Long shall Yangon’s crap foreign restaurant boom continue

It the beginning of last year, Yangon had around 250 restaurants listed on TripAdvisor. Today the number has more than doubled, yet upwards of 100 of those – largely those offering regional or Western cuisine – have shuttered permanently. Some were too ahead of their time, opening to rave reviews but finding themselves without a sustainable clientele. Others started with great fanfare but treated their patrons with contempt, substituting in cheaper ingredients and jacking up prices until whatever residual goodwill they managed to cultivate had evaporated into the afternoon heat. But most were just mortifyingly bad, an affront to the senses both olfactory and common.

In all but a few instances, increased competition has not raised food standards in non-Myanmar restaurants. (Pizza is a noble exception; Japanese cuisine, despite 20 times as many options, is not.) Restaurateurs keep making the same mistakes, thrusting their Sisyphean burden uphill and losing themselves in bewilderment every time it falls back down to sea level. As a man with a highly refined palate, and as a veteran of both gastroenteritis and dysentery, I have a few thoughts as to why Yangon’s crap restaurant boom/bust cycle will continue for some years to come.

Crap location
It was with great sadness that, earlier this year, my friends and I bid farewell to Kvas – but we were probably the only ones. Yangon’s only Russian restaurant had plenty going for it: a nice outside dining space and a versatile menu unavailable anywhere else in the country, let alone the rest of this city. But for a business squarely targeting expatriates and eastern European tourists, its location in the backblocks of Yankin doomed it from the start. It takes a long time for people new to the city to familiarise themselves with its geography: If you weren’t one of the three dozen Westerners already living in the township, it was always an exercise in mental gymnastics to figure out exactly where it was. The fact that traffic congestion is going to get a lot worse before it gets better will only add to the burden of travelling so far to eat.

Crap laws
Welcome to the restaurant game! Have you paid your 12-month lease upfront? Have you registered your business with the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) and local authorities? Do you have a licence to serve food? Do you have a liquor licence? Do you have another liquor licenceto serve draught beer? Have you “negotiated” your way around import bans on certain types of alcohol? Have you made peace with the upstairs neighbours who call the cops every time they don’t like the look of someone going through your door? Have the police stopped enforcing the 11pm curfew for the foreseeable future? Have you kissed the rings of the ward boss so he doesn’t conspire to hamper your business to protect his own? Are you confident in your ability to adhere to a dozen different and conflicting laws to the letter and in possession of excellent luck?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, say goodbye to millions of kyat and maybe hello to jail. Farewell, sweet new burger joint on Bo Yar Nyunt; everyone told me you were tasty as hell, but shortcuts through the statute books only end well for entrepreneurs if you’re on Than Shwe’s Thingyan card list.

It already costs way too much just to meet operating permissions, but it’s going to take years to fix shortfalls in government revenue for any real legal reform or a stable regulatory environment. Countless operators have sunk money into new ventures, only to find a late objection to a liquor licence – often from a party with a vested interest or competing venue – has sunk their business case. Unless there’s better tax collection, licensing costs are not going to go down, police and ward administrators won’t get paid a living wage, and both groups will rely on tea money from businesses to put food on their own tables.

Failure to differentiate
There seems to be a prevailing attitude among operators that people eat out as a matter of utility, not experience. They have come to eat food, so questions of service, décor, background sound and lighting do not require consideration. Most of the time, the staff are well-intentioned and can’t be faulted. (One notable exception was the ill-fated foray of Cousins into Bo Galay Zay Street, where the staff had apparently been instructed to fixate on patrons with Charles Manson eyes and nod their heads in approval with every mouthful.) But if you’re serving basically the same fare as everyone else in a boring environment, no-one has any real reason to go back.

There are a few leading lights showing how things should be done. Green Gallery, the number one restaurant on TripAdvisor for three years running – despite the kitchen having less bench space than the Sule Pagoda bus stop at 5pm – turns people away every night because diners want to be part of that fun, intimate, shambolic vibe. Port Autonomy has its chateau thing going on.Parami Pizza, by far the most successful venture by the 57 Below consortium, selectively targets different Myanmar crowds for its three branches: date night at Parami Road, families with young kids at Sayar San Road, and 20-somethings in Bahan. Elsewhere, things won’t change without an appreciation for marketing – something operators won’t grasp until they stop seeing dining out as a functional experience.

Arrogance
Of course, some venue owners just don’t care. Many a new venture has crashed upon the jagged shoals of hubris in this town, with most of the few intrepid voyagers having already alighted with their guts clutched in agony. Burger joints are a regular offender: A restaurateur sees one place doing well and tries to reverse-engineer a similar but cheaper product, like an alien race intercepting a McDonalds advertisement transmitted via satellite and instructing its scientists to synthesise it in a petri dish. Instead of undercutting their competition, they plumb new depths in palatability, with beef patties greyer than a rundown tractor cooperative in Vladivostok and lettuce less lustrous than the mushrooms growing through the grouting in my bathroom.

In the last couple of years the number of upscale suppliers and wholesalers has skyrocketed. Even if you’re aiming at budget fare, even downtown street markets supply most ingredients of a regional urban standard. For people who consider the legwork beneath them, there’s now way too much competition to be viable, and there’s no sign yet of the necessary attitude adjustment. Which brings us to…

Complacency
So many places that have been around for years are looking a little worse for wear. They haven’t changed, but the city has changed around them. These days, the breakfast buffets at the old hotels look less like a vanity option and more like the café in the opening scene of Withnail and I. Never a stellar place to eat, Fatman survives because it’s one of the rare places to sit outside and drink beer at ground level, and might as well close whenever a five-day sermon on Bo Yar Nyunt turns the Western ghetto into a dry zone. 50th Street still has a decent menu but its sports crowd has been cannibalised by the Fat Ox. All in all, it seems increasingly difficult for operators to trade on past glories.

The one consolation in all these failings is the space they have given for new developments in Myanmar cuisine. Rangoon Tea House is expanding. Shan Yoe Yar and 999 both pull a decent crowd of tourists and locals. Pansodan Gallery owner U Aung Soe Min’s latest projects, Pansuriya and Anya Ahta, are interesting and innovative spaces, the former as a performance venue and the latter as a more versatile take on the beer station. Most of these places were driven by people who knew the legal limitations and which neighbourhoods worked for their vision, and had something different to offer from hundreds of similar businesses nearby. All of these businesses offer a different model of success, but it’ll be a long time before their examples are heeded.

 

Source: The Myanmar Times

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