Skip to main content

Importing Flavour


How sad would you be if your pad Thai came without a side of coconut rice, or the waiter informed you the restaurant had run out of peanut sauce for your spring rolls? You rarely stop to think that those unique ingredients of your Asian dish must pass through numerous hands before they can arrive assembled and steaming in front of you.

The whole process of importing starts where the ingredients are produced—one of the Asian nations around the Pacific Rim. The goods are loaded into a container, which is then piled on a freighter and sent on its approximately 20-day oceanic crossing. When the container hits our shores, the fun begins. Actually, the word “stressed” better captures the atmosphere surrounding the arrival of the goods.

Inside Thai United

Thai United Food Trading Ltd. is a busy place to behold. Upon entering the approximately 13,000 square-foot warehouse, you’re greeted by two huge freezers gaping wide with their ragged plastic strips dangling freely. It’s easy to pick up on the mood that emanates from the walls around you— a strained heaviness, a feeling of being under-the-gun. This is one of those businesses that never stop because it feeds an insatiable appetite: the grocery stores and restaurants of the Lower Mainland.

One of Thai United’s longstanding customers is T&T Supermarket, the largest Asian supermarket chain in Canada. And if you are sitting down to dinner at one of the countless Asian restaurants in Vancouver, there’s a good chance Thai United supplied at least one of the ingredients.

Every which way you look in the warehouse you are surrounded by loaded skids ready to be delivered or ones that recently arrived in shipping containers at Port Metro Vancouver or Deltaport. On these skids you will find such fare as coconut milk, palm sugar, rice and 5-Star, an emerging energy drink that is beginning to make a name for itself among the popular brands.

A Family Business

The busiest men in the place are brothers Tommy (Director) and Bobby Keomany (Marketing Executive). While their titles may sound like they work in primarily executive or managerial roles, the Keomanys wear many hats and regularly get their hands dirty in the warehouse. Thai United is a family-run business and if you look a little closer, you’ll see that the smiling petite Asian lady driving the forklift is actually Tommy and Bobby’s mother. This is the nature of the food importing business.

Containers arrive almost every day. “Some days there will be only one, others none, and yet other days there could be three or four containers,” explains Tommy about how his days unfold. There is no usual workday at Thai United, as every day brings new challenges to overcome, such as competition, the fluctuating Canadian dollar, and the constant need to seek out new accounts and establish positive relationships with new customers while maintaining good relations with the existing accounts.

Attention To Detail

Clipboard in hand, Bobby Keomany inspects everything that comes through Thai United’s bay doors, which could be one of 1,000 different SKUs (stock keeping units). Containers arrive, delivered by independent trucking companies, and are unloaded and stored in as organized a place as possible— a challenge when every square foot is already filled from floor to ceiling with loaded skids.

Accuracy is so important, Tommy Keomany stresses,“We have to make sure everything is 100 percent correct.” If the contents of the container are not correct, or items are missing, accounts can be lost because you cannot follow through on a promise.

If you worried about the ingredients of your Asian-style meal today, believe that many others have spent numerous anxious hours over it as well. For the Keomany family, constant care is what makes them successful, even if it does often exhaust them. They know that if they keep restaurants and stores well supplied and looked after, Thai United Food Trading Ltd. will continue to prosper. And most importantly, you will never miss out on your side of coconut rice.

2009 Pacific Rim Cover. "Cosmetic Acupuncture" Cover story. Image of woman's face.

You finished: Importing Flavour

Issue 2009

New Ways of Seeing

Click Here for more stories