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DEPENDING on how you see it, a long queue outside a restaurant can mean many things. For the hungry diner, it would be a lengthy wait before tucking into a meal. But to Samuel Yik, founder of restaurant chain Dian Xiao Er, it means he is on to something good, especially when the said restaurant is new to a country.
In August, Y.E.S F&B Group, which operates under the brand name Dian Xiao Er, opened its first overseas outlet in Shanghai's Changning district, in Changning Raffles City. Despite the mall being not yet connected to a metro station nor fully occupied, the restaurant has been doing a roaring business, with eager diners queueing up to 30 minutes before the restaurant opens. About 70 per cent of the diners are locals, and the rest are a mix of foreigners including Singaporeans and Malaysians.
Mr Yik, 48, initially thought the hype over Dian Xiao Er would last only the first month, but it is still just as popular three months later.
"I expected restaurant operations to take a year to settle, but we managed to do that in just three months," he beams with pride.
Mr Yik started Dian Xiao Er 15 years ago, when he saw a gap in the Chinese casual dining market. There are now 12 outlets in Singapore, and Mr Yik says the market can take another three more. Naturally, he has set his sights beyond our shores.
Since he serves Chinese food, it has always been his ambition to open in China, in particular, the top tier cities of Beijing or Shanghai.
In the end, after several study trips, he picked Shanghai. "It is a more commercial city, and a big melting pot," he says. Compared to the northern Chinese, who are more fond of dumplings, he feels the southern Chinese would be more open to less familiar dishes.
"Getting the Shanghainese to accept a new type of food is easier compared to someone from Beijing," he says. He admits that the Shanghainese have not yet taken to Dian Xiao Er's signature herbal ducks, as much as he would like them to, but he isn't too worried.
"The goal is to introduce Singapore food to them," he says. While the recipes have not been tweaked much to suit the Shanghainese palate, he has introduced new dishes that are only available in Shanghai. One of them is curry vegetables. Mr Yik had wanted to serve curry fish head, but since he couldn't get his hands on fresh ones, he decided to change it to curry vegetables.
"The Shanghainese love it," he says. "They remark that the Singapore dishes at Dian Xiao Er are more authentic compared to other restaurants."
Opening in a new country came with its set of challenges, such as meeting the strict environmental regulations. "The regulations there are even more strict than in Singapore. If we did not meet the requirements, we would not be able to get our licence to open the restaurant," says Mr Yik. One example is how it is not enough for the restaurant to have an exhaust system, but it had to come with a filter too.
Another challenge was dealing with food costs. "It is difficult finding the right ingredients in a new city," he says. Food costs for the first month of opening were high, but since then Mr Yik has found trustworthy suppliers who fit his budget.
He says that the diners in Shanghai are also more demanding, compared to those in Singapore. "The Shanghainese want value for money, they want nicely plated dishes, and a comfortable environment to dine in," he says.
Asked which other Chinese cities he would like to open in, he rattles off Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Suzhou. But first, he hopes to open more in Shanghai. "It is a big city with a population of about 25 million people," he says. That is a lot of hungry mouths to feed.
He plans to open 12 more outlets in Shanghai, but says six is a more achievable number in the next three years.
He is open to working with franchise owners, or to go into joint ventures for restaurants outside China. New York, London and Tokyo are some possible cities to open in. He says he has had enquiries, but nothing firmed up yet.
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Is there a dream location? "I would rather not say. There tends to be talk when a dream is not realised," says Mr Yik.
He is, however, more confident when sharing why he feels Dian Xiao Er has been so successful. "The food is of good quality and taste," he says. "What we serve is nutritious and it has the familiar taste of home cooked food."
He adds that with a proper operations system in place, service is quick and yet attentive. Plus, opening in popular malls means it is never difficult for a customer to find an outlet.
While the herbal roasted duck that comes with angelica herbs or ten wonder herbs is its signature dish, the constant addition of new dishes means diners don't get bored of the food.
There are regular showdowns among the chefs to see who comes up with a new dish. The best ones make it to the menu.
Food quality is always consistent, since the cooking is done on site. Mr Yik, a former accountant, doesn't believe in having a central kitchen, saying that it incurs additional costs and manpower.
He does, however, believe in investing in high tech German-made ovens, where the ducks are roasted for 45 minutes. The exact time and temperature control using the S$30,000 ovens mean that each duck comes out moist with crispy skin. Each oven can roast 12 ducks at a time, and every outlet has two ovens. "Everything is precise and well-controlled with a single push of a button, and I don't need to have any chefs watching the ducks," he says.
He decided on making herbal roasted duck his signature dish when he saw that chicken dishes are easily available but less so for ducks. The Malaysia-born Singaporean convinced a family friend who runs a popular herbal roast duck shop in Johor Baru to sell him the recipe.
Unlike some other Chinese restaurants that prefer using Irish ducks, Dian Xiao Er's ducks come from Malaysia. "They are less fatty, but of a certain size and age," says Mr Yik.
He dines at Dian Xiao Er at least twice a week, and says he doesn't get sick of the food. His favourite dish used to be the crispy lotus root coated with salted egg sauce. "We have been serving salted egg sauce even before it became popular," he says. These days, he cuts back on this dish, because of health reasons. He now prefers the homemade wheatgrass tofu with seafood, and of course, the herbal roasted ducks.
He plans to introduce a new food concept in Singapore, but says he is not yet ready to reveal details.
But it is clear he is extremely proud that he has managed to break into the Chinese market. "Many people have advised me to be cautious and to not pursue the idea," he says.
He is greatly encouraged by the positive feedback from the Chinese. "I see them come with their colleagues first, and then they bring their family and friends, who bring more friends. It is good that we have gained their acceptance," he says.