Starting a Café Business Could Be One Way You Can Enjoy Living in Thailand…

I know many foreigners plan on opening a business in Thailand don’t know what to start at first. Coffee shops or cafés are a good choice because of its simplicity. I mean who doesn’t know what coffee is? Starting a small café in any of Thailand’s major cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and even Hua Hin won’t require a huge start up budget.

And all that is needed to register a small business in Thailand is a pulse and most importantly a Thai partner. Which is usually a Thai wife or girlfriend such as my case.

But it should go without saying that the more cash you’ve got to invest in your small café venture the better off you’re going to be on acquiring better equipment. Because I highly recommend getting a top quality espresso machine and coffee bean grinder that you can afford.

A good coffee machine and trendy café could ensure a decent return on investment…

Nice furniture and decoration to give it a special café ambiance wouldn’t hurt too. And of course you’d need a really good location. Unless you’ve got secret marketing skills to get caffeine addicted customers to a secluded location.

Before you begin planning on serving coffee to your potential customers you should know that Thai coffee recipe is different than the traditional coffee house you’ve got in mind.

A coffee shop is good business to start in Bangkok or anywhere else in Thailand with a decent local population…

And before I go any further I do want to say that I had a little café business in Bangkok for more than a few years. The operative word is “had”.

That said, I am actively searching for a new location to open up another café as of writing. Because today there is an opportunity to do so. I’ll touch base on that below.

It’s Not Going to Be Easy – But Success is Worthwhile

Starting a coffee shop in Bangkok is not easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. The hours were long. Profits were okay but of course it could’ve been a lot better. Otherwise, I’d still be in the café business.

My major hurdle was that the location was not that great. But it wasn’t so bad either. The price of my coffee drinks were not fairly expensive by Thai standards. Only cafés the likes of Starbucks or other international coffee house chains could get away with charging a cup of coffee for a premium price.

Coffee Fruit – Traveling outside of Thailand searching for coffee beans was what I loved doing…

I Learned a Lot About the Café Business in Bangkok…

I learned a lot about starting a café business in Bangkok including bakery. I know having a coffee shop in Bangkok has potential to do very well. I know where to buy the coffee machines and necessary items like cups, coffee beans and straws at good prices. Which is one of the reasons why I feel qualified in writing this post on how to start a café business in Thailand

In a nutshell, I’d start another café in Bangkok as soon as I find a good location.

Marin Coffee in Koh Chang – Tasty bakery and good coffee goes hand in hand…

You better know how to bake as well. Cakes, pies, cookies, brownies you name it are an integral part of the café business. Both go hand in hand and up your profits easily.

But for now, I’ll share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned. The mistakes I’ve made. Where to buy the necessary equipment and supplies, particularly in Bangkok. Also I’ll share what I learned about opening a business in Thailand.

A small café we visited on the island of Koh Chang…

Though below is primer about coffee in Thailand. If you know the difference already, please feel free to skip it. Otherwise, get ready to learn something new which is always a good thing.

Espresso Based Coffee Drinks in Thailand

If you’ve got latté art on your coffee than it’s an espresso based coffee…

Thais are starting to enjoy coffee as a daily beverage and a good way to take in some much needed caffeine.

For traditional Thai Coffee style if you’ve ever bought coffee off the side of a road then you’ll know it’s different from espresso based coffee.

I’m sure you’ve come across a Café Amazon and Mezzo coffee chain. Both are also considered Thai coffee shops. And both of these Thai coffee chains use espresso machines too. But the major difference is they use evaporated milk and condensed milk for dairy. While western espresso based coffee drinks use whole milk.

Thai coffee uses a mixture of evaporated and sweet and condensed milk…

Thai coffee is typically added to a mixture of evaporated and condensed milk for that creamy texture and sweetness. It is usually spooned in or pumped from a bottle right to coffee.

Though Thai cafés like Amazon Café, Black Canyon Coffee and Mezzo will use whole fresh milk to create foam for lattes and cappuccinos. Because evaporated milk and condensed milk will not foam when steamed.

Every 7 Eleven in Bangkok that sells espresso based drinks also mix in the combination of evaporated and condensed milk.

Traditional Thai coffee is sweet due to the addition of sweet condensed milk…

Starbucks is the best example of a café serving traditional western espresso based beverages. But today there are quite a few espresso based cafés joining the ranks like Korea’s Holly’s Coffee, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Au Bon Pain.

Plus there are many independent Thai cafés that roast and blend their own coffee beans opening up all over the country. These kinds of cafés do not use evaporated and condensed milk at all.

