Pandemic economy inspires cousins to start ‘side hustle’ delivering fresh durian to O.C. and beyond
In 2018, after graduating from Cal State Long Beach, Chris Meechukant and his older brother Andy took over Bangkok Taste restaurant in Santa Ana.
Their parents Tammy and Paul, first-generation Thai immigrants, started Bangkok Taste in 2001, and in the last couple years, the sons had worked hard to grow the family restaurant. But when the pandemic hit, they had to furlough most of their workers and limit their services to takeout.
Up in San Francisco, their cousin Tou Meechukant was a bartender, dreaming of creating his own signature products from Thailand to use while mixing cocktails. For the last three years, he had been developing unique liquor-strength syrups, including a lotus syrup, and in January, he debuted them at a food show.
It was popular enough that he had gotten preorders from six states and was about to deliver. But the shipment came in mid-March, just as bars shut down.
“It was bad timing,” said Tou. “So I had to pivot. I had all these connections with suppliers in Thailand. And with nightclubs and restaurants closed, I had to think about what I could provide to customers through direct sales. What can’t people get during the pandemic, because they can’t go out?”
Tou asked Chris to help him with his new import business, Atipat Trading Co. At first, Tou started selling Thai boat noodle meal kits, but soon he began to believe there was an untapped demand for durian in the U.S.
In 2019, Thailand became the sixth largest exporter of fruits, according to the National New Bureau of Thailand. Though durians are thought to originate in Borneo and Sumatra, Thailand recently overtook Malaysia as the biggest exporter of durian, with an estimated $817 million USD in value sold mostly to China and countries in Southeast Asia.
Chris was initially skeptical. He remembered going back to Thailand with his parents when he was a kid and trying durian for the first time at a farm.
“It was mushy, and it smelled really weird,” he said of the pulpy yellow pods inside the spiky outer shell. “But once you get past the smell and you eat it, it tastes sweet and I liked it.”
Chris compared durian to stinky tofu, the fermented Taiwanese night market snack that also inspires a passionate following.
He laughed as he referred to viral videos showing cats reacting to durian’s strong, unmistakable odor that scientists recently attributed to the biosynthesis of volatile sulfur compounds.
But in July, Chris posted on the Asian Hustle Network Facebook group, explaining that he had started “a small side hustle” delivering fresh durian to Orange County.
“The smell is mild compared to the ones you’d find in the market,” he wrote. “Why is this? Because it isn’t overly ripe and the fruits have never been frozen, therefore SUPER FRESH!”
He was immediately flooded with comments and orders.
“I didn’t believe it until I saw it,” he said of the demand.
Bonnie Sintuvat Lee of Buena Park ordered a box for her mother right away.
“Everyone from Thailand from my mom’s generation is completely obsessed with durian,” she said, explaining that her immigrant mother Mimi Sintuvat loves the type of durian grown in Thailand called monthong, which translates to “golden pillow.”
“But she’s from a generation where she doesn’t want to spend money, right? So she settles for the cheaper ones,” Bonnie said. “It may not be as good as she remembers, but she’ll settle for it.”
Durian is known for being more expensive than other fruits. Those who love it consider it a delicacy. Tou’s brand, called Uncle Tou’s, costs $35 for a box of two to three pods, depending on the net weight.
But in the U.S., if you buy durian from an Asian supermarket, often it’s frozen or thawed, so the texture is different, explain the cousins. And for an untrained eye, it can be gamble to pick a good one.
The pandemic had prevented the Sintuvat family from taking a trip back to Thailand this summer, so Bonnie wanted to bring Thailand to her mom. Mimi is the type that’s constantly taking care of — and worrying about — her kids and grandkids, Bonnie said.
“For me as her daughter, I just want to give her the best thing,” she said. “ Thirty-five dollars might be a lot to pay for a fruit, but it’s not a lot to pay for a gift for my mother to make her happy.”
Mimi likes the ones that are more yellow, ripe and sweet, said Bonnie.
Chris and Tou said many of their customers prefer the ones that are in the fleeting stage of durian where it’s not quite young but not quite ripe.
“That’s when the skin is a little dry and crispy, so you have a little crack and pop when you bite into it,” Chris said.
“It’s hard to come by, but that’s what we try to get for our customers,” Tou said.
It’s taken a lot of trial and error to map out the perfect timing to get their customers the freshest batches of fruit.
The durians are cracked at the farms, boxed up and shipped to San Francisco International Airport within 48 hours, after heavy negotiation with the farmers to only choose the best quality fruits that are available at the particular time in the season.
The Meechukants have learned that custom border patrol agricultural specialists only inspect incoming items a couple times a day, so if it comes in the late afternoon, it’s possible the package will sit there for too long for the gel ice packs to keep the fruit fresh.
Because of this, Tou and Chris are constantly at the airport in the early hours of morning, racing with the clock. When a shipment for Orange County comes in to San Francisco International Airport, Tou picks it up, replaces the old gel ice packs with new ones and immediately drives it over to the next airline so Chris can pick the shipment up from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana within a few hours.
And then Chris delivers them himself to those who have preordered in Orange County.
Since he started about a month ago, Chris has sold about 50 boxes a week, most often to customers who live in Little Saigon.
Tou also offers delivery across the nation, but he recommends customers pick up the cargo directly at the airport so they can control the timing.
So far, they’ve specialized in monthongs: from Monthong Chanthaburi (grown in east Thailand), Monthong Phu Kao Fai (grown in volcanic soil in Sri Saket in the northeast), Monthong Khiriwong (from the south) and Monthong Betong (from near the border of Thailand and Malaysia).
The connoisseurs take their durian really seriously, Tou said. They will pay in order to get the best quality, quickly, especially when they are craving it.
What Chris is often delivering is childhood memories, Bonnie said.
The Uncle Tou’s plastic boxes feature a cartoon rendition of Tou wearing his signature fedora and a durian on top of the hat.
“It’s so funny, I just ordered my mom another box of two,” she said. “She finished the first one in seconds. And she resisted and only ate about one third of the second piece so she could save the rest for the next day. But I know in the morning, when she wakes up, that’ll be the first thing she eats.”
Chris and Tou admit they aren’t as passionate about durian as their customers.
Calling himself a “bad Thai,” Tou said that the first time he transported 27 boxes of durian in his car, he had to pull over and roll down the window because he felt nauseated from the smell.
But they all understand its significance in their culture.
“The gateway to liking durian is eating durian chips,” Bonnie said. “My mom normally comes back from Thailand with durian chips. They’re 10 times better than kettle chips, they’re made with durian and taste like potato chips but more buttery.”
Similarly, while a large bag of potato chips might usually go for a few dollars, an equivalent-sized bag of durian chips could also cost the equivalent of $35.
“The difference between durian and durian chips is that there’s no smell,” she said. “So you just taste the flavor. We’ll go over to my mom’s house and slowly eat it. Try not to eat all of it at once.”
So Bonnie appreciates the Meechukants’ side hustle.
“This is a new generation that’s trying to think of different ways to bring money in [during COVID],” she said. “And they decided to sell durian because it makes people like my mom happy.”
Orange County customers can order durian directly from Chris Meechukant by sending him a direct message on his Facebook page. Those outside of O.C. can message Tou Meechukant on Atipat USA’s Facebook or Instagram pages.
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