Thammachart CEO Julian G. Davies dishes on Thai tastes
Thammachart Seafood Retail Co. Ltd. provides professional management services to Thai retailers for their seafood counters, handling fresh and frozen product at 130 retail locations across the country. SeafoodSource recently visited Thammachart stores in Bangkok and met with company CEO and founder Julian G. Davies, who runs the firm with his wife, Yeeran.
Born in Kenya, Davies came to Thailand over two decades ago on a six-month research trip to a shrimp farm as part of his doctoral studies at the aquaculture school at Stirling University in the United Kingdom. When offered a job managing a shrimp farm he made the “easy decision” to stay on. He later took part in a management buy-out, going on to farm shrimp, tilapia, and sea bass before later concentrating on seafood distribution.
SeafoodSource: Aside from managing seafood counters, you are a seafood importer and distributor and also a restauranteur?
Davies: We run six restaurants. One of them stand alone and the others five seafood bars in supermarkets alongside our counters. We looked at how to increase sales and decided to open the bars. They’ve worked out very well.
SeafoodSource: Is there a lot of consumption of imported seafood or is that only at the high end of the market?
Davies: Yes. At retailers like Tesco Lotus, the emphasis is on frozen products. If you put this product on a promotional run, it will sell like wildfire. At the other end of the market, in the food halls and the Emporium [an upmarket Bangkok food store], price is not an issue. Wealthy local consumers are very brand-driven. They want Japanese sushi and sashimi. Salmon is a very versatile fish and it’s very adaptable to Asian and Thai cuisine. Also they like it because it’s tasty but also looks good. Trout is a deeper orange color and that sells well for us.
SeafoodSource: And you are on the lookout for more imported products?
Davies: We plan to get a year-round supply of Alaskan [salmon] in order to differentiate our products…we want a range of products. Halibut and black cod work well in restaurants, but on the counter there’s a yellow tinge to the flesh. Hence local trade prefers Patagonian toothfish, as uncooked, it’s got a translucent, white appearance when displayed. But cod is suitable for food service. There’s a term used locally – “snow fish” – which covers cod and several other species. But there’s a problem that even jindara [a locally popular Indonesian fish] is sold as cod. There are a lot of unscrupulous operators out there. For retailers, it’s very difficult to get rid of these names.
SeafoodSource: What other products are you looking for?
Davies: On our retail counters, there’s an emphasis on salmon because it’s what the customers want. But we are constantly trying to expand our range of products. We just started to import European sea bream and sea bass. We’re importing the bass from Spain, we also import octopus from Galicia [in Spain].
We are also looking for smaller crabs for the restaurant trade, as Alaskan crabs are a little too big to fit the plate. But it’s fine for retail. We sell a lot of oysters – they’re one of our biggest sellers.
We’re looking for something different. We want products from around the globe and then we will educate the local consumers about them. For example, there’s been a strong emphasis on farmed salmon, but we’d like to bring in the Alaskan wild product. We’re looking for points of difference. We are also placing more emphasis on sustainability.
SeafoodSource: Thailand has lots of domestic oysters. Why have imported oysters taken off?
Davies: Southern Thai oysters come from warmer water and don’t have the same flavor or texture as imported oysters [from cold water]. It’s a status thing. Wealthy Thais want to be seen with oysters and sipping a glass of wine.
SeafoodSource: Is sustainability important and recognized by local consumers?
Davies: No. “Organic” is a buzzword in the Thai food market right now. But it’s questionable as to how much consumers know about [certified] organic produce. But it’s our duty at the retail level to introduce sustainability.
There are a lot of labels out there, like MSC, ASC, GAA, etcetera. We don’t want to introduce all of these because we don’t want to confuse consumers. But we can certainly have one label for wild and one label for farmed seafood.
Also, there are not many NGOs here in Thailand to drive the awareness of sustainability. It has to be more than a buzzword. Sustainability is obviously important to ensure we have long term supply of seafood species.
SeafoodSource: Who’s been driving the organic buzzword?
Davies: The local agricultural department. They’ve been driving to certify a range of local produce like vegetables. They’re making it exportable. And they’re bringing to the attention of the local consumers that organic produce has a part to play.
SeafoodSource: Tourism is a huge industry in Thailand and now it’s no longer Westerners but Asians traveling to Thailand. Is that driving seafood consumption?
Davies: It has changed. Now there’s been a massive rise in Asian tourism into Thailand, from places like Bangladesh and India and of course China. We have a lot of Chinese tourists coming to our restaurants because we sell shellfish and rock lobster and king crab. They hunt down restaurants with these products wherever they go. There are lots of opportunities for imported seafood in the hospitality industry. It’s huge. Hotels are opening every week.
SeafoodSource: You have worked in Thailand’s aquaculture sector. How is domestic production now?
Davies: The shrimp sector still has a lot of problems. EMS [virus] caused a lot of damage and the sector is still suffering, but there’s a new understanding of how to control and to improve standards. Shrimp farming remains huge in volume and up to 95 percent is exported. There are huge swings in price… it’s a seasonal industry and every five or six months a large volume of supply comes on to the market.