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Robert and Brian Chua.

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KIYONOBU TSUBOI Sushi Ichi

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CHENG WILLIAM Din Tai Fung

Bring To The Table

Thanks to a handful of gutsy entrepreneurs, more foreign food concepts are opening up in Singapore. Rachel Loi meets the key players.
Dec 3, 2016 5:50 AM

EVEN if the concept of foreign talent is still a contentious subject for Singaporeans, there's always one thing they welcome whole-heartedly and want even more to enter our shores - foreign food.

Before the two integrated resorts started sprinkling Michelin stardust on the dining scene, everything from McDonald's to Portuguese egg tarts and bubble tea contributed to the education of the local palate. Eating may be our national pastime, but having the foresight to spot a foreign food concept and bring it into Singapore is a high-stakes sport for F&B entrepreneurs who can reap a fortune if they play their cards right.

Not every gamble has paid off. Top names like Guy Savoy and Kunio faded quietly into the night. Food fads come and go - who remembers Rotiboy? Wendy's came, went, came back and went again.

Still, nothing beats the sweet sound of cash tills ringing when a concept takes root and the queues start forming. Or even just the satisfaction of raising the culinary level a notch or two. But what does it take to build a winning concept? For the successful ones featured here, serendipity, luck and sheer back-breaking work are the key elements. Magic formula? Hardly. If anything, these entrepreneurs know there's no such thing as a free lunch.

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ROBERT & BRIAN CHUA Tim Ho Wan, Kam's Roast and Tsuta Ramen A familiar face was what it took for Mak Kwai Pui to hand over the Singapore rights to his phenomenally successful Tim Ho Wan dim sum shop to a pair of brothers who had never set foot in the F&B industry before. This was despite being courted by a line of suitors who wanted to ride on the popularity of his humble, Michelin-starred Hong Kong eatery that generated world-wide buzz and even longer queues for the signature bo lo buns and fried carrot cake.

That face belonged to Robert Chua, the Singapore-born TV producer who is a household name in Hong Kong. "I met (Chef Mak) before, and because of my shows, he knows who I am and that I have the same passion as he does." But while he says he was the one to make the initial connection and seal the deal, the success of Tim Ho Wan "was totally my brother's vision".

His brother Harry Chua (who declined to be interviewed) was previously in the real estate industry, running a brand managing company named Hersing Corporation. He took on Tim Ho Wan about three-and-a-half years ago and started an F&B arm called Hersing Culinary, and they have since expanded that business to 38 outlets in the region.

"In life, I believe a lot happens by chance," says Mr Chua. "My brother was in Hong Kong so I took him to lunch at Tim Ho Wan. He liked it very much and said, 'hey, why don't we bring it back to Singapore'.

Chef Mak took a risk by choosing them. "If we had failed, people would have laughed at him for not giving it to someone with experience. But instead it was a fantastic success, and it's all thanks to Harry. All the difficulties were on him. He trained the staff. He solved all the problems and made it work. I was just the one to secure the deal."

Just last month, he made his own independent foray into F&B as well, with a licensing deal with yet another famous Michelin-starred Hong Kong brand - Kam's Roast. It was started by Hardy Kam, a third-generation family member from another famous roast goose brand, Yung Kee, with whom Mr Chua had personal ties.

He hopes for the same success with Kam's Roast, but intends to take things at a slower pace. "Our next overseas outlet will probably be Bangkok. But that is not important for now; we want to do this well first. In Singapore we definitely want to open more outlets too but we'll let it come naturally."

Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle is 35-year-old Brian Chua, VP of corporate development at Hersing Corporation. He, too, recently spearheaded his own joint-venture project under the group, by bringing in Tsuta Ramen - "the world's first Michelin-starred ramen" from Tokyo.

"The story goes like this," explains Mr Brian Chua. "When we first heard the news that they won a Michelin star, immediately the Tim Ho Wan idea came to mind. Dim sum is everywhere in Hong Kong, and chef Ma is the first one to get a star. Everyone associates Japan with ramen. Imagine - 5000 eateries and this is the only one to win a star. So I messaged them through Facebook and went to Tokyo, queuing a total of eight hours to try the food. From there, we had a conversation, step by step, until we had a deal."

Of course, his father's track record with Tim Ho Wan helped seal the deal. But unlike Kam's, this is more of a joint venture, where the chef of Tsuta is a shareholder. But if you are thinking of doing something similar, the minimum total investment is "north of a million", he warns.

As for his uncle, Mr Chua is still keeping an out for other opportunities, but it's not just about making money. In fact, he fancies himself a bit of a talent scout not just for TV but for food. One chef he has his eye on is the 40-year-old chef of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Hong Kong that he has been taking all his friends to. "I see him like I see someone with talent on television. He lacks the opportunity but I'm hopeful he will get a star. I would like to support him."

So, as they say, stay tuned.