Consider carrying organic coffee beans for the sophisticated customer base…

Bottom line is most of the coffee beverages sold in Thailand still use the evaporated and condensed milk mixture and sold cheaper. However, espresso based beverages served in western based cafés use whole milk and typically charge more money per cup.

With Bangkok’s growing coffee consumers many upscale coffee companies are appearing all over the city…

Now that you know what’s the difference between both coffee variations, now I’ll point out a few places where you can buy the necessary supplies and equipments to power your coffee shop.

Where to Buy Café equipment and Coffee Shop Supplies in Bangkok

Because I am still based in Bangkok where I had a café once, I’ve already researched a bunch of places to purchase café equipment and supplies to run a coffee shop. Chances are, if you’re planning to open a café in Hua Hin, Pattaya, Chiang Mai or even on any of the islands in the kingdom you’ll probably be buying from a wholesaler in Bangkok.

This is especially true when you’re searching for a good commercial espresso machine and other necessary equipment such as a commercial coffee bean grinder.

From Bangkok you can easily ship large equipment to pretty much anywhere in Thailand. Now of course I haven’t been in every single corner in Thailand. It’s just that everything you’ll ever need to run your coffee business you’ll inevitably find in the country’s capitol city.

You can find many commercial espresso machine seller inside JJ Mall in Bangkok…

And I’ve learned that the best place to buy café equipment is inside JJ Mall, which is next to Chatuchak Weekend Market.

Inside JJ Mall you’ll find about 3 or 4 café supply shops with everything you’ll ever need to stock and supply your café business. From Thai coffee beans to coffee cups, lids and straws.

Here are the names of 2 shops inside JJ Mall for purchasing commercial espresso and coffee grinders and many other products you’ll need to run a proper café in Thailand:

Coffee Boulevard (website)
Double Shot Coffee (website)

Commercial espresso machines and commercial coffee bean grinders are little bit more expensive due to the country’s high import tax. But it is still relatively affordable. I highly recommend purchasing from a reputable dealer because they are the ones that can provide warranty service for repairs.

First you have to understand, Thai coffee is different than espresso based coffee…

Also they will train you or your employees on how to use and maintain the equipment. No matter where you end up buying your commercial equipment be sure they include some sort of training.

A good commercial 2 group espresso machine could cost 200,000THB. A good commercial coffee grinder could cost 25,000THB. Get the best equipment you can afford. You’ll be glad you did in the long run.

Purchasing the Beans

Coffee beans is the life blood of your café business. Out of the two Coffee Boulevard in my opinion has a better offering of Thai grown coffee beans. You will have to do your own research on where to purchase other varieties of espresso beans. But it is easier today than it was even just 5 years ago.

And many Thai coffee bean wholesalers have websites so do a google search and you’ll find a bunch of wholesalers ready to sell to you.

Also I highly recommend attending the World of Coffee & Tea Expo that shows up yearly in Bangkok’s IMPACT convention center. You’ll find lots of coffee bean and tea wholesalers whom are more than happy to let you taste their espresso line up.

This little shop has been there forever. They have a decent variety of robusta and arabica beans from all over…

JJ Mall does have a shop selling whole beans shipped from around the world and is located right across from Double Shot Coffee on the ground floor. This shop is called Bona and it’s really more of a retail shop. However, you can speak to the owner and see if they can hook you up with wholesale prices.

A Real Good Reason to Travel – Buying Coffee Beans Around Southeast Asia

When I travel around Vietnam and Indonesia I always bring back loads of roasted whole espresso beans from those countries. Because both countries have the right climate and environment for optimum coffee growth. Which yields their farms some of the best coffee known all around the world.

At a wholesale coffee bean purveyor in Vietnam – Purchasing coffee beans from countries neighboring Thailand is a great reason to travel…

Buying your coffee from these countries give you a good reason to travel around and explore. And when you get back you can let your café customers enjoy that same coffee without having to leave Thailand.

Finding Reliable Staff to Run Your Café Business in Thailand

Finding competent and reliable baristas and servers will be a big challenge. You’ll need at least two extra persons to help you even if it’s a small shop. Don’t plan on working alone. Which I can say right now is a death wish.

As of writing the highest daily minimum wage in Thailand is Bangkok at 310THB for 8 to 10 hours per day. And for a café style business 1 day off a week is typical. And you will have to factor in over time wages too.

Like any business searching for a reliable work force you can start by asking around Thai friends and family. Sticking a help wanted sign on your store front is helpful too.

Sorting Out the Go Getters

Interviewing your Thai staff is important. Please don’t choose anyone just because you’re desperate for staff. Remember, if you’re not in your café, your wait staff will be the face of your business. In this day and age if a customer wants to complain they’ll do it right on Facebook for all to see.

