PAISARN “Sam” Aowsathaporn is passionate about food. His love affair with the kitchen has not only served up the basis of a healthy lifestyle, it has been the springboard for a successful career in the highly competitive food industry.
However, for the young Paisarn, his career trajectory appeared to be pointing elsewhere.
Now executive vice president of Oishi Group Plc, Thailand's leading operator of Japanese restaurants, Paisarn recalls he never thought that he would end up working in the food industry.
He says that when he was young he always wanted to be an advertising creative or salesperson. After graduating from Bangkok Commercial Campus, Paisarn went to the United States to finish his undergraduate studies in 1984. Upon graduation, he moved to Boston for postgraduate studies at the Graduate School of Boston University in 1987. It was then that he began working part-time in a nearby Thai restaurant to earn pocket money and stretch his income for student life.
“I started working in the kitchen doing most of the prep work, like cutting vegetables and meats as well as dishwashing,” Paisarn says. “I worked my way up to be a cook and fell in love with cooking. I enjoyed doing more work in the restaurant and started to experiment more in my cooking and understanding better all the ingredients. After a couple years of working in the kitchen, I got a chance to work in the dining area as a waiter and got promoted to be a restaurant manager.
“I truly found what I loved to do and I’m passionate about it. I loved every minute of my time spent in the restaurant – it became my second home. Every single day, I was looking forward to coming into the restaurant and serving my customers.”
He says many of his customers became friends, so close that they were like relatives to him.
“With some of them, I not only used to serve them but also witnessed their life stories unfold – from when they were dating, then getting married and having kids – as they kept returning to the restaurant,” Paisarn says.
“My happiness was to see how much they enjoyed the food and the laughter they shared with their friends and family. Ever since that time, I continued to develop more and more to impress my guests – who became my friends - every single time they visited me. And that experience changed my whole life. It was the start of a journey that has seen me continue to explore more and more new ways of doing things in the food business.”
In 1999, Paisarn came back to Thailand for the first time since he left for the US as a young student. He had received a call from his sister that their mother had become sick and that he should spend some time with her before it was too late.
He recalls thinking that he would stay for perhaps just two years or so in Thailand.
For his first job in his native country, Paisarn worked for KFC as an area manager. It was quite a new experience for him to work in the so-called QSR (quick service restaurant) scene. He thought he knew it all, but soon realised it was a challenge and a good experience for him to learn about chain restaurants. After two years, Paisarn had decided to return to the US.
But he looks back on it as fate that his ex-boss from KFC happened to go to work for Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group (CP Group). He was asked to join in with the task of developing a restaurant for processing foods under the vision of “Kitchen of the World”.
“I ended up working here for a further two years and learned a great deal about processing food and food factory practice,” Paisarn says. “After two years, I felt I had enough and still wanted to return to the USA. It didn’t go as planned.
“I got another call from my ex-boss who used to be CEO of Yum Thailand. He asked me to join Oishi Group. I don’t know why I accepted the offer, but I know I did make the right decision. And here I am still in Thailand and still working for Oishi Group. Time is absolutely flying fast. Before I realised it, I had already been in the food business for over 30 years.”
Paisarn said says that running a restaurant business these days is quite a challenge. It seems very easy to enter this market, but difficult to sustain the business. He counts off the statistic that only around one in 10 new openings survive.
“This is especially so in the digital era, as there is no longer a one-size, one-format fits all. Consumers are getting more complicated and want more personal touches,” he says.
“The lifecycle of the restaurant business is also getting shorter and shorter. What that means is that the restaurant market is changing constantly, and we need to cope with the rapid change, especially in the digital era. We need to understand our customer deeper in the details in order to capture them and activate them to buy our products.”
Paisarn says that at Oishi the company is continuing to grow the market to cover the everyday needs of consumers, from morning until late at night.
“There are still many opportunities for us that we haven’t tapped into such as desert cafe, breakfast, delivery, drive-through, or even auto machines,” he says. “Our strategy is not only market growth in Thailand, but also in the Asean region. Currently, we have two restaurants in Myanmar, and plan to open more in Cambodia and Laos. For our existing outlets, we are continuing to revamp the brands to cope with the changes in consumer behaviour.
“New models, new desires, new technology, new devices, new products, new ingredients, and new nutrition are among the things that we are working on in order to advance ourselves amid the competition and gain more trust for both the current and new customers - especially the young generation.”
Paisarn says the key challenge faced by restaurant operators today - and in the future - is that consumer behaviour is rapidly changing. Customer expectations are changing, “and that means providing a consistent brand experience is growing more difficult”. Enterprises are also struggling to keep up with trends in mobile technology.
Regarding the shift in customer preferences, Paisarn says today’s restaurant customers, especially millennials, have higher standards than ever. “Concerns about diet and nutrition, food allergies and sensitivities, the sourcing of ingredients, and sustainability are all taking centre stage in the minds of consumers,” he says.
As for brand management, he says most of the brands in the sector are struggling with what he calls the reputation economy.
