- How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the Thai Wok chain?
For the catering industry, the COVID-19 pandemic was a very strong verification of business stability. We have witnessed changing operating models, the development of new opportunities but also human tragedies and failing family businesses.
Thai Wok is part of the privately-owned EBS SA group, so we have a slightly greater range of tools to help us adapt to changing market conditions. Certainly, this does not mean that the pandemic has not had a negative impact on the running of our business. We can say that it has significantly impeded it. Unfortunately, we did not open any new premises during this period in line with the investment plan for 2020–2021. We even had to withdraw from several contracts. Nevertheless, the pandemic gave us time to analyse the business, develop the internal structure and standardise operations.
- What are the chain’s current plans?
Thai Wok has recently greatly expanded the company’s internal structure. New departments and positions in charge of purchasing processes, marketing activities or employer branding have emerged. There comes a point in business when a decision has to be made regarding the further development of the company itself, but also the brand. You can run a company for many years and be one of many in the market, however, you can also create a brand that consumers will identify with through shared values or style of operation. At the time of the pandemic, we decided that the moment had come when we would build a brand as the leader in the Asian QSR segment. This is particularly true as market analyses have shown us a growing trend of purchasing Asian dishes among generation Z, who currently represents 30% of our customers. Naturally, the development plan could not lack investment plans for the coming years. Our strategy is to open Thai Wok restaurants in Poland’s largest cities. We are talking here about food courts in top shopping centres, but also about the typical restaurant or canteen format. We plan to open 25 new premises in the next three years. Another important step in our development is to invest in technology. This trend has in a way been forced upon the catering industry which did not previously invest so massively in its own applications, online ordering systems or infokiosks. Our existing loyalty programme has just been digitised into an application form. It allows customers not only to collect points for their purchases, but also to keep up to date with our novelties. And soon, our application will enable remote ordering and payment.
A changing world also means changes in the perception of food and environmental concerns. This perspective could not be missing in developing our strategy. We have already started to introduce various sustainability modifications and plant-based alternatives for those wishing to reduce meat consumption. I can definitely say that the next few years will be a period of intense development for us.
- What are the biggest issues faced by today’s catering?
There are indeed many challenges. These include sourcing employees, availability of raw materials and semi-finished products, rising inflation, or spectra of further possible restrictions. The catering industry has become known as a highly volatile industry, making it more difficult to recruit employees. This is influenced by the continuing uncertainty and the current increase in the incidence of diseases. In our case, it has been a challenge to recruit workers from Asia. Our chefs are Thais, Nepalis, the Vietnamese. Currently, the process of obtaining work permits is significantly lengthened. During the pandemic and closed borders, we were completely blocked from hiring new people. Therefore, we did not reduce any positions, knowing that – once opened – we could struggle to ensure the quality and originality of our cuisine.
Speaking of employees, we must also not forget that it is not only about customer service or chefs, but there is also a very big problem with technical teams. The crisis in the market for components and specialists is also affecting us. There is both a shortage of spare parts and a shortage of technicians who repair sanitary, gas or electrical equipment. Very long waiting times are not an option in the catering industry. The fault has to be fixed overnight, for the sake of keeping the business flowing.
Another challenge is, naturally, the question of cost structure. Shopping centres are showing that turnover is back to pre-pandemic levels, but this is not due to more customers, as there are still fewer of them, but due to higher prices. Price increases, on the other hand, are forced by the ever-increasing prices of raw materials and the costs of employees. This means that, in the overall balance, profit is not at all at the same level as before the pandemic, while rents are.
We must also not forget the changes in consumer behaviour resulting in the dynamic development of the delivery channel. Consumers have become accustomed to online ordering and, on the one hand, this is good news because it is an additional sales channel. On the other hand, it deprives restaurants of stationary turnover. It should not be forgotten that the catering industry pays very large commissions to delivery service providers. For some restaurants, this is often below the break-even point.
Speaking of behavioural changes, I think that the change in working systems is also worth mentioning. Remote work and hybrid work have resulted in significant drops in turnover in restaurants at lunchtime. Many restaurants have not yet opened, waiting for white-collar workers to return to their offices. We can see intensification in this area, but the question is for how long. As we know, many companies that operate on a hybrid working system will continue such operation, and others are considering it. This change in the working system actually has a huge impact on the whole catering industry.