The dramatic increase in the number of Thai restaurants is driven by a culinary diplomacy program of the Thai government
Between 2001 and 2019 the number of Thai restaurants worldwide tripled. In the United States the number of Thai restaurants went from around 2,000 to over 5,000. Meanwhile at around 300,000 people Thai Americans only make up around 0.09% of the 330 million Americans. By comparison there are around 37 million Mexican Americans and around 54,000 Mexican restaurants around the US. That’s one Mexican restaurant for every 650 Mexican Americans but one Thai restaurant for every 55 Thai Americans. That’s a lot of Thai restaurants compared to so few Thai Americans. So other than tasting great, what has driven this explosion in Thai restaurants?
In 2001 the Thai government formed the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd. whose goal has been to spread Thai food and Thai culture around the world. This government-supported program offers generous loans to Thai nationals living abroad to open restaurants. They offer training in the cooking of standardized Thai dishes, they award “Thai Select” certificates for restaurants that are of high quality, and they have created A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad to help train new Thai restaurateurs. They also offer predesigned restaurant packages to create Thai restaurants at different price points.
Thai predesigned restaurant packages include:
• Elephant Jump: the lower-priced experience aimed at $5 to $15 per customer
• Cool Basil: the mid-tier offering at $15 to $25 per person
• Golden Leaf: the higher-end culinary experience at $25 to $30 per person
Some Thai restaurants are even named after these packages – they didn’t even bother to come up with their own names. These Thai restaurant packages are like a government sponsored version of the “Irish pub in a box”.
The Thai government’s efforts fall under what is known as culinary diplomacy, or gastrodiplomacy – it’s soft diplomacy. Through food you can introduce your culture to other countries, winning hearts and minds through stomachs. As a result of Thailand’s success other countries are creating similar programs including Peru, South Korea, and Taiwan among others. Culinary diplomacy can generate revenue through increases in exports and tourism. Indirectly, these programs can create favorable impressions of a country, its culture, and its people.
Culinary diplomacy can also improve the relations of people within a country. Mustafa Nuur is a Somali refugee living in Lancaster, PA who runs the Bridge program. Bridge is a cross-cultural experience which allows you to book a meal with a local immigrant family to share stories and eat the food from their home country. This helps create bonds between new immigrants and their neighbors, all through sharing a meal.