In Defense of the Second Menu

We've all seen them, when traveling. The second menu. Double the prices, same food, English language. People rant about them, feel cheated, ripped off. I sure have.

But one of the neat things about staying somewhere long enough to actually get to know people is that all the easy answers, all the goods and bads and stereotyped motives fall away, and the people around you, whose language you're starting to share, just become people. With the same worries and concerns and hard decisions you have. And things like the second menu, against all odds, start to make sense.

One of my friends here just bought her restaurant from its previous owner. She's probably the best cook on the block, but she charges almost half of what all the places around her charge. The other day, as we turned from discussions on rent and pay, we got to talking on why.

"There are tons of foreigners who come into the shops next door," I noted, "and they happily pay twice as much for less tasty food. Why don't you charge more?"

"Because working people eat here," she said. "they don't have 120 Baht for a curry."

So, she charges local prices. In a location that's picking up significant tourist growth. If you're doing the math in your head, you're right - it's going to be tough to keep up with rent while charging local prices.

It clicked.

Think of most of the places you've seen the dual-menu thing happen. Now, think about where they were located. I'd bet good money almost all of them were in spots that were super-high rent, compared to the local average.

Now, if you're running one of those restaurants, with the super high rent, you've got to make lots of money to pay the bills. No problem. Charge more for the food - tourists are happy to pay, since it's still cheap for them, the doors stay open, all good. But what about your friends? Or other locals who want some of your tasty food and good view but don't have crazy amounts of money?

Well, you just make a second menu. With local prices. For them.

The second menu isn't one with jacked up prices in English. That's the regular menu. The second menu is the one with local prices, in the local language. The one locals can afford.

My friend, for the moment, refuses to make a second menu, even though she'd pull in more money. She's committed to making a place that people who are living and working in Thailand - even foreigners - can come and afford.

"If you charge a local price, " she noted, "people come back every day." So far, she's right. I sure do.

But I wonder, if some day, economics will trump idealism. If the second menu, anywhere with income disparity, is anything but inevitable.

If it's the only really fair thing.

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