Coronavirus: Thai businesses get creative with grocery deliveries and free meals for medics

SPH Brightcove Video
From fruit and vegetable deliveries fresh from the market to restaurants providing free food to medical staff, find out how Thailand's food industry is coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
Food preparation and packaging done at Bharani restaurant in Bangkok before delivery at hospitals. ST PHOTO: HATHAI TECHAKITTERANUN

BANGKOK/PATHUM THANI - Grocery trucks plying the streets of various communities with fresh agricultural produce are part of a decades-old practice in Thailand.

But savvy merchants who tend these old-fashioned pick-up trucks with all kinds of fruits and vegetables dangling from the sides are turning to tech to reach more customers amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has seen many businesses reach dire straits.

Simummuang Market, Thailand's biggest vegetable and fruit distribution centre located in Pathum Thani province just outside Bangkok, has offered to put up to 1,000 such trucks it supplies on Google Maps, complete with their license plate numbers and phone numbers since late March. Some 200 trucks have so far registered.

"That way customers who may have missed the trucks can track their locations and call them up," said Ms Panalee Phataraprasit, the market's assistant director. "We want to help our vendors reach out to more customers in this difficult period."

As he arranged his inventory of vegetables bought from the market early in the morning before he started his daily round to camps of construction workers on Bangkok's outskirts, Mr Den Bannasri, 32, said his sales have dropped by more than half as many construction projects have been suspended.

"I used to make 20,000 baht (S$870) a day. Now with the virus, I only get 8,000-9,000 baht... But I need to keep selling, as I have to keep paying instalments for my truck and my house.

"I believe this (initiative) will boost my sales, as it makes things easier for customers. They can just use their phones and track my truck and find me easily," he added.

Mrs Pitchanat Somanawat, 58, who sells premium fruits to middle-class people and foreign residents in Bangkok's city centre, said the market's initiative is a reputation boost to her business, as the trucks would now be under the market's brand.

"This could give us more credibility when customers know we come from Simummuang Market. Maybe foreign customers would know more about the food trucks so they won't shop only at supermarkets," she said.

"Sales have been down gradually since the coup," she added, referring to the 2014 military takeover, "but now with this situation, it has been critical."

To further help boost sales, Simummuang Market - whose 640,000 sq m expanse is rented out to over 3,000 vendors - also launched a grocery delivery service last week.

Orders are made through the Line chat app and paid in advance via mobile banking. Groceries are delivered the next day in two rounds by taxi drivers the market has partnered with to boost their earnings during this economic downturn.

"This is to increase the purchasing channels for our customers and also help local businesses in light of lower demand," said Ms Panalee, a market executive spearheading the project.

As the project has just kicked off, fewer than 20 deliveries are made a day. But the market plans to scale up the operation and launch a public relations campaign.

Mrs Pitchanat Somanawat, a fruit seller, on her food truck at Simummuang Market. ST PHOTO: HATHAI TECHAKITTERANUN

Other sectors are getting creative too. A recently launched project supports medical staff working day-in, day-out as Thailand sees new cases of Covid-19 infections each day, while helping struggling food businesses.

Up to 70 restaurants in Bangkok and other parts of the country have joined the "Food for Fighters" initiative that provides free, freshly prepared meals to medical staff at about a dozen hospitals. Funds are raised by donations from the public and corporations.

Behind the idea is Ms Panchana Vatanasathien, owner of Pen Lao restaurant in the mountainous resort town of Khao Yai.

"There's a clear demand for food among medical staff, as a large number of them are working each day. We want to provide them with good food, not just frozen food," said the 49-year-old.

Ms Panchana Vatanasathien, founder of the Food for Fighters programme which provides free food to medical staff at various hospitals. ST PHOTO: HATHAI TECHAKITTERANUN

Since last week, more than 700,000 baht has been raised and over 1,000 boxes have been delivered to hospitals, with each restaurant in the project taking turns to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Many restaurants across the country have been ordered shut by the government since mid-March to curb the spread of the coronavirus, with only operations for takeaways allowed, forcing them to shift their focus to food delivery.

Although the money each participating Food for Fighters restaurant receives can only cover the costs, according to Ms Panchana, it can help struggling businesses stay afloat without having to lay off workers.

"This project is like a jigsaw piece that connects everyone. It responds to the need of struggling businesses so they can keep getting work," she said.

Bharani, a restaurant in the heart of Bangkok, joined the programme. The closure of its dine-in space, the first such closure since it began operating in 1949, has forced it to adapt. Now, its waiters handle delivery orders instead.

"Our staff is like family. We need to adjust ourselves to survive," said third-generation owner Paniti Vasuratua.

"We also want to do something for society. We have a kitchen, so this is what we can do best to help," he added.

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