Food cooked with love will taste good, says Tung Lok boss

Mr Tjioe says Tung Lok has survived the past 30 years and is still making waves because it keeps evolving to keep up with changing trends.
Mr Tjioe says Tung Lok has survived the past 30 years and is still making waves because it keeps evolving to keep up with changing trends. PHOTO: SGX

Mr Andrew Tjioe, founder of the Tung Lok chain of restaurants, has a sophisticated palate, having grown up on his mother's delectable Hokkien cooking.

He remembers the rich flavours of her Heng Hwa noodles, silky texture of her tang hoon (winter vermicelli) and biting into firm yet fluffy wontons stuffed with shrimp and pork, known as pangsit in Heng Hwa dialect.

"No one can beat my mum's pangsit. The skins of her dumplings are so translucent, yet they don't disintegrate in the soup after cooking," recalls Mr Tjioe, the only son in his family. He has four sisters.

The 57-year-old gourmand, who was appointed executive chairman of Tung Lok Restaurants (2000) Ltd in July 2006, tried to introduce those wontons in his menu, but failed.

"I told my chefs the missing ingredient was love - my mum's love for us. I always tell them, for every dish you cook, you must imagine you are cooking for someone you love, because that will make all the difference in the flavour," he said.

His mother, now 85, still dabbles in the kitchen occasionally, focusing on simpler recipes.

GASTRONOMICAL PASSIONS

Mr Tjioe's father also played a key role in enhancing his passion for gastronomy.

After moving to Singapore from Jakarta in the 1970s, the elder Mr Tjioe took the family out every weekend to explore new dining options. The scholar and businessman eventually opened a restaurant - Charming Garden, specialising in spicy Hunan cuisine - in 1980.

"Back in the 70s, there were not many good Chinese dining places. My dad was in the textiles business and entertained a lot, so it made sense to set up a restaurant. Since he travelled to Taiwan to buy yarn frequently, he was able to hire good chefs from Taiwan," Mr Tjioe said.

The success of Charming Garden spurred the son to follow in his father's footsteps. Mr Tjioe opened his first outlet - Tung Lok Sharksfin Restaurant - in 1984 at Liang Court, with six Hong Kong chefs.

"In the late 80s, ahead of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, there was a heavy influx of Hong Kong chefs to Singapore. This helped to establish Singapore as a centre of good Cantonese cuisine," he said.

Subsequent restaurants - Lao Beijing, LingZhi, Tung Lok Seafood, Tung Lok Signatures in Singapore, and My Humble House in Indonesia, Japan and China - specialised in different styles of Chinese cooking.

The Tung Lok Group now owns, manages and franchises more than 40 restaurants in Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan and Vietnam. The group pioneered and eventually re-engineered the concept of contemporary Chinese cuisine, which is now dubbed Global Chinese.

The choice of "Tung Lok" as a brand is significant. "It means being happy together, and we are in the business of selling happiness," Mr Tjioe said. "We need to make sure our customers are happy - only then shall we be happy."

The group, which listed on the Singapore Exchange in March 2001, has averaged revenues of about $80 million over the last 10 financial years. It reported three consecutive annual net losses between FY2007 and FY2009, before returning to the black, with S$574,000 in net profit for the year ended March 31, 2015.

OUR WORD, OUR BOND

Apart from culinary know-how, Mr Tjioe also inherited strict core values from his father, who died last year at the age of 86.

"My dad was very upright. Anything that was not in line with his scholarly upbringing was frowned upon," said the Business Administration graduate from Oklahoma State University. "For example, gambling is a big no-no. And our word is our bond - whatever we promise, we must deliver."

As a result, Mr Tjioe does not believe in cutting corners, such as compromising quality for better margins. "Restaurateurs must have a conscience," he said.

"It's not in my blood to search for the cheapest ingredients to achieve a high profit margin. I would rather use quality ingredients, sell at a slightly higher price and try to convince the customer of its value."

That strategy, however, does not always succeed, he admitted. "The market is always chasing after something cheaper. The question is, what do you get for that price?"

DISCRIMINATING TASTE BUDS

Mr Tjioe's sons, aged 16 and 13, whom he calls his taste-testers, are expected to be equally discerning.

His children's opinions of the menu - whether in a Tung Lok or non-Tung Lok eatery - are useful reference points.

"Their taste buds have been trained from young. If they like the dish, chances are, other customers will also like it," he said.