“This is the situation in which a brand can live or die based on what is being said about them online,” Paisarn says. “The challenge for our brands is that reviews on sites reflect customer experiences in individual locations, not with the brand as a whole. The studies show that eight out of 10 consumers trust online reviews about a business as much as a personal recommendation.
“The more locations that our restaurant have, the more difficult it is to maintain a consistent experience across all of them, and this is often reflected in online ratings and reviews. We must focus our energy on keeping the experience consistent among our brands.
“We must also ensure valuable customer information is captured across the board, from in-store surveys to the corporate call centre. Lastly, we have to do well to track what’s being said about our brand on social media and review sites. This will allow us to identify the key issues, respond to trends, and head off future problems.”
As part of these changes, Paisarn says mobile technology is continuing to change the game.
“New data make it clear that mobile experiences, especially with online ordering, are presenting even higher stakes for restaurant brands,” he says.
“The studies also shows that there is a strong relationship between online ordering and brand loyalty. As mobile ordering gains popularity, we will be under pressure to provide frictionless experiences within our mobile apps. Customers have high standards for in-apps experiences, and expect to be able to easily view menus, make a reservation or communicate with us.”
As for Paisarn’s personal interests with food, the concept of dining out has never lost its lustre for him.
“Since starting out in the restaurant business, I have became ever more passionate about food. I enjoy going to any of the top restaurants that come with good reviews, the famous restaurants, including those that are the most talked about in town,” he says.
“The reason for me is to gain more knowledge and understand why these restaurants are so successful. And learn the keys to their success. The fastest way to be the best is to learn from the best. And I took those experiences to my own restaurant, adding more value for my customers,” he says.
On the personal side, Paisarn lists travel high up among his passions. “Whenever I have an opportunity to visit a new place - whether a village, a city, a mountain or the seaside - I never miss it. It is so thrilling to see a new place and meet different kinds of people and learn more about their cultures,” he says. “Whenever I travel around a new place, I take many pictures – not only of the place, but the people, the food, the buildings and the like. It gives me immense satisfaction and pleasure. Though these hobbies are expensive, it gives me a lot of inspiration in my life and work.”
However, Paisarn concedes that it is hard to achieve work-life balance. But, he adds, if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.
“My challenge is how to prioritise between my work and my personal life. It’s very important for me to do so. Why? It is simply because it can result in unhealthy levels of stress, unhappiness, and even reduced productivity. I set my own rules, dividing them into three parts: effective time management at work; proper nutrition, sleep and exercise; and quality time with family, friends and other loved ones,” he says.
“For effective time management at work, I probably - like many others - have difficulty in managing time at work, especially if you work 24/7 at the call of your boss.
“To manage that, I have to set a daily schedule and stick to it, and allow myself a certain amount of time per task. I try not to get caught up in less productive activities, such as unstructured meetings that tend to take up lots of time. I also learn how to say ‘no’ when I am up to my capacity.
“In reality it’s not going to be easy, but I try to. And if I can avoid it, I will leave the work at work. I just simply shut the diary, turn off my notebook, store my messages and leave it. Sometimes, we just have to forget about perfection even though it’s probably unlike you; otherwise, you may get stressed out from that.”
He says that all people need proper nutrition, sleep and exercise. However, every company expects their employees to work more and to earn more revenue and profit. “It ends up that we all have an overload of work. Likewise, top management is not exempted from that. Many think being a top manager means you have more luxury time. It’s not quite true; as long as you are still an employee you are not an owner,” Paisarn says.
“What I learned about work overload is that it is often unavoidable. The only things that really help to balance your life are eating well, sleeping at least six hours a day, and exercising at least three times a week. Fortunately, I’m in the food industry. I quickly understood my own body, what nutrition I need, and to control my weight and calories. I’m pretty much on the scales every day.
“ When I start to become overweight, I start to hit the gym more often to burn off the fat. My trick is to find a gym near my office within walking distance, and hire personal trainer to help keep me in shape. Discipline is very important when it comes to working out. I have to fix my schedule for gym days, and do not take any appointments on that evening after work at all.”
As for spending quality time with family, friends and other loved ones, Paisarn stresses the importance of this need. “After all in life, we all want to earn enough money and to spend time with our family and loved ones, but we are tending to spend more time at work. We all feel that we can never finish our work and never earn enough money to able to spend quality time with family and loved ones.
“But, in recent years, I discovered that no matter how many hours you put into work, it never ends. The worst thing is that it’s causing you ever more stress. So, I decided to set up rules at work and try to reduce my overall hours as I mentioned.
“This means that I can have more time to socialise with friends in the evening, spend time with my family on the weekends, and also have time to go to the gym. I started realising that I work so hard because I want to spend the money that I earn to keep my loved ones and family happy.
“It would be meaningless if I were to have more money but didn’t have time for them and that this made them unhappy. Remember, without you at work, the company can always find someone to replace you and it will still function, but no one can replace you within your family.”