Seasonality and cocktails

This is a guest post from Sarah Evans. Sarah’s bio is at the end of the piece.

2016-02-25 17.15.52“Una mas Margarita?”

It’s 4.30pm on a Thursday afternoon at Fresh Restaurant and Lounge, I’m looking out onto the wide sandy expanse of Playa Zicatella, listening to live music and settling in for another glorious sunset. Our cute Mexican waiter Rodolfo in his kinky white Cuban-healed boots is hypnotising me with his offer to bring me another drink…I readily stare into his dreamy eyes and say “si, por favor, por supuesto!” without another thought – Yes please, of course!

Cocktail hour on the beach has been rejuvenated this winter season and these savvy Canadian owners of Fresh have captured the market perfectly.

2016-03-12 18.31.20Puerto Escondido is a small town on the Pacific Coast of Southern Mexico. It’s a real Mexican working town where fishing, farming and tourism are the main industries – you won’t find a Starbucks, McDonald’s, TGI Fridays or a Margaritaville here. It takes a bit of an effort to get here and this is why it retains tons of hidden Mexican charm.
There are 4 distinct types of tourists, the first are the cool surfer, backpacking crowd who travel here to try out the legendary Mexpipe killer waves. Secondly, the ‘wealthy’ Mexican Nationals , who enjoy beach holidays like everyone else, without the tourist trap feel, as in the likes of Cancun and Cozumel. The third group are from the masses of coach tours with lower income Mexican families who visit during the religious holidays of Christmas and Easter. They frolic only in the shallow waters edge as many cannot actually swim or own swimsuits, their hard earned money is spent in the local taco restaurants and they shop in Chedruai Supermarket for huge bottles of coke and enormous packets of crisps that all the family can enjoy on the beach. This group always remind me of the Birmingham visitors who drive to Weston-Super-Mare for Easter weekend. Enjoying the first escape to the seaside after a grey wet winter, all sitting along the seafront eating portions of fish and chips in paper, battling against the seagulls!

And then there are the Snowbirds. During the peak months from November to March, the town receives the annual migration of Canadian and American retirees and tourists who fly south for the winter, escaping their colder home climates. Many of these snowbirds stay for up to 3 months every year making their dollars spread that little bit further, some permanently settle into a very laid back lifestyle all year round.

These well-travelled foreigners dislike holidaying on the Mexican Yucatan, it’s too manicured and Americanised. Puerto is a bit rough around the edges but the beaches are spectacular and you don’t need to spend your children’s inheritance on a good night out. Even though the foreigners’ flip-flop feet might get dusty, they have high expectations when it comes to eating and drinking. There are far more restaurants in town then ever before and they all want a piece of this market.

2016-03-12 18.00.12This winter season, Clint and Yvette of Fresh have successfully catered to both the  Mexican nationals who find their dinner prices lower than they are used to paying in Mexico City, and the slightly hippie crowd of foreigners who love to flock together to party  but won’t pay Cancun cocktail prices.

With backgrounds in the hospitality industry, Clint and Yvette have lived and worked in Puerto for the last 8 years, thereby understanding their target audience and the ways of competing in a Mexican market – so they can still stay sane when things can and do go wrong.  Fresh opened for business in October 2015 and they have had a fabulous opening season. The main difference that has given them the edge over other businesses, is this understanding of their customer base and that they have a long term plan.

Some other bars and restaurants nearby sit empty, as they offer a redundant menu and service, expecting people to visit just because it has a fancy deck or jazzy lights. They haven’t set out to capture a target market or just have no concept of keeping up with the tourism trends of actual demand and changing consumer attitudes.

At Fresh, their staff are being trained to interpret all the indicators of their customers needs. My Margarita was offered to be refreshed as soon as I started to sip to the end of the glass. The ambience is buzzing with weekly live lounge music for the Wednesday and Saturday night dinner crowd and with upbeat mellow sunset tunes for Thursday cocktail hour.

