From Acton train mechanic to YouTube star and coffee garden entrepreneur in less than twelve months, Richie knows how to make it work.
What were you thinking? I had to ask. Richie, a charming and resourceful Brit, smiles. As half of the Richie & Maybelle YouTube channel, smiles are something one sees a lot in the company of the eponymous couple. Photogenic and with an easy wit, it is no surprise to find they are rising online stars on the island of Phuket, Thailand.
But it takes more than a smile. How have Richie and Maybelle succeeded in times when all others have folded like an origami boat in a tropical squall? What could possibly have lead a hard-working train mechanic and fitness enthusiast to move from Acton, London to Phuket, Thailand in the grip of the worst pandemic in a century?
When did you meet Maybelle?
"We met in March 2018. Get the date in, it's important." Richie laughs, "I almost forgot!"
"We arranged to meet on a beach which turned out to be quite a ride from where I was staying on Koh Phi Phi. A boat ride, which was expensive! I wasn't sure if I should go but then thought, what the hell."
He was dropped by boat that evening on a remote beach where only a couple of guys and a ladyboy were in view. "I thought it might not turn out to be the evening I was hoping for," says Richie with a smile. But then Maybelle arrived.
Over the next year their long distance relationship developed with Richie visiting when he could. He decided to move to Thailand but first he needed money. He cut costs at home, and started to grind away to a target of £80,000, to finish with a three month contract job working on a railway on the German-Polish border. During the winter. Unlike many, he lasted the length of the contract to take home a decent wad.
But in Europe in 2020 the COVID pandemic was developing fast across Italy and then Spain. Regions and then countries were locking down. Richie hadn't quite reached his financial target but with the sale of a small property in Wales he was close. One weekend in March 2020 the time to make a decision had arrived. Stay in Britain and risk getting stuck, or fly to Thailand.
"I was going to get a visa but then I thought everything was closing. I made up my mind on Monday and flew to Thailand on Wednesday."
Moving to Phuket had always been the aim. And now the hotel on Koh Phi-Phi where Maybelle worked started to ask for voluntary redundancies as the financial effect of the pandemic ravaged bookings.
"Maybelle joined me in Phuket shortly after I got here." They married on 14 November 2020.
But what to do for work?
The couple had visited an elaborate coffee garden near Khorat, Isaan. With full size artificial cherry trees and landscaping that made it ideal for the Instagram generation, the coffee garden was busy even as the Thai economy tanked.
"I thought we could do something similar, though on a much smaller scale."
Before setting off for Thailand Richie had started to put up some videos on YouTube. The stats said it all. "I was doing fitness videos. A "My Fitness Journey" sort of thing with press-ups, eating tips, and runs. There wasn't much interest. Then I put a random video of us going shopping on Phuket and the hits shot up."
The die was cast. Watching the YouTube stats as he put up a few more videos, Richie knew his channel needed to change.
"People want lifestyle and travel videos and things they can relate to." The inspiration of an idyllic life in Thailand with a beautiful woman combined with how to build a business in real-time is a winning formula.
How did you decide where to have the coffee shop?
"Quite by accident I was driving past this site and thought, that's interesting. I stopped my bike to take a look and an old lady came over and said the land was for rent. Then she said it would make an ideal coffee shop! I called Maybelle."
The deal was done, and Maybelle's Coffee Garden began to take shape. How long did it take?
"You wouldn't believe how fast these Thai guys did the garden. There was a big ditch here. They cleared it and leveled it in a few days. The whole job, including fitting out the kitchen, paint, the lean-to roof, and the front area was completed in about one month."
What about running it? It's not an obvious fit for a train mechanic from London.
"I've never run a coffee shop before so I was learning new skills all the time. That is what's great about YouTube. You need to learn something, there's a video about it. So I learned loads of new skills online."
"The coffee machine company gave Maybelle training. How to make cappuccinos, expressos, that sort of thing. To begin, we did everything ourselves. But we soon realised we know nothing about how to run a coffee shop. Once we had customers coming in, we hired a barista. And now we have a chef who is great. Cooking for loads of people is difficult!"
At the same time Richie and Maybelle were building up their YouTube channel with twice weekly videos about developing the coffee garden, and their lifestyle in Phuket.
What's your production schedule? How do you manage it?
"I try to make two videos per week. We've been busy so we've been a bit slow recently. It's rainy season. So the weather hasn't helped. Sometimes I'll go out and it starts to rain or it's too dark.
What is important is to post the video at the right time. For example, looking at the stats we know that Sunday evening is the most popular time for our channel. So every Sunday afternoon I can't socialise or chat to customers as I would like. I'll edit the video in the afternoon ready to post that evening."
From watching Richie and Maybelle, it is obvious a lot of hard work goes into their success. With food on the menu, there is daily shopping for fresh produce and all of the chores of running a coffee shop and restaurant. Add to that, for YouTube there is a constant need to produce videos.
"For YouTube, I treat it like a business, not a hobby. I enjoy it but it is a business."
The discipline of work, and structuring that work, is something Richie picked up from nearly fifteen years on the railways. Having a schedule and the right motivation is as much an essential ingredient as good coffee and a beautiful location.
"On Saturday, we had international customers from New York, USA, from Britain, from Israel, and from some other countries. One family said they had been watching our videos for months during lockdown. It was what made them want to come to Phuket. That sort of thing makes me very happy."
Tell me about the process of making the videos. How did you go about filming?
"I started with a Sony camera and a laptop. It took forever to make the vids. Watching the other YouTubers like 'CB Media' and 'Retired Working for You' I noticed they were using the iPhone 12 Max. So we got one. The quality is amazing. It has some sort of stabilisation in the camera sensor. And editing is way faster than the laptop. I do all the video editing on the phone now. It's just pinch and place."
"For sound we use Saramonic wireless mics which are great. Sound is the only thing I do on the laptop. I import the files onto the laptop to sync it with the video. Do the levels, set the rumble filter, and upload to YouTube."
For those that need to know, the mics are Saramonic Pro B's.
With the advent of the Phuket Sandbox and a trickle of international tourists arriving on the island there are some interesting metrics as a small proportion of those guests come to visit Richie & Maybelle's Coffee Garden. It is easy to imagine that as tourism grows so will the number of customers. Nonetheless, there is nothing certain particularly in the emerging post-pandemic economy.
"In the future, we want to build the business. We are not trying to do things too fast. Perhaps we will need some more seats if we get more customers. Already some days are getting busy. Later there might be an opportunity to expand the coffee garden. Perhaps we can use the property across the road, or perhaps we will add some guesthouses. We'll see."
Richie has a very clear focus on the needs of the business. Their YouTube channel brings in customers but he knows that the coffee garden must be a high quality experience or those customers will move elsewhere.
What advice would you give someone starting out on YouTube?
"Doing something inspires people. And it creates good content. So I would say take the leap. Commit to the idea. Then make it work."
Richie knows that hard work and a disciplined approach should pay off. But there is another, vital ingredient to the Richie and Maybelle partnership. Perhaps the final word should go to Maybelle who I chatted with the first time I arrived at Maybelle's Coffee Garden.
"We are not making a big profit and takings change every day. But I think it will be more successful as the COVID situation improves."
Maybelle smiles. There's no question it is the smile that would inspire a man to leave his own country, travel ten thousand kilometers, and set up a home on a tropical island.
Thank you Richie! Thank you Maybelle!
Maybelle's Coffee Garden is at House Soi Plukjae, Karon, Mueang Phuket District, Phuket 83100, Thailand.
The Richie & Maybelle YouTube Channel.
Richie was interviewed by James Patrick for Lightspell.pro.