Why We’re Closing Bo.lan

Bo.lan – Dylan Jones and Bo Songvisava’s Bangkok restaurant – helped redefine fine dining in the Thai capital. A decade and one Covid-19 pandemic later, the couple are hatching bold plans for their flagship, starting with not reopening the restaurant. But don’t be alarmed. They’re closing Bo.lan for a very good reason.

“Bo.lan, as people know it, is not going to reopen,” says Jones. “There’s going to be a complete restructure and we’re bringing everything together in the one space.”

By everything, he’s referring to the couple’s casual Chinatown eatery Err, the existing Bo.lan grocer, a chef’s table restaurant, plus a new zero-waste bar. From a financial, practical perspective, consolidating makes sense. Environmentally speaking, Jones and Songvisava say it’s a game-changer. For everyone.

“We’re going to start new initiatives and we want to get other people involved,” says Jones. “We want to make it less about us and more about a community effort.”

In a far-reaching interview with The Local Tongue, the couple outline their plans for the future and paint a bold, yet inspiring picture of what restaurants of tomorrow might look like.

When the Pandemic Hit

We saw the effects of the pandemic starting in February. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even Singapore to an extent started to shut down a lot earlier than other places, so bookings started to get cancelled quite quickly. We decided to close our restaurants at the end of March – two days before the government announced the lockdown. During that time, we tried doing takeaway and CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes. We asked our farmers to send us whatever produce they had. We’d put the produce in boxes and include a couple of recipes that people can cook at home using those ingredients. It’s definitely not enough to keep the restaurant afloat, but it allowed us to contribute to our farmers and food networks, which is really important to us. It also gave us the opportunity to continue to employ at least a handful of staff.

Supporting Those That Support Us

In a sense, the experience cemented our relationship with producers a little bit more. They knew we were not operating, but that we were still buying from them. At one point they started asking, “Are you sure you want us to send you that? You don’t have any customers.” And we would just explain, “yes, we want to support you.” We can pickle ingredients, we can preserve, we can use them in the future. I guess it showed them that our commitment to them was still there and as strong as ever. And from our side, it meant that when we do reopen, they’ll still be there to supply and support us.

The New Bo.lan

Bo.lan, as people know it, is not going to reopen. There’s going to be a complete restructure. We’re sort of bringing together everything in one space. We’re moving our casual eatery Err from Chinatown to the Bo.lan space. There will be a chef’s table that offers the Bo.lan menu three days a week, the Bo.lan grocer and a zero-waste bar called Wasteland. It’s going to be fun. Err is an urban eatery. It uses the same produce that we use at Bo.lan and has the same philosophy in terms of ingredient sourcing, but the food itself is a bit more rustic. The menu is a la carte, so people can come in and order one or two dishes, or ten or twenty, it’s really up to them. The whole menu is designed to be eaten with drinks or cocktails. In Thailand we call that klap glam: food to soak up the alcohol. You’ll find lots of fermented things, salted things, pickles, all that sort of stuff. And for us, it’s a real fun place. It’s the sort of place we go to hang out, eat, drink and be merry. The chef’s table is literally Bo.lan. Only, it’s one table, one booking. Instead of having to try and operate a fine dining restaurant with social distancing and all the other bullshit, we thought why not just open one table to a group of family and friends who are willing to sit together. There’s going to be a minimum spend, but it’s easily reached if there are five or six people. It’s an exclusive experience for the guest, but it also means we can get creative with our menu. The grocer is going to be cool. We’re planning on doing fresh, organic coconut cream. There will be curry pastes, fish sauce, palm sugar and our CSA boxes. There’s a lot we would like to do, like ready-made curries. The only issue is that anything frozen is probably going to be in a plastic bag of some sort and that really doesn’t sit well with us. We’re trying to find new ways, containers or opportunities to broaden people’s horizons and our own horizons in terms of what is available to make a shopping experience both convenient and environmentally friendly. We’re also collaborating with some guys here in Bangkok to do a zero-waste bar called Wasteland. They’re calling it “a sipping space”. It will have cocktails, but also teas, kombuchas and stuff like that. We have a permaculture garden at the space, so they’re going to utilise that to build some of the cocktails and drinks. They’re also going to use some of the edible food waste from the kitchen in ferments, infusions, tinctures and bitters to really build flavour.

What We’re Really Excited About

The biggest thing we’re excited about is the opportunity to really utilise the whole space of the restaurant and push it even further in terms of our environmental philosophy and commitment. Our mission has always been to minimise waste, but I think this new model, having all of our businesses together, means we will add zero waste to landfill. We’re going to start some new initiatives in terms of recycling or upcycling, and we want to get other people involved. We want to get other restaurants involved. We want to make it less about us and more about a community effort. And we’ll be really, really excited to see if we can get the Bangkok restaurant community to come together and make some positive changes. The change means Bo.lan will lose its Michelin star and position on Asia’s 50 Best list, but to be honest, we’re not upset at all. These are businesses that want to promote their own brand. Right now, we’re focused on looking more internally. Creating conversations within the community is going to do far greater things for us than having a star on a wall or being a number on a list.

The Reason Behind the Restructure

I don’t know if the decision to restructure was made willingly. I feel like it was forced on us by the situation in a sense. When the pandemic first started kicking off, we spoke to our landlords and asked them for a reduction in rent. The landlord at Err wasn’t very willing to give us much of a reduction or assistance so we gave notice straight away and pulled out. We love the Err brand and still want to keep it alive. This allows us to do that. For us, it’s really difficult to imagine that after being in isolation for so long and without work for so long, people will have money to spend on fine dining. It doesn’t make much sense to us that people would have that disposable income at their fingertips.

