Meals on wheels drive truck sales
Food vendors are embracing mini models as their tools of trade.
Shops conveyed by mini trucks have grown popular in Thailand over the years, providing a healthy start for a new breed of entrepreneur.
Mini trucks are the sales points for such merchants, who need space at open markets to park the vehicles and sell products. Most merchants using mini trucks are food sellers, giving rise to the "food truck" phenomenon.
Food trucks are expected to prosper after the government gave full support to a plan to attract self-starting entrepreneurs via SME loans and attractive interest rates from state banks.
According to Food Truck Club Thailand, the segment has a value of 13 billion baht and boasts 1,300-1,500 operators, 70% of them in Bangkok and surrounding provinces where there are many flea markets. The other 30% of food truck operators are in provincial areas.
Cooked food products are on offer at 60% of the operators, while 40% sell drinks and desserts.
Each food truck startup requires 100,000-400,000 baht to buy a mini truck, the price depending on whether it's new or used.
Vichack Rattanasuwan, director of the Industrial Promotion Department, said that once appropriate measures are in place for food truck operators, the sector will grow sustainably without a bubble situation.
Mr Vichack is taking charge of new entrepreneurs and business promotion.
"The department has teamed up with several state agencies and companies in the food and beverage business on further support for food truck entrepreneurs," he said.
According to Mr Vichack, the department will provide many measures and programmes for food truck startups, including low-cost training courses, cooking classes and loans.
The department will maintain its network strength in the sector, he said, and food truck operators must pass safety and hygienic standards.
The Industry Ministry is underscoring efficiency in small and medium-sized enterprises, which include food truck operators.
"The department has been assigned by the ministry to increase the number of food trucks to 5,000 operators by 2023," Mr Vichack said.
In addition, the government has allocated budget for soft loans to certified entrepreneurs, who must complete a full slate of training courses to be eligible.
A flea market of food trucks in Khon Kaen. Chakkrapan Nathanri
Two state-run financial institutions, Government Savings Bank and the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Bank of Thailand, have been told to launch loan programmes for food truck operators.
"Food trucks are very attractive for anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur, as the vehicles can be designed for multiple uses and purposes, in vintage or modern styles," Mr Vichack said. "Moreover, the food trucks are well accepted by event organisers and flea markets, so the department strongly believes that the business has enough potential to increase new operators."
The department plans to launch networking events for food trucks in Nakhon Ratchasima and Chiang Mai.
In addition, some food truck operators are available to provide rental trucks at a daily fee of 500-1,000 baht -- a possible option for low-budget entrepreneurs.
Chanin Wattanapreksa, president and founder of Food Truck Club Thailand, said the sector will improve fast in the coming years from individual food and drink merchants in franchise form.
"The value of the food truck industry is expected to double in the next couple of years from 13 billion baht now," he said. "The food truck market is drawing the attention of the young generations because they tend to be entrepreneurial."
As a result, the food truck sector is a different picture than it was 10 years ago, Mr Chanin said.
"In the past, food trucks relied on word of mouth to gain a good reputation," he said, "but the social media platform has shifted the communication landscape through online news and reviews from customers and bloggers."
Moreover, food truck operators can support event organisers who want to maximise attractions at outdoor activities, anniversary parties and sporting events.
Sompol Yamlungsub, managing director of Pro Cooking Academy, said the taste of food and drinks is vital for operators, so they have to provide hygienic products and service.
Mr Sompol is spearheading the food truck business in Thailand and helping the Industrial Promotion Department coach new operators.
"The food and beverage products are a basic need of people amid the economic slowdown, so the food truck market will see less of an impact," he said.
Kua Kanjanawattana, a former electrical engineer at Isuzu Motor Thailand, said he decided to seek some extra revenue five years ago by developing his family business, a sweet dipping sauce for raw mango.
"When seeking retail channels, the food booth requires a huge budget for investment, while the mini truck is a potential option for the startup," Mr Kua said.
At first he sold his product and the mangoes only on weekends, learning the ups and downs over one year while still a salaryman.
"I developed my products until I found the best-selling one, then I decided to quit my job and become a full-time food truck operator in 2017," Mr Kua said.
He now sells mango spicy salad at his truck and promotes the Kae Jang sweet dipping sauce on social media.
Imports capture market
All mini trucks sold in Thailand are imported from Indonesia, China, South Korea and India. Although the country is capable of producing such vehicles, one-tonne pickups are the Thai industry's bread and butter.
A mini truck weighs less than a tonne.
At present, Japanese maker Suzuki dominates the mini truck segment. The Suzuki Carry is produced at the company's operation in Indonesia and enjoys zero import duty under a free-trade agreement.
Wallop Treererkngam, executive director for sales and marketing at Suzuki Motor Thailand, said the overall mini truck market swings annually, depending on the brands available in the market.
Suzuki began selling the Carry in 2006, while China's Wuling and DFSK stopped selling in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
"The food trucks are parts of the mini truck segment, but there are other operators using mini trucks for e-commerce, logistics, laundry services and community enterprises," Mr Wallop said. "At present, Suzuki remains to capture sales of mini trucks in Thailand, and it will be easier for the brand in this market."
He expects to sell 4,000 mini trucks in 2019.