Queue-fixers help tourists stomach long lines at Bangkok’s Michelin-rated eateries
BANGKOK – Snagging a seat at Bangkok’s famous street food stalls is not for the faint of heart.
The long queues from pre-pandemic days have returned – and with a vengeance, with the arrival of millions of tourists since Thailand eased Covid-19 entry rules earlier this year.
Snaking queues and hours-long waits have become the norm at some of these joints.
At one-Michelin-starred Jay Fai, a street hawker stall near Bangkok’s Grand Palace, long waits are arguably a rite of passage for anyone hoping to try its famed crabmeat omelette and drunken noodles. Getting a table can take anywhere upwards of two hours, and diners usually wait another hour for chef Supinya Junsuta, who is over 70 and better known by her moniker Jay Fai, to whip up each dish.
“I got there at 9.30am and there was a long queue. But when I saw how good the food looked, I knew I had to try it,” said Singaporean Geoffrey Lee, 27, an operations manager who was holidaying in Bangkok last week. He waited about seven hours to dine at the open-air shophouse.
Those who are unable to stomach the wait turn to Ms Chonthicha Finkemeier, 42, who is what some term a “professional queuer” or “queue-fixer”.
With the return of crowds, queue-for-hire services have taken off in Bangkok. Initially familiar only to locals, these services offered by individuals and dedicated firms are fast becoming more popular among tourists too.
In December, Thailand achieved its target of welcoming 10 million international visitors. While this pales in comparison with the 40 million arrivals in 2019, this milestone signals a steady recovery of its vital tourism sector, which was battered by Covid-19 lockdowns.
Ms Chonthicha plies her queue-fixing services at several eateries popular with tourists. But table requests for Jay Fai are particularly popular, and she has the walk-in booking system there down to a science.
“You must understand how the queue works, how long it takes to seat (customers) and when the next round of queue numbers are given out,” said Ms Chonthicha, who has a full-time job as a hotel concierge and offers queue-for-hire services in her free time.
For 700 baht (S$27) per booking, she helps customers – mostly foreign tourists – queue hours ahead, but times this expertly to her customers’ preferred dining time.
“I count the number of people in the queue (before me). If I am too early, I let others go first. I must calculate, for example, if the customer wants to eat at 11am, I will start queueing at 6am or 7am to get a certain number,” said Ms Chonthicha, who spent hours studying the restaurant’s queue system before she started taking bookings.
Her clients come from all over the world, including Brazil, Singapore and the Philippines. When she began this enterprise in August, she had five bookings. This has increased to more than 30 in December, which is the peak tourist season for Thailand.
Elsewhere, in Bangkok’s famous nightlife district of Khao San Road, professional queuers are also a common sight. Some stand out as they are elderly women waiting alongside young partygoers to gain entry into popular bars or nightclubs.
Mr Pachsu Titarapas, 32, who owns queue-fixing company Book a Table, said these “aunties” make up a portion of his 80 professional queuers to help meet the growing demand.
“At first, some businesses did not like the idea of old ladies queueing outside their bars and clubs. But once Thai media ran a story about us, the businesses got more media attention. Now, they are happy to have the aunties there,” he said.
Mr Pachsu started the business in 2020, but had to close it due to the pandemic. He resumed operations in June, when the country reopened gradually to tourism. Since then, demand for queue-for-hire services has surged, mainly driven by foreign tourists.
“(In June), we had about 10 to 20 bookings each weekend. But now, we see nearly 100 bookings a day on Friday and Saturday nights,” he said, noting that customers are a mix of locals, expatriates and tourists.
Book a Table charges a base fee of at least 300 baht per booking, with additional fees for each hour spent in line. Its professional queuers earn about 500 baht a day, depending on the nature and number of assignments.
The concept of hiring a professional queuer is not new in Thailand, as such individuals are also seen at immigration offices, exclusive product launches and ticket sales events.
“Now more tourists know about this service and want to use it. They can spend more time elsewhere instead of being stuck in a queue for two to three hours,” said Mr Pachsu.
He said some hotels and tour agencies have also approached Book a Table to help guests make reservations at popular restaurants like Jeh O Chula, a supper spot famed for its tom yum instant noodles, and seafood joint Here Hai. Both eateries are on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list.
Mr Pachsu believes most establishments see queue-for-hire services as a boon because it brings them customers and is a win-win for all parties.
But not all business owners are keen.
Mr Pitak Termpaisit, 72, who owns Here Hai, which is known for its fried rice chock-full of crabmeat, said it is not fair for other customers who wait in the queue.
“We are a small restaurant; we cannot have someone book the table and (sit there) waiting for the real customer (if he is late). It is not good for the other customers,” he said.
While he has not noticed queue-fixers at his restaurant, he prefers having people queue the “simple way”.
To avoid upsetting eatery owners, Ms Chonthicha constantly reminds her customers that they must turn up at least 30 minutes before the agreed time slot.
“The timing is fixed. They cannot be late,” said Ms Chonthicha, who is careful to comply with queueing protocols at the various eateries.
“(The restaurant) knows what I do – they respect me, I respect them. I don’t cause trouble for them,” she said.
Despite spending hours of her life queueing for customers, she finds the hype surrounding these famous restaurants baffling. “It is crazy. I always wonder why people (go through) this.”
Nonetheless, she is happy to help others secure a table and to earn some extra money for herself. “But I also tell customers that there are better restaurants out there,” she added.