Family Over Fame

Over the years, whether we like it or not, Bo.lan has become a tourist destination. With the awards, the accolades, the TV shows, our client base shifted away from the local market. Travellers visiting Bangkok were booking Bo.lan three months in advance. Everything was fantastic. We were loving it. But as soon as the pandemic hit, we realised how few Thai customers we had on a regular basis. I don’t think this is a phenomenon that’s only felt by us. There’s a bunch of restaurants in Bangkok and I think probably globally that suffer from this. It’s sort of like a double-edge sword. You get popular and then you lose your local clientele. It’s really important for us to make sure that we engage with and maintain a good relationship with our locals again. Our favourite customers are the customers we know by first and last name. And it’s not because they spend big, it’s because they’re loyal, they treat the staff well and they’re part of our family. And that’s who we think the best customer is; someone who becomes part of the family. Ultimately, if you just chase awards and accolades, and try to use that as your basis for profitability, you’ll end up failing. It’s so transient, so fleeting and it’s not guaranteed forever. People forget about these things so quickly. And actively pursuing them, spending so much time on the chef’s circuit so to speak, can make you lose sight of what’s really important. To be sustainable for the long term you need to have roots. We’d like to think that our success is because of the commitment we have to our farmers and the environment. We’d like to think it’s our commitment to producing Thai food as we believe it to be served, not pandering to clientele. And I think those ethics and morals have been steadfast for us. Hopefully that’s what’s made us successful.

The Importance of Mental Health

For the last three weeks we’ve been doing a sort of re-education and re-training with staff. It’s not so much about the policies and procedures at the restaurant. It’s more about personal growth: thinking positively and how one should treat other people in the establishment. We want to create an environment in which everyone wants to come to work each day, feel welcome and comfortable in who they are. There’s a lot of mental health issues in hospitality that need to be addressed. Hopefully people come out of this striving to have a healthier approach to life. Not just physically, but also mentally. As an industry, if we can balance or manage the aspects that contribute to mental health issues, then we can make great strides.

The Only Way Forward Is Local, Ethical and Sustainable

We really feel strongly that the industrialised food system and food chain has contributed a lot to this pandemic. We need to focus on a local as well as more sustainable approach to sourcing in order to safeguard ourselves. I know we don’t farm bats or whatever, and a lot of people think that’s the base of the issue, but really, it’s keeping a lot of animals in close quarters, where diseases jump from animals to humans. That’s happening more and more. You see it during the pandemic in meat packing plants where they’ve been affected much worse than other areas of the food industry. It’s really important to stress to people how safe their food should be; how important it is to have ethical, well sourced food that’s good not just for them but also for the people who are producing it for them.

The Conversation We Need To Have With Customers

For us, a strong community is a restaurant industry that supports each other, shares ideas, shares expectations and also helps each other to problem solve. But of course, it’s also about the customer. We think this is a great opportunity for everyone, restaurants and customers included, to start at zero again. To completely rethink the ways in which we do things. For restaurants to reconsider internal policies, established food systems and the way in which they deal with customers. Customers should also rethink how and where restaurants are placed for them in society. There’s a whole dialogue that needs to be had between the industry and customers. Without that dialogue, customers don’t have an understanding of the risks involved with running a hospitality business, not to mention the costs. I read a great article the other day that sort of hinted at this. It said, once upon a time, we wouldn’t pay more than 30 cents or 50 cents for a coffee, but now we’re paying $5 to $10 for a coffee from specialty coffee shops. And that’s because now people understand the importance of fair trade, they understand the importance of provenance. They understand the importance of making it properly and the costs associated with that. And I think our food industry needs to start that conversation.

The Future of Fine Dining

I think it’s pretty bleak to be honest. Fine dining is always going to survive in some form. There’s always going to be people out there that have the money to spend on fine dining, but the number of restaurants that offer a fine dining experience is most likely going to be limited. What people are looking for now is probably something that’s a bit more approachable. I also think that people are going to be more conscious in choosing their restaurants based on the restaurant’s philosophies and the restaurant’s way of operating in terms of sourcing and how they treat their staff. I think and hope all that sort of stuff is going to become more transparent in the future. Customers will have the opportunity to choose restaurants that are building a better society as opposed to just taking from it.

The Evolution of Bo.lan

We don’t even remember the original Bo.lan. Over the last 11 years, we’ve never maintained or stayed the same. We change and adapt accordingly to our focus. Our core principles always remain the same: good quality produce, the best Thai food possible, supporting local artisans and the local environment. That’s always a constant in us, but the operational side of Bo.lan, the experience that we offer, everything that we’ve done from day one to four months ago, was in a constant state of change. We like to think that this is just the next stage in that evolution.

How To Travel in Thailand

Visit markets – farmers markets especially – and see the produce for yourself. Find out what’s available. And then when you go to a restaurant, you can order and try things based on what you’ve seen. Talk to local people and understand where they eat, what they like. Show a bit more interest in the culture as opposed to the cheapness of the place. Remember that the cheaper something is, the worse it’s going to be for you and for the environment. Support local business. Stay away from chain restaurants. Stay away from 7-Eleven. Read Dylan Jones’ guide to eating and drinking in Bangkok.

The new Bo.lan space, including urban eatery Err, the existing Bo.lan grocer, a chef’s table restaurant and new zero-waste bar, Wasteland, openened its doors on Friday July 3, 2020. Bookings can be made via the website.

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