Kiwi Flavours: Craig McLean, owner of Snapper and Kai

Craving a classic meat pie in Shanghai, or the perfect flat white in the Philippines? In this series, the Asia Media Centre speaks to Kiwis who are running successful food and beverage businesses in Asia.

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One Kiwi entrepreneur is adding New Zealand flavours to Bangkok’s melting pot of cuisines.

Craig McLean is the owner of two New Zealand-themed restaurants in Thailand’s capital; Snapper — which does high-end fish ‘n’ chips — and Kai, which serves up modern Kiwi cuisine. Both restaurants are centred around New Zealand ingredients, with everything from battered green-lipped mussels to pavlova and hokey pokey ice cream on their menus.

McLean, who has lived in Thailand for 20 years, first got involved in the restaurant scene as the result of connections he made through his livestock export business, which is based in New Zealand.

“A lot of our big corporate clients in Asia wanted food products — they wanted New Zealand meat and seafood. Eventually we also started triangle trading out of South America, opening up the markets for Asia with Argentinian beef and Chilean seafood, then trading Asian product back to South America.

“Then we decided that distracted us from our core business. So we stopped that business, and continued with our livestock. But on the back of that, we had made many contacts in Bangkok — a lot of importers. So we had the silly idea to open a fish ‘n’ chip shop.”

Snapper Bangkok

Snapper is a New Zealand-style fish 'n' chip restaurant in Thailand's capital.

McLean won the support of New Zealand agribusiness company Talley’s Group, which agreed to give them ongoing access to fish and French fries via their buyers, and in 2011, Snapper opened in one of the most vibrant areas of Bangkok.

“Although we’re a tiny little restaurant in the scheme of international food trading, we piggyback our products in the back of vegetable containers coming to Thailand. We can get 50 kilos of this, 50 kilos of that, so that allows us access to a variety of fish and other seafood items not otherwise available in the market. We ended up with a nice supply chain.”

In 2014, McLean opened his second restaurant, Kai New Zealand, a 220-seat eatery which is now their flagship.

“We have a 200 square metre commercial kitchen on the third floor of our restaurant which supplies the ingredients to the finishing kitchen on the ground floor, and to the other restaurant, Snapper.

“We also do catering — for the last four years we’ve catered for the New Zealand ambassador’s residence.”

Kai New Zealand

Kai New Zealand serves up modern Kiwi cuisine.

Running two restaurants in the heart of Bangkok is not without its challenges, McLean admits.

“There’s a lot of political unrest here. We’ve got coups and we’ve got fighting in the streets. Not too long ago, around both of the areas where we have restaurants, there were full-on street battles. It’s a slightly different landscape to do business, but it’s fun — it keeps it interesting.”

While in New Zealand there’s a clear set of rules for restaurants to follow, in Thailand, “the game is always changing”.

“There’s a lot of people who do get burnt, but they’re the ones who haven’t been around long enough and don’t put their hand in their pocket deep enough at the right times, or have the right connections.”

McLean says to have success in Thailand as a restauranteur you need to have “an incredibly clear concept” to stand out among the sea of restaurants, while a huge labour shortage makes things even more cut-throat.

“You just can’t get staff, there are so many restaurants. Business in Bangkok is booming.”

- Asia Media Centre