2016-03-03 16.58.14They have become successful by building a great team that offers awesome customer service, a great atmosphere and super fresh-cooked food at prices that are competitive for a beachfront setting. These should be standard practices for any aspiring restaurant but are often lacking in many.

With the snowbird season coming to an end, Clint is networking all over social media, making contacts ‘down under’ for the summer season. If you surf in Australia you will of course have heard of Puerto Escondido. The visiting surfing crowd and young Aussie honeymooners will be the target market in Puerto during the upcoming summer months for Fresh.

For this younger crowd, they will change the menu slightly, but keep crowd-pleasers for their all year round regular customers of local business owners. They will start to offer wines of the day and special daily lunches and dinners – obtaining regular supplies of certain products is just one of the challenges any restaurant in Puerto has to deal with. And of course they will continue to offer live music during the summer months, when many others may not.

Already at number 4 on Trip Advisor, Fresh is certainly making a name for itself. While I was chatting to Clint an Australian couple came in to make dinner reservations. They had met another Aussie couple in Mexico City who had been to Puerto, they were given a recommendation – “You must go to Fresh!”

On that note, I think it’s time for one more delicious Margarita….

2016-02-04 18.22.28

Many thanks to Sarah Evans for this wonderful post and photos. Sarah has been using Puerto Escondido as a base since November 2014, popping off to explore Central and South America. You can read all about Sarah’s travels here.

Anyone for pig’s organ soup?

There’s much to like about Singapore. Lovely climate, interesting juxtaposition of colonial history and the ultramodern, and a political system that, whilst wildly different from western democracy, appears to be effective. It’s also a wonderful place to indulge the taste buds, with a cuisine that fuses Indian, Chinese and Malay.

I was staying with some expat friends, who teach at one of the international schools. Unsurprisingly, they love the Singaporean lifestyle, with the only downside to the place being its size. Island fever has them popping over to the Malay Peninsula or elsewhere in south east Asia on a fairly regular basis.

It was our main sight-seeing day. We’d roamed the streets of both Little India and Chinatown, drinking in the sights and smells – colourful 19th century shops and houses that looked down upon the bustle beneath them with gentle disregard. An ice-cold mango lassi provided welcome refreshment in a little café which could have been transplanted from Mumbai.

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Little India

People are very proud to call themselves Singaporean and whilst it is possible to experience distinct foreign cultures on the island, there are also aspects that are unique. This is probably best exemplified in the food, where you will find inimitable dishes. My friends wanted to show me what this really meant and so our lunch stop was Lau Pa Sat (literally “old market”), also known as the hawker centre.

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Lau Pa Sat has a rich and somewhat chequered history, stretching back to the 1820s. Due to land reclamation and reuse, the old market has changed location several times. The current structure still has the cast iron beams that were forged in Scotland and shipped over in 1894. These beams had been in storage for many years before forming the octagonal skeleton for the current building which was erected in the late 1980s.

It now houses a food court containing a plethora of outlets, with a large seating area in the centre. Planted slap bang in the centre of the skyscrapers of the financial district, Lau Pa Sat is the feeding trough for city workers Monday to Friday. We were there on a Saturday and the place reminded me of London’s Leadenhall market at the weekend. Listen hard enough and you can hear the echoes of the mid-week bustle.

All manner of Singaporean food is here, as well as favourites from around the world. The sweet cinnamon scent of fried carrot cake vies with fragrant chilli crab for your lunchtime Sing dollars. But how do you choose when there are over 60 outlets and no overlap? This conundrum got The Commercial Traveller thinking – especially when confronted with the Pig’s Organ Soup outlet.

WP_20150404_17_19_55_Pro 1Now maybe pig’s organ soup is the most popular lunch item on sale. I don’t know and to be honest, I didn’t try it. But let’s assume it’s an acquired taste. How do you compete for attention when you are a niche player? Well, there a number of options. You can let people revel in very fact that they are part of a select group of customers that swears by your product. Make a ‘club’ out of it. Marmite, for instance, makes a virtue of the fact that some people will hate their product, leaving the ‘lovers’ by default in a ‘club’.

