The ‘accidental’ restaurateur
Mar 9, 2020
“Just what is Thai hospitality? It’s people who are always smiling. Now, who doesn’t like to see a smile? Though language has always been a challenge, people return to Thailand again and again because they always feel welcome there.”
Or how a Canadian adventurer became a fierce promoter of Thai cuisine
Trevor MacKenzie is a man who lives for his next adventure.
In 2021, he plans to scale Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to help raise money for a close friend’s physically disabled child. An upcoming trip to Dubai will see him skydiving. But what really provides him the utmost thrill and satisfaction continues to be his life in Asia with his wife Nit and sons Maximilian,11 and Tristan, 7 as well as spearheading the expansion of the Bangkok-based Mango Tree Group, which now generates more than $50 million in revenues annually and boasts of 70 outlets. It targets to have 100 restaurants worldwide by 2022.
And to think this Vancouver native never envisioned himself — as he worked his way across various jobs, including in construction and a stint as a cowboy in Canada’s Rocky Mountains and industries — that he would end up promoting the very special cuisine of an equally fascinating culture. “Accidental” is how MacKenzie discovered his passion in life.
“… most people have only tried or stick with the top 20 items in a Thai menu… in Thai cuisine there are over 500 types of different recipes… not even counting the regional difference that can occur due to availability or variety of ingredients.”
The need to pay for a “mac daddy” apartment (an apartment with a fabulous view of the seafront that proves too irresistible one just has to have it) in Vancouver led him to apply for a bartending stint (another job he also dreamed of adding to his checkered curriculum vitae) in one of the city’s high-profile restaurants. “I still had my construction business during the day and I would bartend at night. That was the plan.” His bosses thought otherwise, delighted that their new employee displayed such an affable personality that they wanted him working the floor as a waiter. Eventually, he ended up moving up to “waiter trainer,” walking the newbies through operations and showing them consummate ways of serving.
“People want to be heard, to be understood and made to feel good,” MacKenzie says, summing up his service philosophy in three succinct phrases, which have earned him a near legendary status in circles that remember the dapper young man of those hectic years. Meaning, he was known to have attracted handsome tips from diners, who were notorious for measly renumeration, if they even left any at all. Actor-singer Hugh Jackman, he recalls, once came in, accompanied by his entourage, which included his mother and his agent. As the evening progressed, MacKenzie observed that serious matters were being discussed, leaving the older lady to her own devices. Immediately, he made sure she wanted for nothing that Jackman later took him aside and gave him a wad of bills, saying: “Thanks for giving my mom so much attention. Make sure she sees you putting that into your pocket, or I’m in big trouble!”
Destiny in Thailand
It was during a brief stopover in Thailand that MacKenzie finally came face to face with his destiny. During a meeting with Pitaya Phanphensophon, entrepreneur and chief executive officer, Worldwide and COCA Holding International, the idea of branding Thai cuisine and serving it in the international market was brought up and a business opportunity was hatched with the ideal individual to bring it to fruition: MacKenzie. Since then, Mango Tree restaurants and cafés have sprouted in Thailand, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Manila.
Across Manila, the chain has outlets at the Ayala Malls Trinoma, its first branch; the two-story flagship in High Street Central, BGC in Taguig City; Greenbelt 3 in Makati City; and the newest branch in the Ayala Malls by Manila Bay. Baguio City will soon be the first out-of-town location for the group.
During the 11 years that MacKenzie has been coming to the Philippines to oversee Mango Tree’s cultivation, he reports that things “have changed drastically from when I first visited, from the sheer number of restaurants to the variety of great food concepts, chefs and restauranteurs who have come on the scene. This has really helped blossom the market.”
Last year, the BGC restaurant was refurbished and a new menu with more adventurous Thai items on it was launched. “The overall store design change and ambience, along with other extensive training, has helped us to increase sales by 50 percent, which is amazing for a renovation,” MacKenzie declares. “After the renovation, our clientele expanded, however, they all still order the same things, so my passion and goal is to get them to try something different.