But you can train your staff how to deal with certain situations. Because even when you have the best staff in the world on hand you’ll come across hard to deal with customers.

One way for me to find out if someone is a go getter is by checking how much their salary request is. On my job application forms I ask one simple question, “How much salary per month?”

A lot ask for the minimum between 9500THB to 10000THB. But I get a handful of prospective baristas and wait staff asking for 12000THB to 13000THB. Which would you pick?

When you drill down the application you’ll those that finished high school and university are usually the ones that ask for more. That alone doesn’t mean they’ll make the greatest workers. It’s a start. But if they know their self worth and believe they’re worth that amount in salary then I rather hire someone who knows how much they are worth.

Teach by Setting Examples

Customer interaction is super important. Remembering frequent customer names create a bond. While training your staff it’s super important for you to ask them to watch how you deal and interact with customers. On how you clean your shop to how you prepare fresh expresso drinks along with the recipe training.

Setting an employer and employee boundary is important too because if you become too friendly it might make it difficult for you to tell them to clean the toilet or a mess a customer made. Bottom line is don’t make it too comfortable or else things won’t get done the way it’s needed to be done.

My Biggest Advice on Opening a Coffee Shop in Thailand

As I already mentioned I once operated a café in Bangkok for a while. The reason why it didn’t do well was because the location was not ideal. In the end I learned a lot and so have plenty of advice to share about getting into the coffee shop business.

Location is key. Choosing a spot with good decent amount of foot traffic will get you a big advantage. But getting a location at a high foot traffic will most likely come with a big rental agreement. That’s the trade off. As of writing Bangkok is a growing city that is aggressively expanding it’s BTS Sky Train and MRT subway lines.

In essence now is the best time to start scouting for that perfect location for a café business. I recommend looking for spaces that are near new BTS Sky Train stations with lots of condos and apartments nearby.

Make sure you have enough space for you and your staff behind the counters…

That is what I am personally doing. But I am willing to go one step further and look into purchasing a small 3 story building. Perhaps a townhouse. Where I can operate a café and bakery on the ground floor, rent out the second floor to café staff and perhaps live on the third floor.

The ambiance of your café is important. Ideally it should have plenty of space. A high ceiling really helps make a small café look twice it’s size.

My last café space was very limited. Which limited what I could offer to my customers. So do not choose a location with too little space. Unless you are only planning on serving take away customers.

You will also need kitchen space. You should incorporate a variety of food and desserts. It does not have to be a vast menu. But if you’ve got plenty of space then go for the full kitchen.

To Sum it All Up – Advice for a Successful Café Business in Thailand:

  1. Get a location in a high foot traffic area.
  2. Have the best café design you can possibly afford.
  3. Have plenty of space. As big as you can afford.
  4. In the coffee business, food is a must on the menu.
  5. Carry organic coffee. It cost more but there are people willing to pay.
  6. Offer a wide variety of coffee beans to your customers.
  7. Do not buy coffee franchises. No matter how cheap or enticing their business structure looks.
  8. Hire the best people you can afford.

I Do Not Recommend Buying Thai Coffee Franchises

Amazon is well known café franchise based only in Thailand.

That’s just me. The reason why I would not buy a Thai coffee franchise is because I will not have control over my business. When I mean no control I mean I won’t have the freedom, nor the option, to make the style of espresso based drinks that I like. Or serve the desserts I like and so on.

Let’s take Café Amazon as an example. You have to follow Amazon’s coffee recipes. There’s no deviation from their standard recipes at all. And as I already mentioned Amazon uses a mixture of sweetened condensed and evaporated milk which I’m not a fan of. You also have to buy their cups, espresso beans, purchase their proprietary furniture and follow their corporate design structure. On top of that you have to pay a fee to purchase and operate under their name. And last my wife checked the cost of buying an Amazon franchise in Thailand was 2,000,000THB.

There are cheaper Thai coffee franchises that can get you from ground up to running for around 150,000THB for a small café. They’ll equip you with the espresso machines, roasted beans, hot and cold cups, straws, etc. including all the logos and branding. But what if these small Thai coffee franchises go out of business?

When that happens you’re left with sourcing all the necessary materials on your own. And not a lot of Thai franchises have a good track record so you really have to think it through if you feel tempted to buy a Thai coffee franchise.

Instead of paying hefty franchise fees, it’s better to start a business on your own and use the capital to really make your café stand out…

If you want a business in a box and not think too much about how to set up your own café and have an ample supply of capital then by all means go ahead and buy a Thai coffee franchise.

But I believe, as an entrepreneurial business man, that it’s best to go out on my own. Because I can say for certain that in the café business you have the same chance of success and failure between opening up a café business on your own or buying a Thai coffee franchise.


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