Another option is to use promotional devices to get people to try it. On the basis that a portion of the population will like your product, you can build a market. The Commercial Traveller has many times been offered the likes of soya milk yoghurts or a new brand of shampoo at London rail terminals. This is the ‘try it, you might like it!’ approach.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that there a lot of advantages for a small business in operating in a niche market:

  1. You don’t have to spread yourself too thinly.
  2. It’s easier to become an expert and well known.
  3. Being unique means less competition.
  4. Marketing becomes easier.
  5. More repeat business.

The owners of the pig’s organ soup concession recognise that they don’t need to feed the 2,500 people that can fit into Lau Pa Sat at any one time. They just need to sell the 50 or so portions over a lunchtime that gives them a decent living. And I suspect they find that quite easy.


The Commercial Traveller eats fried carrot cake

Me? I’ll stick to the fried carrot cake.




Many thanks to Nicki Hambleton for providing some of the photos and being my host on this trip. You can view more of Nicki’s wonderful photography here.

Too high to eat

My appetite was non-existent.

This was the predominant altitude sickness symptom that I suffered whilst trekking to Everest Base Camp, at a height of 5,364m or 17,598ft. It had been 3 days since I had reached the camp and I had made the descent back into Lukla. Although I had knocked 2,500m off my altitude, the effects of the thin air had not yet worn off. So despite using up well over 5,000 calories per day, I was struggling to take on 500.

But there I was, at the end of my trek, feeling for all the world like a conquering hero, strolling into Lukla ‘high street’. Lukla is vital to trekking in the Everest region, as it has an airport and so provides a beginning and an end to many an adventure. Unsurprisingly, it is a thriving town – there’s nothing like a captive market. Visitors on the way up buy trekking gear, hire guides and maybe imbibe their last beer before setting off. People at the end of their trek – like me – crave a shower, to feel ‘normal’ again and to secure a vital boarding pass for a plane back to Kathmandu.

So there are two distinct markets in Lukla – those starting out and returnees. And the ‘high street’ was equally divided between the two. And this is commerce as its most basic. Supply and demand. Haggling expected. Premiums applied due to lack of competition. I’ve got it, you need it, pay through the nose. But in true Nepalese style, this was all done with a certain grace and politeness.

A particular aspect of this world stuck out to The Commercial Traveller – the tongue-in-cheek rip-offs of Western brands. Even in myP1010037 weary state, completely spent from the toughest physical and mental challenge of my life, the corners of my mouth formed a wry smile at the sight of the Yakdonalds sign. And I’m not entirely sure that Seattle HQ is aware of the Lukla branch of Starbucks. Which got me thinking about ‘passing off’- making some false representation likely to induce a person to believe that the goods or services are those of another.

Of course, in markets where McDonalds and Starbucks may want to operate, it is vital that they protect their marques. Their share prices include a substantial premium for the value of their brands. The fact that establishments in this Himalayan town, that has never seen a car, feel that playing with those names is good for business is testament to the value of the brands.

So how do you develop brand value if you are small business? Clearly, it is impossible to become a global name in all markets. That takes investment running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But it is important to gain reputation. You just have to be really focussed on the circles in which you wish to be known and keep them small and contained. It would be more valuable to be the most highly recognised employment law firm in a county, for instance, than one with scant recognition over a wider geographical area or over multiple specialisms.

Not only is this focus good for the value of your brand, but it makes marketing easier too. Don’t be all things to all men. Be crystal clear about your target market and then speak to them with a consistent, authoritative voice. They will end up knowing exactly where to look when they have a need for your product or service. And that is what brands are built upon, with the added benefit that your business valuation will increase.

Over the next few days, my appetite got back to normal.

And I, for one, can vouch for the yakburgers.