Kam's Roast
9 Scotts Road, Pacific Plaza, #01-04
6836 7788

Tsuta Ramen
9 Scotts Road, Pacific Plaza, #01-01
6734 4886

KIYONOBU TSUBOI Sushi Ichi

For 20 years, Kiyonobu Tsuboi was an IT guy, running his own company. That is, until he sold it five years ago for a life in F&B instead, all for the love of sushi.

"I really like sushi, so I started my own restaurant," says the soft-spoken 62-year-old of his now 12-year-old F&B business.

His leap of faith has paid off since, and he now runs four successful Sushi Ichi outlets - one in Tokyo, Singapore, Jakarta and Bangkok. The first overseas venture was the four-year-old outlet in Singapore, as part of a licensing deal with a Singapore-based F&B developer company PJ Partners.

"I thought Singapore is very safe, and had a good economy, so I wanted to bring the brand here first. It is the centre of Asia with a lot of high end customers, and it matched my target audience," says Mr Tsuboi.

He continues: "When our three-year contract expired, I took (the restaurant) back and moved to Singapore with my wife and kids. I wanted to keep a closer eye on the quality especially when I found out Michelin was coming to Singapore - I really wanted a star." Earlier this year, his Singapore restaurant received a Michelin star, while his Tokyo outlet also had one for two years (from 2011 to 2012).

Of course it was initially tough to do business in a foreign country - because of language barriers and unfamiliarity with rules and regulations - that's why Mr Tsuboi chose to have restaurant partners around to help. Unlike in Singapore, communication, obtaining ingredients, and hiring chefs were much easier in Japan, he says.

However, since the contract expired, he prefers to run his own show because the upside is that he can make independent choices without having to worry about differing viewpoints. He even manages two other Japanese eateries in Singapore, Dassai Bar at Wisma Atria and two-Michelin-starred Shoukouwa at One Fullerton.

In fact, Mr Tsuboi says he's become so comfortable and well-connected in Singapore that he has plans to bring in another business venture some time in April next year. "I have another brand in Ginza - a high-end tempura restaurant called Tenharu. I want to try out this concept in Singapore, and this time I'll do it on my own," he says.

Sushi Ichi
#01-04, Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel
320 Orchard Road
6235 5514

CHENG WILLIAM Din Tai Fung Do you remember the first time you sank your teeth into a juicy xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung? BreadTalk's CEO of Restaurant Division Cheng William sure does. For him, it was love at first bite. It was 14 years ago. He was an F&B manager on a trip to Taiwan with the company's founder and chairman George Quek, and they visited Din Tai Fung's flagship restaurant at Xinyi District. "He had spoken with me prior about a Taiwanese brand that sold a rather different type of dim sum, called xiao long bao, which had yet to be properly introduced in the Singapore market," says Mr Cheng.

He recalls: "I remember biting into the steamed pork dumpling, not quite knowing what to expect. It was the perfect pairing of delicious broth, tender meat, and a translucent skin. The experience was unforgettable. Mr Quek and I were convinced it was an experience we wanted to bring back to Singapore."

The discussions moved quickly from there. Din Tai Fung's owner Chi-Hwa Yang was already familiar with Singapore's F&B industry and was keen to expand his global footprint. "With BreadTalk's track record, we struck up a partnership at opened our first Din Tai Fung restaurant in Paragon Shopping Centre in 2003."

Today, the group operates 21 Din Tai Fung restaurants locally, owns the master franchise rights in Singapore and Thailand (where they have three outlets), and recently became part of a joint venture into the UK market with the first outlet opening in the third quarter of 2017.

Aside from Din Tai Fung, the group also runs RamenPlay - a joint venture with Japanese company Sanpou Co Ltd, which has six outlets in Singapore since it opened in 2009.

Mr Cheng says that although they also have their own original brands, Singapore's cosmopolitan culture and adventurous palate makes it easier for them to naturally introduce new overseas concepts as well.

Of course like with most foreign imports, consistency and quality is often a main concern among customers. In order to ensure this was maintained, Mr Cheng explains that the operational and culinary teams for both brands were flown to the respective countries for month-long training sessions during the first year of operations, and till today, they still hold "exchange programmes" with their Taiwan principal.

As for the food, Mr Cheng assures that instead of tweaking recipes to suit the local audience, they choose to develop their own new or seasonal dishes instead. One example he gives is Din Tai Fung's Chilli Crab Xiao Long Baos, which were first launched in 2007, and returns to the menu every July and August. "This way, we continue to engage local audiences without compromising on the brand's integrity and origins," he says.

For him, giving extra thought to all these elements are all "building blocks" towards success - based on Din Tai Fung Taiwan's brand philosophy, which "loosely translates to 'create more than just a day's worth of results'.

He notes: "Essentially what this means is that a brand is a long-term investment... As long as a brand consistently delivers on quality cuisine and service at reasonable prices, regardless whether it is local or foreign, they tend to enjoy customer loyalty, and subsequently, brand longevity."

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