The organic restaurant chain Ohkajhu is the brainchild of three childhood friends who dreamed of working together when they grew up.
They managed to set up their business together over a decade ago after graduating from different universities. The limited company is named “Pluk Phak Praw Rak Mae”, which literally means “growing vegetables because of love for Mom”.
Then came the trio’s first organic salad café in their home province of Chiang Mai. It was named “Ohkajhu” – a frivolous spoonerism wordplay on “Au & Jo”, the nicknames of two co-founders.
The company, which operates 26 Ohkajhu restaurants across the country, is now working with small-time organic farmers who supply chemical-free vegetables to the chain. The company also plans to become a public company soon.
Youth friendship and dream come true
Jirayuth “Jo” Puwapoonpol, a co-founder of the company, told The Story Thailand that while in high school, he planned to study engineering at university. But he changed his mind after an educational trip to Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Agriculture.
“There’s a lot of technology involved. It’s not agriculture my parents did at that time,” he said, adding that his parents grew vegetables and longan trees. As a result, agriculture became part of his life since childhood.
According to CEO and co-founder Chalakorn “Au” Eakchaipatanakul, the company’s three co-founders – he, Jirayuth, and Woradeth “Tong” Suchaibunsiri – were classmates at a secondary school in Chiang Mai.
On the company’s website (https://www.ohkajhuorganic.com), Jirayuth is described as “the founder & farmer”, Chalakorn as “the founder & chef”, and Woradeth as “the founder & engineer”. Jo oversees the farming, Au deals with cooking and customers, while Tong takes care of the back office.
“Our school was just changed from all-girls to coeducation, and there were not many boys. So, we were close together. We even came up with the idea of doing business together when we grow up so that we can be together as friends,” said the CEO.
The three friends studied at different universities – Jirayuth at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Chalakorn at Payap University’s Faculty of Business Administration in the northern city, and Woradeth at the School of Engineering, King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang in Bangkok.
The co-founders borrowed from their families to invest in their joint business. Chalakorn’s father allowed the business to use his land plot in Chiang Mai’s San Sai district.
Difficult beginning: From farm to table
It started as their experimental project to fulfil their childhood dream, and the co-founders did not expect the business to come this far.
In the beginning, they didn’t even consider themselves to be “entrepreneurs”. They were just new graduates at that time. Their thought was that even if the project flopped, they still had time to find office jobs.
Due to their limited funds, the business’s first office was a 180-square-metre single-storey bamboo building with thin steel frames. The makeshift structure collapsed more than a few times during strong winds and heavy downpours.
Their vegetable beds were flooded following torrential rains countless times. Once a summer storm destroyed more than 100 greenhouses at the farm.
However, despite all the problems, the trio resolved to fight on. They brainstormed to tackle the issues and prevent them from happening again.
A business born of love for mothers
Chalakorn said that the company’s name was inspired by the love for their mothers and other family members.
“Our mothers are the centre of the family. We don’t want to buy vegetables or rice that we know are contaminated with chemicals. So, we grow organic vegetables as we want everyone to be healthy,” he said.
The trio started by growing vegetables that their family members eat regularly, and they shared with their neighbours. That was long before the term “organic” became widely known in Thailand.
After three years of growing vegetables, they found that their farm had potential as it was located next to a main road. The trio decided to set up a small salad café on the land plot in May 2013, giving birth to the first “Ohkajhu” organic eatery.
The restaurant’s opening coincided with the high tourism season in Chiang Mai. Their first groups of customers helped spread the restaurant’s reputation with its photos posted on social media and good reviews through word of mouth.
Vegetables used in the restaurant were from their organic farm. Initially, they had problems matching the supply to demand, and there were times when they ended up having to eat a lot of their veggies due to oversupply.
However, after years of trial and error and record-keeping, they came up with a correct calculation of the raw material needed for their restaurants.
“With over 10 years of experience, we now have a strong database with a lot of details,” Jo said.
These include the volume of vegetables required by each Ohkajhu restaurant and all outlets, production data, local weather conditions for each season, the volume of rainfall and sunlight, loss of vegetables due to pests, diseases, and washing and trimming.
“Those statistics are used in the calculation for cost-effective vegetable growing. This way, we can minimize unnecessary loss and waste to an acceptable level,” Jo added.
Sharing opportunities with organic farmers
In its initial stage of operation, Ohkajhu’s organic vegetables entirely came from their farm. But over the past three years, the company has accepted organic vegetables from local farmers.
