Aztech Group boss reveals big plans for Kay Lee roast joint business

Madam Betty Kong (left, with her husband Ha Wai Kay). Their two children did not want to continue the business. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Madam Betty Kong (left, with her husband Ha Wai Kay). Their two children did not want to continue the business. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Mr Michael Mun (seated, right), Aztech Group’s chairman, with (second from right) his eldest son Jeremy, food scientist Christine Lee and operations manager Sam Ng. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Mr Michael Mun (seated, right), Aztech Group’s chairman, with (second from right) his eldest son Jeremy, food scientist Christine Lee and operations manager Sam Ng. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Aztech Group boss Michael Mun tells SundayLife! how quickly the Kay Lee deal was sealed and its big plans for the roast joint business

It took all of 10 minutes for electronics firm Aztech Group's chairman Michael Mun to seal the $4-million deal with the owners of Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint.

The price - $500,000 more than the initial asking price of $3.5 million in 2012 - set off talk in the food and beverage industry that the price was too high.

Mr Mun, 64, tells SundayLife! he had no intention of haggling. "People asked why we paid so much. But I don't like to bargain," he says.

"When I pay what they ask for, it is beneficial to both sides. If I just pay $100,000 but the handover is not smooth, then there's no point. The property is valued at $2.1 million and the rest goes to the whole business and the customer base. It is worth it. I believe we can make the money back in two to three years."

With the acquisition completed last month, the publicly listed Aztech will take over ownership of Kay Lee on Nov 18.

And to take the mom-and-pop business to the next level, he has two key people to run the show together with his eldest son Jeremy, 39, the company's senior vice-president of marketing.

One of them is operations manager Sam Ng, 54, a veteran in the industry who has overseen Chinese restaurant operations in hotels such as The Fullerton Hotel Singapore and Mandarin Orchard Singapore.

Mr Ng, calling Mr Mun an "old friend", worked with him in 1987 when the Aztech boss used to own Chinese restaurants. One of them was Sommerville Restaurant in Cairnhill, which Mr Ng ran.

Mr Mun closed his restaurants in 1993 to focus on Aztech's growing business.

The other person hired to take Kay Lee to the next level is food scientist Christine Lee, 30, who will ensure a smooth transfer of the secret recipes through detailed documentation - everything from the weight of ingredients to cooking temperatures.

Dr Lee was in the news last year when she was part of a team that developed durian wine at the National University of Singapore. She also worked for a year with the National Environment Agency to train its officers in food safety and hygiene before joining Aztech.

On her experience working with Kay Lee's owners so far, she says: "They have a traditional way of cooking and measure 1kg of meat by hand or scoop marinades with bowls. It's like home cooking. So I have to observe how they work very closely. We are recruiting more food scientists to join us."

She is also research and development manager for Shiro, a subsidiary of Aztech Group that sells wines and distributes canned and frozen food.

Shiro's products are stored in its Senoko warehouse in Sembawang. Up to 15,000 sq ft of the warehouse will house Kay Lee's new automated central kitchen.

Six chefs are already on board and Mr Mun is also hiring "choppers", staff who will chop meat on-site at the 10 Kay Lee restaurants planned for the next two years.

He says: "You don't need too many chefs because there will be procedures in place in the central kitchen to control the consistency of the output."

His constant emphasis on proper planning and reports come from his previous F&B experiences.

He says: "It's important to do proper planning from the operations and marketing to sales and procurement. We need to spend more time to make sure that everything is properly controlled."

Come Nov 18, the new Kay Lee will have a logo and staff will wear uniforms. The website will be revamped.

The flagship shop in 125 Upper Paya Lebar Road will remain open, with minor works done to improve ventilation. The shop will open daily, instead of just Thursday to Sunday.

Prices for the Guangzhou-style roasts will remain the same, starting at $5 for a plate of char siew, pork or roast duck rice. The range of double-boiled housemade soups will stay at $4.50 a serving.

Madam Betty Kong, 68, and her husband Ha Wai Kay, 64, whose two children did not want to continue the business, will stay on with the company for six months as advisers to help maintain quality of the food. They will give the new owners more of their recipes to bump up the menu offerings.

Their two workers - Ms Hu Xiu Li, 36, and another who wanted to be known only as Ms Peh - both speak fondly of Madam Kong and regard her as a "big sister". They will stay on.

Madam Kong, whose rainbow-streaked fringe matches her colourful personality, says that because of their age and ill health, she and her husband decided to sell the business.

She says in Mandarin: "Of course, I cannot bear to let go. But the new bosses are very sincere and genuinely want to preserve the name of Kay Lee. I am happy to work with them on the expansion.

"I used to be a clothes designer but started helping my husband 40 years ago because he needed staff. I gave up my scissors for the chopper and I have no regrets."

Retiree Harry Tong, 56, who held a small wedding reception at Sommerville Restaurant in 1988, has been following Kay Lee since its first location in Chinatown.

On its future, he says: "There are plenty of equally good, if not better, roast meat joints. I think this sale is more for the younger generation to try out their entrepreneurial skills with strong support from mentors or, in this case, parents.

"I bet that very soon, Kay Lee will be selling not just roasts but also all kinds of items on its expanded menus, all in the name of increasing turnover and justifying investments."

euniceq@sph.com.sg

Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint in 125 Upper Paya Lebar Road is open from Thursday to Sunday from 10.30am to 6pm. However, it is closed today. It will be open every day from Nov 6 to 16, and when Aztech takes over operations on Nov 18, the shop will open daily.