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Han Keen Juan
IS THERE ANYONE in Singapore more avuncular than Old Chang Kee's founder Han Keen Juan?
He likes to peer closely into your face through his glasses, answers questions with friendly anecdotal advice, pats your hand repeatedly when he's emphasising a point, and puts his arm around your shoulder when you ask to take a wefie.
If Old Chang Kee is Singapore's best known fast food brand, then Mr Han must be the country's Colonel Sanders - genial, reassuring and always ready to tell a story.
Of course, this may just be his media persona. One has to be very tough-minded and hard-nosed to survive the fickle F&B landscape. And there are indeed, along with the benevolent Singlish humour, signs of stern determination.
But with his famous curry puffs now entrenched in our palates, he can afford to - as he himself admits - take things a little easier. He leaves his nephew and company CEO William Lim to oversee the day-to-day operations of their over 100 outlets in five countries.
These include Old Chang Kee's first store to open in London this June, headed by Old Chang Kee UK director Sandra Leong, a Singaporean living in the UK for seven years.
Mr Han says London is the first city in what will be the brand's broad and gradual expansion into Europe - though he is tight-lipped about which other cities he's looking at. Should it succeed, comparisons to Colonel Sanders would only become more apropos.
When you bought over the small stall from the original owner Chang Chuan Boon in 1986, did you think your curry puff business would one day become this multi-million-dollar empire? (Revenue for the financial year, April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018, is S$85.5 million, with a net profit of S$4.035 million.)
I have always been a positive man. When I took on the business, I told myself, "Die-die I must make it." I told myself I'm driving this car and someone has taken out the reverse gear - I cannot go back to what I was before. I think a lot of people go into business and get out fast when things start to fail. I see it happening a lot here, captains jumping out first when the ship starts to sink. That's very bad. If this was Korea, those "captains" would be hanged.
What have been your most important mistakes?
You can call them "mistake" or just parts of a learning curve. Some of the things we've done have not been successful. Ten years ago, we failed when we tried to go into China. But when people ask me, will I try China again, I say, of course! Circumstances are changing. In those days, we had to advertise our curry puffs, publishing ads in newspapers and making posters. Today it's easier. We go onto the Internet and put ads on social media. There are many things we can do with technology.
Some of your previous overseas expansions into countries such as Japan, New Zealand, Myanmar and South Africa, didn't succeed. Why are you optimistic about London?
We want to open in London. London is the centre of Europe; if we can make it in London, we can spread our wings in the region. Just like in South-east Asia, people come to Singapore first, and if the business works, they expand elsewhere. London is cosmopolitan and accepting of new things. If they talk about us in London, they'll talk about us in Europe.
What about the review in The Observer, calling it "dense, stodgy, turmeric-yellow pasties with a filling of weird over-sweetened generic chicken curry mush"?
We respect everyone's opinions. We recognise that food is subjective to everyone.
You've entrusted the UK business to a young entrepreneur by the name of Sandra Leong. What do you see in her that makes you believe in her?
She has passion and drive, and she wants to be like me. She is 37 - which was about my age when I bought over the business in 1986. I've also known her father for many years. He acted as my business mentor when I was starting out. He is very nice to me. In the corporate and business world, you have to make good rapport with people. You have to learn to talk to the CEO as well as the gangster. You must learn to be a good middleman. Sandra is young so she has things to learn. And we do give her advice.
If the first outlet at Covent Garden succeeds, how many more do you hope to open in London? How many outlets in London will determine further expansion, hopefully into other European cities?
Don't use the word "hope" - expansion is a must! This reminds me of when I was in the corporate world and someone says: "I'll try to sell 20 machines this month." And the boss goes: "No, no, 20 means 20. No "I try to sell" one. You must sell." We will develop our business in London first. I think we should have at least five outlets in London before we spread out. When you have formed a strong logistics chain, then you can cross the border into another city.
In conjunction with National Day, you're selling chilli crab curry puffs with real crab meat. Earlier this year, you had a hit with your nasi lemak curry puffs. Both are seasonal flavours and won't stay on the menu although in the past, you have converted certain seasonal flavours, such as the chicken mushroom one, into permanent items. How do you determine what new flavours to bring and which get to stay on the menu? I'm asking because, well, I'm a fan of the chilli crab.
Our R&D team and marketing team spot an opportunity and make projections. They will say, if we do this or that, our revenue will go up 20 per cent. So ok lah, we do it. This is business, that's all, no hard feelings. For our seasonal flavours like the chilli crab, we don't look at profit per se; we try to make something that's just good value for our customers. We don't want customers to look at our menu and say, everyday same-same leh, not progressive leh. So we give variety.
When people say to you, deep-fried snacks are so unhealthy, what do you say to them?
I say, you don't have char kway teow every day, right? You also don't have to eat curry puff every day, right? Our curry puff skin is not oily - not like your youtiao! You can taste the youtiao oil from the first bite! We use technology to create much less oily curry puffs. We use healthier oil endorsed by the Health Promotion Board, and the oil is changed regularly. Our curry puffs are healthier than the curry puffs out there!