 million of the entire population but only 54,000 Mexican restaurants can be found stateside.

If you ask me, I’d pick Thai cuisine over beans, cheese and rice arranged on a plate in versatile ways so as to render each dish somehow different yet the same. Thankfully, no one is asking me. (I’ll ask the questions round here.)

But could it perhaps be the case that millions of other people living in the US exhibit the same level of ignorance to Mexican gastronomy as I, and could murder a Pad Thai from time to time too?

Why are there so many Thai restaurants in the US? The Thai government paid for them. Gastrodiplomacy doesn’t refer to a kind of indigestion specific to those working in the foreign service. Rather it is a politically motivated strategy to spread one’s national brand and culture internationally through its cuisine.

Back in 2001, the Thai government established the Global Thai Restaurant Company. Its aim? To open 3,000 new Thai restaurants worldwide.

Tremendous success

This wasn't some small-time initiative to help boost exports of fish sauce and curry paste, although both benefited. This strategy involved the department of export promotion, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand, the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Bank of Thailand, the public health ministry, the ministry of health, the ministry of industry, the Thailand National Food Institute, the public Kasetsart University, and the ministry of agriculture.

It has been a tremendous success. When the programme was launched 17 years ago, there were about 5,500 Thai restaurants worldwide. Today there are more than 15,000. The number in the US alone has risen from about 2,000 to more than 5,300.

By contrast there are an estimated 7,000 Irish "themed" pubs worldwide. It is important to emphasise the "thematic" element to this figure as there are some "Irish pubs" abroad where what constitutes traditional decor, paraphernalia, even food, is highly questionable. There is a certain chain of bars here in my current home, Texas, where photos of balaclava-clad IRA members hang side by side with pictures of ex-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Next to her is a scene from an old GAA football game and maybe a signed poster of ex-Liverpool striker Ian Rush. The opposing wall of the bar might exhibit a dozen Rolling Stones posters.

Offensively-named libation

Not to mention the ubiquitous “Irish Car Bomb” – a cocktail shot comprising of Guinness, Baileys and whiskey. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been offered this offensively-named libation when someone discovers my nationality. My response is usually, “Sure, but can I buy you a “School Shooting” in return?” That usually wipes the smile from their faces while simultaneously saving me from the standard conversation, which goes along the lines of:

American guy - “My ancestors were Irish.”

This reporter - “ Oh really? Which part?”

American guy - “I believe they were Scotch-Irish”

This reporter - [That's not a part of Ireland: that's two separate nations squished together, you dingbat] "Oh, how fascinating."

The closest comparable example Ireland has to the Thai gastrodiplomatic approach was when the Irish Pub Company, backed by Guinness, opened its first outlet in a scheme to expand the Irish themed pub. More than 2,000 new pubs were opened across Europe between 1992 and 1999 and they now have bars in 53 countries around the world.

But given the major innovations that have been made in Irish cuisine, it might be worth taking the focus off the few pints and getting more than just beef and Guinness stew into the mouths of curious foreigners. For such an initiative, we would have to play the long game as it could take decades for a country only now being recognised for the quality of its ingredients and the creativity of its chefs to get a piece of the pie, especially when so many other nations – China, Italy, France and Thailand – have been well-established for so long.

Kerrygold butter

Of course initiatives already exist, such as the branding of Irish beef abroad as the best in the world. Then one cannot discuss successful gastrodiplomacy without mentioning Kerrygold butter, now the second-best selling butter in the US.

It never ceases to amaze me the places I discover selling Kerrygold. Passing through some remote small-town grocery store in the west Texas desert, one can almost always find that shiny golden wrapper, like a Willy Wonka golden ticket, nestled between Twinkies, Ranch dressing (aka Texan ketchup) and artillery. Kerrygold has reached that critical mass enjoyed by Hellman's mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup or Gillette shaving products.

The Irish export sold nearly 23,000 tons of butter in the US last year. In less than two decades since launching in the US, Kerrygold has outsold every other brand except the tasteless yet incredibly popular Land O’Lakes. Founded in 1921, this so called butter enjoys quite a head start.

But if Irish butter and Irish beef are already well established, it might be time to try our hands at the Irish-themed restaurant, perhaps using a different Guide to Irish Culture than the one so popular among proprietors of some of the worst traditional Irish-themed pubs in the world, and take a closer look at the Thai business model.