As CEO of Mango Tree Worldwide and Coca Holdings International—a group that operates more than 70 restaurants and cafés in 15 countries worldwide—Pitaya Phanphensophon is immersed in the restaurant business. In fact, it’s been a part of his life since the day he was born.
Your father opened the first Coca in 1957. Do you remember much of those early years?
Well, in 1957 I wasn’t born yet… but I was made then (laughs). I was born in 1958, a year after. The very first Coca was on Soi Decho, with just 12 seats. My mom was the chef when they started, and like any good chef she went to market every day. My mother always said “good food starts with good ingredients. You cannot make good food from bad ingredients”. In the morning I would go with my dad to the fresh market at Bang Rak—my school was near there—and my mom would go to the vegetable market at Pak Khlong Talad. They moved to Surawong [the present location of the Coca flagship restaurant] after one year on Soi Decho. I was born and raised here, and grew up above the restaurant. I remember this area hardly had any cars, and Silom didn’t have any buildings taller than five-stories. I used to fly kites here as a kid.
The “steamboat suki” Cantonese hotpot concept was a great success. When did Coca start expanding?
In the mid-1970s, my dad took a few shops in Siam Square when it opened, and he really spent some money and converted the space into an air-conditioned steamboat restaurant. At that time, when you went to a restaurant, if you wanted air-con you had to pay extra. But we gave air-con free, no extra charge.
Coca was started by your father, so is Mango Tree more of your own personal accomplishment?
Yes, it’s my concept. We expanded Coca overseas to Singapore, and that was well received, and then we went on to Japan and Malaysia, and it was alright until we went to Australia. There people didn’t have the “cooking on the table and sharing food” culture. So I came back to Thailand and realized if I want to expand my business without limit, I need a concept where I can serve Westerners. We came up with Mango Tree, where we serve Thai food, but customers can order their own plates. My selling point is that we serve street food, or “comfort food”, in a restaurant setting. Just simple, good, hearty food that’s nicely presented. And I make my restaurants so that when people come in they feel like home.
Does that mean you look for certain characteristics when you choose a new location?
Yes. We try to go into a place that has a history. This house [the Mango Tree off Silom Soi 6] was built during the time of King Rama VI, and nothing has changed on the exterior, although we needed to change the interior in order to transform it from a residence to a restaurant. The latest Mango Tree is at Pak Khlong Talad (the flower market). Literally that restaurant is sitting on top of the river, opposite Wat Kanlayanee Niwet. We renovated the old warehouse where the boats used to dock, and where they would unload and keep the flowers. The view there is so fantastic. You can see as far as Wat Arun.
You recently opened a Coca in Hua Hin. What else does the future hold?
I’m retiring in August this year. That’s when Coca is 60 years old. I think it’s time to go, and let the younger generation run it. My elder daughter Natalie has been with us since June 2016. She’s COO now, running the operations.
What are some of your favourite local restaurants, big or small?
I like all kinds of food. I like the Indian food at Himali Chacha on Sukhumvit Soi 31. For Italian I like to go to DiVino on Thong Lor. I always enjoy noodles, so for fish ball and pork noodle there’s a place on Rama IV, right where the expressway meets the road, that they call Kuay Tiew Peen Rua, which means “go over the fence”. Literally there’s a small fence that you need to climb over to get to it, so they call it that because it has no actual name.
Is the city reaching a saturation point when it comes to new restaurants?
No. I am an economist. I always think in terms of supply and demand. If you’re not competitive, if you’re not really good enough, you’ve got to go. It’s actually good for consumers. They always have something new to try. But I would say Thailand does not produce enough qualified service staff—back and front of house.
What do you think your father would say if he could see Bangkok now?
He would probably be shocked at how the food culture has changed.