Authentic Thai taste turns Londoners on to seafood

Busaba Eathai, the burgeoning Thai restaurant chain, sells calamari ‘by the truckload’ according to Joel Falconer, the company’s development director. And not just calamari, but shrimp, prawn, squid, crabmeat, cod, scallop, salmon, tilapia and fish cakes also appear on the current menu.

Authenticity is the key to getting customers hooked. “We have at least four Thai chefs in every Busaba kitchen,” said Falconer. “We can and do train our own chefs, but when it comes to truly understanding the flavors and culture there are some things you can’t teach.

“Consumers have never been more sophisticated. They can spot poor imitations.”

This insistence on genuine Thai cooking could prove a barrier to the chain’s expansion as Busaba Eathai needs to bring in more than 40 new chefs from Thailand if current plans are to be fulfilled. U.K. visa legislation requires that immigrants need a basic and certified knowledge of English in order to be able to work in England.

“We’re actually having to coach people in Thailand to help them get over here,” Falconer said.

There are ten Busaba Eathai restaurants currently, of which nine are located in London, but this number is scheduled to double during the next three years. The company is looking to develop three or four new locations, focusing on Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol.

The Busabi Eathai menu is described as simple but diverse, featuring Thai salads, noodles, curries and stir-fries. The menu also offers Asian inspired juices and smoothies and a short selection of wines, “all with enough character to complement the food.”

All the food served in the restaurants is prepared fresh on site with no artificial ingredients. “We refuse to compromise on quality,” said Falconer. However, this policy could also hinder expansion being difficult to scale up as the number of restaurants grows.

Calamari, which is served as a side dish with ginger and peppercorn for GBP 6.50 (USD 10.63, EUR 7.87) is Busaba Eathai’s signature dish. And while there is a wide choice of seafood, chicken also appears often on the menu. There are a few dishes incorporating beef, which is the only animal meat listed and duck also appears on a couple of occasions.

No distinction is made between shrimp and prawn, or calamari and squid, so presumably the species name given depends on the dish in question, and there are no named species in the fish cakes.

There are no designated starter dishes and no puddings or dessert dishes either. Dishes are served when they are ready and Busaba Eathai is “a single course eating experience devised to feed you with minimum fuss.”

The company operates a no booking policy, and everyone sits at communal tables. Not surprisingly, customers are mostly young but the average diner spends GBP 17 (USD 27.79, EUR 20.59), ruling out less discerning diners. In fact Busabi Eathia claims it has built up a loyal following over the years, which has recently been swollen by people trading down from expensive restaurants during the economic downturn.   

Busabi Eathai was founded by Alan Wau, who also started the Wagamama and Hakkasan restaurants. Busaba is a Thai flower, while Eathai is a fusion of the words ‘eat’ and ‘Thai’. According to the company the name replaces the term restaurant, which is often associated with formal/fine dining establishments.

The business began as just a single restaurant in the once notorious Soho district in London’s West End in 1999. There were three Busabi Eathai outlets until the business was bought by Phoenix Equity Partners in 2008 and the expansion began.

It remains to be seen whether the core principles survive the doubling in size of the business particularly as this expansion will be countrywide. If so, and the menu remains the same, there will be even more truckloads of calamari required.


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