The shelves are lined with cans of jackfruit, mango, coconut, lychee, palm, pineapple, aloe vera, bananas; with sealed packages of dried radishes, turnips, fish, squid and anchovies; with jars of pickled gooseberries, cucumbers, salted prunes, garlic. There are dried spices, chilis of all degrees of hotness, nine different flavors of curry paste and dozens of varieties of bottled sauces. Except for some cans of Dole pineapple chunks and a bottle of Heinz ketchup everything else comes from Thailand.
I could fill this article simply by listing the ordinary and the exotic offerings at the newly opened Tuk Tuk Thai and Asian Market at 1581 University Ave. This is the latest incarnation of the market space previously occupied by Piccadilly Circus and, before that, Wild Oats Market. The local business community is happy about the market’s arrival.
“We’re really pleased that Tuk Tuk has come,” said Maulin Chokshi, president of the University Avenue Association.
He credits the market’s owner, Mr. Thanu Chaichana, with business experience and good connections in the community. And unlike the previous stores in this location which appealed to a limited group of shoppers, this market “is going to be pulling from a different clientele. (There will be) people coming from out of the area,” which is bound to benefit the other businesses on the avenue.
The market is still very much a work in progress; many of the shelves are still bare and owner’s ambitious plans have yet to be fulfilled. Thanu Chaichana came to the United States from Thailand in 1980, moved around a bit between California and Arizona and by 1994 started his first Thai restaurant on Solano Avenue in Berkeley.
Since then his business has expanded so he now owns a number of Thai restaurants and also distributes imported supplies to other restaurants in the area. His family too, has grown and many of them are employed in the business.
The Tuk Tuk Thai and Asian Market is a new kind of venture for Thanu. It is different running a market that depends on walk-in trade, Thanu explains. It’s not like having regular customers to deliver to.
“I know (with) grocery stores it’s hard to make money,” he said. “You have to (offer) good quality, good prices.”
He is offering that, and a lot more. Along with the Asian foods there are the standard grocery store products; meats and dairy, dry goods and produce, but among these too, there are items not to be found in the usual markets.
There is a big section for “take away,” a deli counter with interesting Thai dishes for people hungry for a quick snack. Along the back wall are shelves of dishes, cooking and serving utensils, and tucked in a corner near the cash registers are some beautiful hand-made art and craft items. Thanu plans to carry more of these. He says that the quality, variety and popularity of Thai merchandise are “upscale” these days and are being exported to markets world wide. He will be going to a big exposition of Thai products in Los Angeles next month. And he finds that Americans are increasingly interested in Thailand, not just the goods but the people and the culture of the country too.
Looking at the market now, there is still a lot of empty space but Thanu has big plans.
“Besides the produce, beside the food court, beside the merchandise which is imported from Thailand we plan to combine everything.. to be a Thai center,” he said. “If you walk in this market you will get everything that you’re looking for.”
That is going to include entertainment, CDs, DVDs books and tapes too.
Danai Trassnon, the store manager, came from Thailand with no experience in marketing but boundless energy and enthusiasm. He explains that they are setting up a system to import goods directly from Thailand and distribute to Thai businesses here, eliminating the middlemen who currently are all from other countries. And he talks about the company’s future: not just a market, or a center as Thanu puts it. Danai is even more expansive.
“We have a goal here to be like an Asian town,”’ he said. “We need to be complete,” he has already learned the lingo, “one-stop shopping.”
The market is open seven days a week from 9 a.m-9 p.m. with take-out food starting at about 10:30 a.m., in time for lunch. About 60 percent of Thanu’s staff are family members. Everyone is friendly, everyone clearly enjoys their work.
I am not usually an impulse shopper but I couldn’t resist buying a couple of Thai imports, at reasonable prices. A jar of anchovies dipped in a tangy batter fried to a crisp and coated with sesame seeds was fantastic. A can of sweet red beans and tapioca pearls in coconut milk didn’t excite me that much—I haven’t developed the taste that Asians have for the sensation of chewing tapioca pearls—but the can was easy to open, no tools needed, and had a nifty plastic lid which concealed a spoon with a folded handle. We could use more of that user friendly packaging.
And by the way, “tuk tuks” are brightly colored, open sided, three wheeled “taxis” used in many parts of Asia. They’re fast and maneuverable, good for getting around on crowded city streets. Powered by two-stroke engines they are very smelly and loud, making a sound like tuk tuk. A picture of a tuk tuk is used as the market’s logo.