“The unfortunate part is most people have only tried or stick with the top 20 items in a Thai menu. Do you know in Thai cuisine there are over 500 types of different recipes and this is not even counting the regional difference that can occur due to availability or different ingredients. Thai food is based on really what’s outside your back door in the garden or forest growing — farm to table is in Thai food’s DNA.
“Eric Teng, our franchisee partner since the start, has been instrumental in helping us understand the Filipino market from a Filipino perspective. I recall when we opened our first outlet and I had Eric try Thai beef salad from Isan (northeast region of Thailand) — now remember at this time most Thai restaurants usually served Central region food (we just say Bangkok) — when I saw his face light up at the new flavors. He became so excited about this dish that he would order it every time he came to the restaurant. This taught me that the key is to just get people to try it, and once they do, they will be surprised.
With added responsibilities of achieving the goal of 100 Mango Tree outlets for the group by 2022 and maintaining service in his impeccable but heartwarming manner, travel has ramped up even more for MacKenzie in recent years. But he has managed to strike a balance between work and being a reassuring presence in his family’s life by keeping weekends sacrosanct for quality time at home or at the beach. His Thai language skills are impressive — “Bargaining at the wet market is not a problem” — although locals can detect the influence his wife’s Suphanburi province accent weaving through his cadences, and his boys never fail to correct their dad’s pronunciation when the opportunity comes up, he chuckles.
The competition in Manila’s food scene may be somewhat daunting these days with the plethora of players, from established international and regional brands to eager neophytes promoting foreign cuisines. MacKenzie recalls: “When we first started, there was only a handful of Thai restaurants, and now, there is a lot of competition. But I believe that since we were early to arrive, people trust and love the Mango Tree experience.
“I am always surprised that people come for a full meal at lunch, which is unusual for Thai food at lunch where people prefer smaller portions or a set at a cheaper price. We tried that and we saw people still ordered a la carte sharing style. It’s great as we do almost the same amount of covers at lunch as we do in an evening.”
As part of Mango Tree’s global initiatives for the new millennial decade, MacKenzie has been tasked to look at sustainability and connecting Mango Tree to communities, which means working with farmers or fisherman to help them fulfill this important advocacy. He and his team will also be driving a strong campaign to help educate consumers on the health benefits of Thai cuisine and have already launched vegan and vegetarian menus in Manila.
By the sparkle in MacKenzie’s eyes, these are adventures he looks forward to with all his heart and spirit.
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ENGAGING with ASIA
After 18 years in the Asia-Pacific, Trevor MacKenzie can certainly speak with authority about doing business in the region. His experience is rich and very helpful.
• Relationships. These are more important than doing the deal. While people of Asian heritage all around the region like doing business the same as anyone else, the getting-to-know-one-another part is the most crucial factor in closing the transaction. Without it, no deal will ever happen. I often use the term “break bread” together.
• Emotional moderation. Foreigners in Asia have to learn to make their emotions less drastic. In the West, we blow off steam by letting our emotions go, but in Asia, it is essential to act in the opposite way. Show control and patience, even in the most difficult situations. This will earn you respect.
• Leadership vs management. In Asia, people are brought up differently, and there is a different emphasis in education. It is therefore important to coach, guide and train more as opposed to solely delegating work, which will not automatically be done as we may expect.
• Cultivating communication. Having an open door policy is easy to say, but getting people through the door can be a cultural challenge across Asia. What’s important is to create comfortable spaces for sharing, so the team can openly brainstorm. Out-of-office activities work really well.
• Cultural differences. There is no blanket approach for all of Asia, as each country has its own nuances. It is important to study them; immerse yourself in the country and its culture with an open mind for a deeper understanding. This is vital so you can act appropriately and correctly in all situations.
PHOTOS BY MINDY GANA