Au said that the company came up with the idea of sharing opportunities with local farmers. He and Jo approached local farmers, persuading them to shift from chemical farming to organic farming.
“In fact, vegetable growers don’t want to use chemicals. They tried organic farming before, but they could not sell their produce because it didn’t look good and the size and weight did not meet the market demand,” he said.
However, vegetable growers who shifted to organic farming experienced a sharp decline in their output during the first two years. Some of them opted not to work with Ohkajhu, according to Jo.
“But those who stayed on found that although the output and income from organic farming decreased, they didn’t have to pay for pesticides and fertilizers. Also, they gained better health and well-being. Later, more and more organic farmers joined us to supply their vegetables,” he said.
For Tong, those organic farmers not only help to share the risk and burden with Ohkajhu, but also help it to scale up the business.
Meanwhile, the farmers are happy with their increased output and income, according to him. He gave as an example an ethnic farmer in Chiang Mai’s Mae Wang district who made only a little over 7,000 baht in his first year supplying vegetables for Ohkajhu. But he could earn up to 100,000 baht selling his vegetables to Ohkajhu during the cold season last year.
Each Ohkajhu restaurant uses 100 kilograms of organic vegetables per day, or up to 2 tons for all the branches. About 20% of the vegetables supplied are from some 120 organic farmers in Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Nan.
Ohkajhu’s first branch in Bangkok opened in August 2019 at Siam Square. At present, there are 26 branches, with the latest one in Chonburi’s Si Racha district opening its door on June 8, according to the company’s website. Its expansion plan calls for 13 new branches to be opened in 2023.
“This year we plan to focus on the eastern seaboard before expanding into the Northeast in 2024. The expansion may include CLMV countries [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam]. We plan to survey the Cambodian market late this year to study the feasibility,” Au said.
Heading for stock market and working with OR
Over the past 10 years, Ohkajhu the restaurant chain and its company Pluk Phak Praw Rak Mae have come further than their founders expected.
Since early 2021, they have partnered with PTT Oil and Retail Business PLC (PTTOR), which Au describes as sharing the same vision and having the same DNA as Ohkajhu.
He said that the main goal is to get Pluk Phak Praw Rak Mae listed on the stock market in 2024 to raise funds. “We have had this plan for many years, even before OR held our shares. The preparation has progressed over 50%.”
Au said Ohkajhu chose to be allied with OR because they both have similar visions and DNA. “They have ideas to help small people. Also, they see us as an SME – they want to help Thai SMEs to grow strongly.”
According to Tong, Ohkajhu plans to scale up its business and grow further with the economy of scale. He said the company is investing in its new factory and the fifth farm to cope with its future growth.
“We are going to produce consumer products to be exported overseas,” Tong said.
Ohkajhu is set to launch its mobile application in the third quarter of 2023 which serves as a link between its customers and farmer groups.
“At present, Ohkajhu has more than 100,000 members. We have the idea of connecting customers and farmers through the app. For example, Farmer A has 5kg of morning glory to be delivered to Bangkok. Any customer who wants to buy morning glory may make their order and pick it up at any Ohkajhu branch. Now almost all Ohkajhu outlets already have organic produce for sale, including bananas, rice, and vegetables.”
Obligation towards fellow organic farmers
The Ohkajhu trio have been friends for over half of their lives and worked together in their business for a decade. Now they have the responsibility to manage a team of more than 1,000 people, as well as about 120 fellow organic farmers.
Jo said that these 120 organic farmers working with Ohkajhu are just a small fraction of the Thai population of 70 million. But for him, they together serve as a “small mouthpiece” for the country’s organic farming movement.
“If the public and private sectors, as well as large corporations, recognize the importance of organic farming, there will be an impact big enough to boost its popularity in Thailand,” he said.
Tong said that their company not only cares about its shareholders and all stakeholders, “we also stay true to our career”.
According to him, the three co-founders share the goal of getting the company listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand for its further growth, as well as making all the shareholders happy.
When asked if they will become less involved with the business after the company is listed on the stock market, Au said: “We have no such thought. We built this business ourselves and we still have a sense of ownership. Certainly, we won’t let it off our hands.”
According to him, what the co-founders will do is hire professional managers while they serve as directors involved in setting the company’s direction.
“Each of us has a lot of things to do to help [the company] grow further sustainably,” Au concluded.