A taste of Hong Kong
A passion for the business and focus on quality have seen ‘cha chaan teng’ chain Tsui Wah blaze a trail despite ‘earthshaking’ changes in the sector, says helmsman Lee Yuen-hong. Sophie He reports.
The catering industry in Hong Kong is facing more challenges now than ever before, but youngsters with real passion for the industry can still accomplish great things, said Lee Yuen-hong, chairman of Tsui Wah Holdings Ltd, which operates the eponymous and hugely popular Hong Kong-style “cha chaan teng” chain.
Starting out as a small “ice cafe” in Mong Kok in 1967, Tsui Wah now boasts more than 50 restaurants in Hong Kong, two in Macao and about 20 on the Chinese mainland, Lee told China Daily.
Lee said he joined the catering industry as a delivery boy for a local restaurant in 1966, when he was still a teenager. He slowly worked his way up to cook, chief cook and chef while working at a number of restaurants from 1973 to 1989.
In 1989, Lee took over Tsui Wah’s business by acquiring the San Po Kong Tsui Wah restaurant, according to the company’s annual report.
Lee said that the transformation of Hong Kong’s food and beverage sector during the past few decades has been “earthshaking”.
“When I joined the industry, there were barely any ‘cha chaan teng’ in the city, there were only some ‘ ice cafes’ to serve the grassroots,” he recalled.
The ‘cha chaan teng’ concept appeared during the 1970’s. Today, Hong Kong has thousands of these eateries and they account for about a third of the city’s catering industry, said Lee.
“I believe that the ‘cha chaan teng’ is deeply rooted in Hong Kong culture and it has a significant influence on society,” he said, explaining that the ‘cha chaan teng’ is such a comfortable place for Hong Kong people, it does not matter whether you are rich or not, you can enjoy a meal or high tea at such a restaurant.
“This is why the industry is booming,” he asserted.
Tsui Wah expanded its business to the mainland by opening a ‘ cha chaan teng’ in Shanghai in 2009.
Lee said that before entering the mainland market, the company observed the industry on the mainland for years, as it believed that Tsui Wah should not just copy what they had been doing in Hong Kong as they sought to draw mainland diners.
“We have to adapt to local culture and comply with the local system,” Lee said.
The first restaurant turned out to be a huge success — people in Shanghai welcomed the restaurant as a very authentic Hong Kong ‘cha chaan teng’ and the food Tsui Wah served as authentic Hong Kong fare, said Lee.
“Before we opened the restaurant in Shanghai, I was concerned as I didn’t know if the customers there would accept us, fortunately we did very well,” he said.
Their first restaurant in Shanghai broke even within six months and that encouraged Tsui Wah to open more branches in the mainland financial hub. Currently, Tsui Wah has over 10 branches in Shanghai.
Lee admitted that running a business in the catering industry in Hong Kong and the mainland is becoming more and more challenging, as both rents and worker wages have increased significantly during the past years, while competition has become increasingly fierce.
The only way to cope with the challenges, Lee believes, is to constantly improve the quality of the food and the quality of service. Besides, being creative is also crucial in the fast-changing industry, he pointed out.
Tsui Wah developed a new point-of-sale system between 1998 and 1999, a move that changed the traditional way of placing orders in restaurants, according to Lee.
Servers at ‘ cha chaan teng’ used to take down orders on a pad and then hand in the piece of paper to the kitchen.
“By the time we opened this four-story restaurant in Central, with the main kitchen located at the basement, we needed this efficient system for better communication between customers and the kitchen.”
He said at first everyone had a difficult time adapting to this brand new system that required waiters and waitresses to input orders in handsets and computers instead of just writing them down.
But Lee stressed that the efforts they made finally proved very rewarding, as the system is ultra-efficient, and now a large number of eateries in both Hong Kong and the mainland use this system.
Lee also mentioned that this four-story restaurant in Central will under be under renovation from Sept 11 to early December. He hopes this bold move of renovating a high-profile restaurant in a prime location will be rewarding, as the restaurant will have a completely different look after the renovation and bring a new experience to diners.
Although running a restaurant chain in Hong Kong is becoming increasingly difficult, Lee believes youngsters with real passion for the industry can still achieve great things.
“If young people in Hong Kong want to open their own restaurant or cafe in the city, they need to be very hardworking and not care too much about the pros labor income.
The problem in Hong Kong has been exacerbated by the abolition of the capital gains tax in the 1970s to help facilitate the city’s bid to be an international financial center.
The abolition of estate duty in 2006 has further consolidated wealth in the hands of the few moneyed dynasties.
In Hong Kong’s serviceoriented economy, a large portion of the capital is invested in financial and realestate assets rather than in and cons of the moment. But most importantly, they need to be passionate about the industry.”
Lee said he loved the catering industry ever since he started out as a delivery boy and he was happy to go to work every day. To this day, he retains that passion as if he were just joining the industry.
The story also applies to Lee’s middle son Kenji Lee Tsz-kin, 30, who has been working for the company for eight years. the manufacturing industry, which can create well-paying and steady jobs.
This has the effect of pushing up prices of real-estate assets that are in short supply.
As a result, the widening wealth gap has been manifested most savagely in escalating property prices, forcing many Hong Kong families to live in tight quarters with little hope of climbing up the social ladder.
The government is making huge efforts to increase
“When he was still a student, he would work for the restaurant as a delivery boy and wait tables during his summer vacations. He likes working in the restaurant, even now.”
Lee Yuen-hong said that he has faith in youngsters in Hong Kong, as they are very smart and creative — if they put their mind to doing something, they can achieve it.
Contact the writer at housing supply that can help drive down prices to more affordable levels.
If Piketty’s book is any guide, the government will need to take a more proactive approach to address the issue through the redistribution of wealth.
This would call for a radical departure from the government’s social and economic policies.
The question is whether Hong Kong is ready for such a revisionist change.
The best-selling book by French economist Thomas Piketty would resonate with residents of Hong Kong, where the widening wealth gap has been manifested most savagely in escalating property prices.