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STEP into Central Hong Kong Café's latest outlet at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) and the regular might be struck by how different the cha chaan teng (Cantonese for tea restaurant) looks. Compared to the chain's four other retro-looking outlets around Singapore, the RWS joint - located right beside the casino entrance and among the first things tourists see after the bus bay - offers a modern take on the traditional comfort-food teahouse concept.
Sleek dark brown and black colours abound, instead of faded green. Bird cages that would not be out of place in tea restaurants decades ago are still hanging from the ceiling. But instead of 1970s celebrity posters adorning the walls, a flat-screen TV showcases a Hong Kong drama serial. "In retail, you have to refresh yourself all the time," says Jun Low, the food and beverage (F&B) entrepreneur behind the holding company JC Global Concepts.
At a time when businesses around Singapore are struggling due to the slow economy and the difficulty of getting foreign labour, the Central Hong Kong Café chain is expanding instead of closing locations down. The RWS outlet, for example, is bustling at lunch-time.
The secret, apart from innovating around food concepts and décor, is ensuring prices are affordable and costs are strictly contained, Ms Low says. A filling meal of one of the top 10 legendary Hong Kong dishes displayed on the walls, such as wanton mee, chicken chop with rice or curry beef brisket rice, can cost around S$8-12. Favourite drinks like milk tea or ginger coke cost a few dollars.
To do well in a tough hiring environment, costs are efficiently managed, Ms Low says. "Sometimes when you order from suppliers, raw materials may cost you S$15 a kg if they deliver to you. But if I go and buy myself, it might only cost S$10 a kg. So there are certain products that my executive chef buys himself. In all areas we try to see if there are ways to have some savings."
Operating hours are increased to maximise revenue. Meanwhile, manpower savings can be achieved by making do with fewer, more efficient workers and paying more. "You make the current workers happier as they get extra, but on the whole, you still save," she says.
Another reason why the chain has been surviving since it was introduced in 2004 is the nature of the food served up. "We are doing Chinese food in places where the majority of consumers are Chinese. Our food is comfort food, like a daily staple. If your price point is right, if you maintain your quality, and you keep introducing new products, these kinds of restaurants can be sustained perpetually," Ms Low says.
JC Global Concept's two other restaurants in Singapore are also doing well. For example, Chinese dim sum restaurant Hei She Hui, or Black Society, in Vivocity managed to surprise Ms Low's expectations, notching a 20 per cent year-on-year revenue increase over the 2016 Chinese New Year season.
Yu Cuisine in Marina Bay Sands (MBS), which serves modern Chinese seafood like Hong Kong Aberdeen chilli crab and Singapore's famous chilli crab variations, also recorded a 16 per cent year-on-year revenue increase over the same 15-day period. "For Black Society, we saw a lot more early corporate lunches. For MBS, tourists from China are still coming, though not as many as previous years," Ms Low says.
However, one major bugbear preventing expansion remains the foreign manpower curbs and the lack of Singaporeans to do F&B service jobs, along with high rentals. Regulations to shrink quotas and increase foreign worker levies have weighed heavily on F&B operators, she says.
She managed to open a new Central Hong Kong café outlet at RWS in January only because three factors were aligned: Location, rental costs, and manpower availability. Six Singaporeans and four Malaysians work at the RWS outlet, recruited through advertisements and word of mouth. The outlet's prized location next to the casino and bus interchange, combined with the mass market profile of RWS patrons, also helped.
The human touch
Although the owner of a business that brings in some S$20 million in revenue a year, Ms Low remains a hands-on boss, equally at ease entering orders and clearing dishes as well as strategising her next business venture. "Service requires the human touch. It's not something you can automate using robots," she says.
Ms Low would know. She was a former stewardess with national carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA), flying as a graceful sarong kebaya-clad "Singapore Girl" in what she said was a dream job in the 1980s. In the 1990s, she entered the stockbroking industry as an analyst and then an institutional stockbroker, catching the Singapore bull market by its horns.
And in 2002, she began her entrepreneurial career, setting up a boutique bakery called BreadStory in the Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur to sell designer breads. BreadStory is still thriving in Malaysia and brings in S$6 million out of the S$20 million that JC Global Concepts makes.
In 2004, the first Central Hong Kong Café outlet was opened after Ms Low noticed an opportunity to bring the concept to Singapore. In 2006, a novel idea around restaurant décor resulted in the Black Society's triad-themed black décor, attracting youth as well as older folk to the dim sum restaurant.
Ms Low says she is still searching for her next venture. "Once you're in this industry, it becomes quite automatic for you to toy with new concepts, it's difficult for you to call it a day," she says. "For F&B, if you don't do the high-end market and if you have a nice concept, there will always be potential."