Chinese fare, however, is facing an unprecedented onslaught from Japanese, Korean and Western cuisines, said Mr Tjioe.

"Nowadays, you might find only one Chinese restaurant among 15 new outlets that open. Personally, I think it's time for Chinese food to make a comeback."

Basically, you need to do your homework, he said. "Singapore offers a multitude of dining concepts and a potpourri of global cuisines. If you want to open a restaurant, you need to be well-informed, well-exposed and understand what your customers want."

He spends a few months every year traipsing all over the world - from Japan to Spain, China and Australia - sampling new dishes to get inspiration for menus at home.

Mr Tjioe was named Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year in September 2011. He also clinched the regional Restaurateur of the Year title at the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence four years ago.

REBRAND, REFOCUS

Apart from research, knowing when to cut your losses is important. The group has not shied away from shutting non-performing outlets, he said.

Tung Lok closed two of four Lao Beijing branches, due in part to the labour crunch in the F&B sector. Noodle Stories, which served traditional comfort food with a modern, flavourful twist, was shuttered within a year of operations and replaced by Dancing Crab.

Dancing Crab, a successful rebranding of the former Modern Asian Diner (MAD), serves Louisiana-style Cajun seafood. It has since expanded, with three restaurants in Singapore and another two in both Japan and Indonesia.

The restaurant bagged The Food Journal's awards for Best Dining Experience and Best in Fuss-Free Seafood last year, and recently the coveted Promising Franchisor of the Year 2015.

"MAD was the original concept, but it didn't work, while Dancing Crab became a hit. It's like a game of darts - sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss," Mr Tjioe said.

As a testimony to Tung Lok's foothold in the local dining scene, the group clinched nine accolades in the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS) Epicurean Star Awards this year.

Tong Le Private Dining was named Best Chinese Fine Dining for two years in a row, while Dancing Crab and Tung Lok Signatures won the Best Western Chain Restaurant and Best Chinese Chain Restaurant titles, respectively.

Having a focused strategy is critical, Mr Tjioe said.

"We target the millennials, who account for 60 per cent of spenders. They eat out and entertain a lot, but spend little each time. That's why many casual dining outlets have sprouted up in Singapore, and most of our new restaurants are casual."

Lokkee is a prime example. It serves American-style Chinese food, a concept popularised in London, Australia and the United States. These dishes encompass the range of tastes that millennials go for, Mr Tjioe said.

In particular, Poke - diced sal-mon and tuna sashimi served with house sauce in a tortilla bowl - is a Hawaiian- and Japanese-inspired dish that resonates with the Generation Y, many of whom have studied or lived abroad.

ADAPT AND EVOLVE

Smaller, cosier dining concepts with good music are also all the rage. "Twenty years ago, the first Tung Lok restaurant was 8,000 sq ft in size. Subsequent outlets were larger - 13,000 or even 16,000 sq ft. I used to tell my property agent, 'Don't come to me for anything smaller than 8,000 sq ft'," he said.

"Now, I tell him, 'Don't look for anything bigger than 4,000 sq ft' - that's the difference."

Keep a lid on construction costs, and major on the decor. "Customer preferences keep changing and the millennials do not stick to one place. So if you limit construction spending and perform minor renovations every two years, your return on investment will not be stretched out," he explained.

The group has adopted a "manpower-lean" concept amid the industry's ongoing staffing crunch. Tung Lok uses two central kitchens - both about 15,000 sq ft in size, and one Halal-certified - to prepare its meats, sauces and stock. It has also invested in state-of-the-art machines and robotics, which can auto-cook a variety of quality dishes for its catering operations.

While the group's catering business currently accounts for less than 10 per cent of total revenues, this segment has expanded by 30 per cent year-on-year over the last two years, Mr Tjioe said.

Essentially, the key to survival is agility - knowing when to re-engineer in line with changing trends, he added.

"We have been evolving all along. We would not have survived the past 30 years and still be making waves otherwise. Many restaurateurs of my generation have disappeared and are already forgotten."


• This is an excerpt from the Singapore Exchange's "kopi-C: the Company brew" column that features C-level executives of firms listed on SGX. A longer version of the interview can be found on SGX's My Gateway website, www.sgx.com/mygateway

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Food cooked with love will taste good, says Tung Lok boss'. Print Edition | Subscribe