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Foreign Flavours, Local Backers
HOW MANY TIMES have you been to Tsui Wah in Hong Kong and devoured its famous pork chop bun, thinking: "I wish we could have this in Singapore"? Anyone who's eaten something overseas and felt the same way echoes the thoughts of local food and beverage (F&B) operators, who are bringing in foreign food brands instead of creating new ones.
"Developing our own concepts takes time and effort and the initial investment might outweigh the franchise fees. Established overseas franchises with a proven track record increases the success rate of the outlets here," says Sam Lim, chairman of No Signboard Holdings, which operates the No Signboard chain of restaurants. It will be bringing popular Chinese hot pot chain Little Sheep into Singapore.
For Mr Lim, it's about adding diversity to the company's portfolio, plus "setting up a different concept also avoids cannibalisation of our existing seafood restaurant business".
"Rather than reinventing the wheel, bringing in an established concept lets us skip the extensive R&D (research and development) work and has the added advantage of instant branding," explains Luke Pang, group franchise manager of Les Amis Group, which brought in the Hong Kong institution Mui Kee, famous for its Cantonese-styled congee.
"To us, it is all about launching a concept that serves good food, regardless of the cuisine and price point. We are always on the lookout for interesting concepts to introduce to consumers," says Mr Pang. "Mui Kee Congee is a good example. The moment our chairman, Desmond Lim, tasted the congee in Hong Kong, he knew that this was something he wanted to bring into Singapore. The taste and texture is unlike anything he has tried in Singapore before, and he felt such quality would be welcomed here."
As for Tsui Wah, Jumbo Group "works hard to move in tandem with emerging trends in the F&B scene, by actively exploring opportunities to grow our portfolio of brands," says its spokesman. "Tsui Wah is an example of how we aim to capitalise on the popularity and growth potential of the Hong Kong-style 'Cha Chaan Teng' market in Singapore." The group operates six different restaurant brands locally, including Jumbo Seafood and Chui Huay Lim Teochew Cuisine. Tsui Wah in Singapore is a franchise by Vista F&B Services Pte Ltd, a joint venture between Tsui Wah Holdings Ltd and Jumbo Group Ltd.
Jumbo's spokesperson adds that while the menu in Hong Kong is more extensive, they are "progressively introducing dishes to ensure that the food quality is maintained" as this is the first Tsui Wah outlet in Singapore. On the other hand, the Les Amis Group, which had Mui Kee debut as a six-month-long long pop-up at Casa Verde at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, is ready to dive in.
"Bringing in a foreign concept will always require some localisation for the market to receive it warmly," Mr Pang admits. "Though the traditional flavours and heritage of Mui Kee has been brought to Singapore as a concept, there was a need for the menu to be localised to suit the Singapore market. A pure porridge concept would not be able to offer the variety that the market usually prefers."
With that in mind, Mui Kee in Singapore has expanded its congee menu, adding frog legs, premium threadfin, and also Alaskan crab leg to its list of ingredients.
Still, in a market filled with imports from Tim Ho Wan dim sum to Taiwanese sponge cakes, a famous franchise is no guarantee of success, although all three establishments believe it all boils down to taste, price and the overall customer experience.
"Competition is definitely on the climb, given Singapore's ever-increasing rental rates and labour costs. Besides providing good food, creativity, experience, and innovation will be what drive the future F&B scene," says Mr Pang.
"While a number of Hong Kong brands have arrived on our shores, the Tsui Wah brand is highly regarded and we believe that there is strong demand from consumers with different palates," the Jumbo Group spokesperson adds.
Both Mui Kee and Tsui Wah have enjoyed good response since their opening. There have been snaking queues at Tsui Wah Clarke Quay and waiting time is at least 30 minutes at peak hours during peak periods, while over at Mui Kee, a 30- to 45-minute wait is common too.
MUI KEE CONGEE
Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road, #01-12. Singapore 228208. Tel: 67372422
This 50-seater restaurant, decidedly more upmarket than its original stall in Hong Kong, takes over the space that was previously Caveau Bar at Shaw Centre, and provides congee fans a go-to place for a taste of Cantonese-style fare in comfort.
The congee is prepared from scratch, following a five-hour-long process and from a recipe that has been handed down over three generations. Raw rice grains are first mixed with mashed century eggs, then stock made from pork bones and fish is added, and the mixture is cooked for five hours with the chef stirring the pot every 5-10 minutes. The painstakingly prepared congee is smooth, aromatic and deeply comforting.
Each order of congee is prepared a la minute in a handmade copper pot, with a variety of ingredients. The signature wok hei-imbued fish belly congee, and delicately sweet Alaskan crab leg, a local creation, is recommended. The local menu also offers cheong fun (try the sakura shrimp and the shredded duck with preserved vegetable versions), claypot dishes such as braised beef brisket and frog legs with ginger and spring onion, noodles and shaved ice dessert.
Following the franchise agreement between Little Sheep Hong Kong Holdings and No Signboard Holdings, which manages the No Signboard Seafood brand of restaurants, Chinese hot pot chain Little Sheep (or Xiao Fei Yang) will be opening in Singapore.
Little Sheep was founded in 1999 in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China, and has more than 280 restaurants in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, Japan and Canada.
The popular hot pot restaurant chain is known for its delicious soup base made from 36 spices (there is the original herbal soup, a fiery spicy version, or a half-and-half option) and Mongolian lamb delicacies, especially its signature premium sliced lamb platters.
No Signboard Holdings has shared that details of the local branch's opening will be announced at a later date.
TSUI WAH CLARKE QUAY
3A River Valley Road, Clarke Quay, #01-03, Singapore 179020. Tel: 6250 9270
This is Tsui Wah's first outpost in South-east Asia and the restaurant has over 140 indoor and al fresco seats. Founded in Hong Kong in 1967, Tsui Wah now has 60 outlets in Hong Kong, Macau, China, and Singapore.
Diners can enjoy signature favourites from the original Tsui Wah menu in Hong Kong such as freshly toasted crispy bun with condensed milk, the Tsui Wah signature pork chop bun, milk tea and melt-in-your-mouth tender Kagoshima-style pork cartilage tossed with instant noodles.
Reflecting a common practice in "Cha Chaan Teng" restaurants, diners are encouraged to share tables in the event that the restaurant is full, which, at the moment, is the case most of the time.