A particular sound has been missing from the Saladaeng district of Bangkok since the nationwide lockdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. It’s not just the buzz coming out the hood’s chic cafes and restaurants, or the raucous heartbeat of traffic. Instead, it’s the exuberant cheer you can only get from the smashing of plates, Greek-style. This noticeable silence is what owner John Gamvros has been missing since his restaurant, Aesop’s Bangkok, was ordered to close for dine-in operations on 22 March.
It’s tricky for a Greek restaurant to rely on takeaway and delivery alone when the act of being social is in its DNA. “We offer a fun atmosphere where people can meet, learn how to Greek dance and enjoy famous traditions like smashing plates,” explained Gamvros, an Australian who moved to Bangkok after leaving a corporate life of advertising behind. Since the restaurant’s opening in 2017, diners have flocked to their parties, quiz nights, and themed evenings such as a Queen singalong party. Earlier this year, the restaurant had the distinction of being included in The MICHELIN Plate Bangkok 2020.
Despite the dine-in suspension, the kitchen continues to operate for delivery and takeaway. Besides re-engineering chef Metin’s menu, Gamvros has also been utilising promotions such as a 10% discount on orders, as well as free hummus above a minimum spend. The restaurant also donates meals to the medical team at Ramathibodi Hospital to pay it forward.
Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s recent announcement to relax lockdown measures have reassured both restaurateurs and diners that there is light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel. Restaurants are among the venues that would be allowed to reopen, although they’d have to implement strict measures: Seat customers 1.5 metres apart, comply with opening hours as restricted by the emergency decree, and forego the sale of alcoholic beverages.
We check in with Gamvros on how he’s riding the wave of COVID-19.
John and Arin of Aesop’s Bangkok
Let’s kick things off by asking: With all that’s going on, where is your head at right now?
It’s definitely been a bit of a ‘ronacoaster’ with its ups and downs but I’m feeling surprisingly positive and starting to look for the silver linings. We immediately kicked into gear re-launching our delivery product, creating our own direct channel at orderaesops.com and turbocharging our digital marketing.
Now we are using the downtime to create an exciting plan for the next 12 to 18 months. It’s rare that we actually get the free time and headspace to be strategic. I have also spent personal time with my staff building relationships and helping each other through this difficult time.
Diners put their dollars into the hands of restaurants they trust. What are some measures Aesop’s have taken since the onslaught of COVID-19?
Even before the closure, we had started to implement practices like wearing masks for all staff, table spacing, temperature screening, providing hand sanitiser for customers and staff and increasing the frequency of sanitising tables, chairs and menus. We are also currently investigating the use of UV lighting and other clean-tech. We’ve built trust with our followers through communicating updates regularly on our social media channels.
From a product perspective, the kitchen team has been working on ways to serve our sharing dishes in individual portions. As for our famous Zorba dance which is usually performed arm in arm, we will continue with a responsible, social distanced version!
What’s been your biggest challenge thus far in pivoting to delivery and takeaway?
The challenges operationally have been retraining staff and retooling. Thankfully most of our delivery orders come from our regular dine-in customers. However, it actually takes a lot more work than you’d expect, to maintain the same high standards we set in the restaurant. We have overcome it through teamwork, listening to customer feedback, and constantly tweaking things.
I have been honest with my customers, I tell them we are on a journey and that we are learning as we go. More often than not they appreciate that honesty and reward it.
Gyros available for delivery
Can you give examples of how your team has re-engineered Aesop’s menu to meet delivery and takeaway demands?
Greek dips, salads and cheese are no-brainers and travel well. We are about to launch a Greek Survival Kit with these items and Greek Extra Virgin Oil in a really cute box. Gyros, the Greek version of a sandwich, is a famous delivery and takeaway food in Greece, so we focused on making them bigger and tastier.
We knew customers would miss our Signature items like the Whole Lamb Shoulder, so we made them available by pre-order only. We have definitely improved our menu and the quality of our delivery product and we plan to continue this into the post-Covid future.
We really admire Aesop’s charitable efforts in providing food for the staff at Ramathibodi Hospital. What sparked this initiative, even at a time when revenue is low and costs are tight?
Dr Mark at Ramathibodi is a customer of ours. When we learned about the situation over at the hospital, we wanted to contribute. After the first delivery, he shared photos of the staff enjoying the meals and told us what a difference it made so we expanded the program. There are short term costs involved but it’s important we support our community and let our customers show their support too!
It’s a trying time for restaurant businesses, with its effect trickling down to personal lives. How have you stayed sane and kept yourself in check while going through the motions?
Exercise has always been a release and that’s true now more than ever. I have also looked for moments of brightness: The phone calls personally thanking us for a great dinner, the customers inviting us to stay for a drink, the Easter lunch for the family that couldn’t get home, and the photos and videos of customers smashing plates at home and screaming “Opa”!
After we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, what are three things you would not take for granted again when it comes to running a restaurant business?
1. The sound of our dining room full of friends celebrating life.
2. The look of joy when a customer smashes a plate for the first time and cries “Opa”!
3. The new friendships that are made every single day.
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