Kay Lee's $4m price 'a bit high'

Madam Betty Kong, owner of Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint.
Madam Betty Kong, owner of Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint. PHOTO: ST FILE

Some in the industry feel Aztech is paying too much to take over the famed roast meat joint with the volatile F&B scene now

SINGAPORE - The food industry was abuzz yesterday after The Straits Times broke the news that the popular Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint in Upper Paya Lebar Road was sold for $4 million. The sum is $500,000 more than the original asking price when the premises and recipes were put up for sale two years ago.

Time will tell if electronics firm Aztech Group made a good buy and if its plans to set up a central kitchen and open at least 10 casual Kay Lee restaurants in two years, will pay off.

However, those in the industry that Life! spoke to thought the price was a bit high, given the current volatile food and beverage scene, where high rents and scarce manpower are the bane of business owners.

Mr Mervin Goh, chef-owner of the Akashi Group, says: “Paying $4 million for the business to build it up another level is quite a risky buy. You can save that $4 million and take $2 million to build your own brand. It might also take a while to recoup the investment when the brand goes into the malls.

“I think the flavour would be different because the passion level is different. If the standard drops drastically, it does not benefit anyone.”

Mr Daniel Tay, who founded the Bakerzin patisserie chain, sold it and now runs food creation and development company Foodngostic, cautions that owning a central kitchen involves high cost.

He says: “If I’m the seller, after working for so many years, getting $4 million is great. After all, I do think they are one of the best roast meats shops, even though they are a bit expensive. Now they can finally relax.

“I wish the new owners good luck because you can’t just come into the scene with money.”

Publicly listed Aztech, founded in 1986, has diverse businesses that range from electronics to LED lighting and marine logistics to food distribution. It earned $241 million last year.

Those in the F&B industry are not the only ones talking about the sale.

Customers interviewed yesterday were surprised that the 40-year-old institution had changed hands and were worried about how the new owners would maintain the quality of food once they take over on Nov 18.

Personal trainer Jennifer Teng, 47, who dines at Kay Lee twice a week, says: “If I don’t see Madam Kong, I may not come back. But I do hope they maintain the standard. The food is expensive, but I don’t mind paying.”

Renovation contractor Frankie Ong, 47, who has been eating at Kay Lee at least once a month for more than 20 years, says: “Sometimes if there are long queues, I don’t have to queue because the boss recognises me. I don’t know what it will be like after the new owners take over, but as long as the food is good, I’ll be back.”

Celebrity photographer Russel Wong, who dines there at least once every two months, regards Madam Kong as a friend.

He says: “Kay Lee’s one of the best, with the char siew, roast duck and roast pork done the old- fashioned way.

When any eatery changes hands, there are lots of expectations to meet since people are so used to the original. The odds are against you but I hope the new owners succeed.”

At the shop yesterday, Madam Betty Kong, 68, who owns the place with her husband, Mr Ha Wai Kay, 64, was at her usual spot chopping char siew, roast duck and roast pork for customers in the queue. She assured diners that she and her husband would still be on hand to train the new staff and ensure quality.

Kay Lee has its roots in Chinatown, where Mr Ha’s father first set up shop. Mr Ha set up Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint in 1974 in Keong Saik Street. It moved to its current premises in 2003.

Madam Kong says in Mandarin: “My husband has started training the new chefs and we will be here to ensure that Kay Lee continues to do well. We can’t bear to let the business go, but we have to for the sake of our health.”

Street food guide Makansutra’s founder K. F. Seetoh, who wrote a commentary about the initial offer to sell the recipe back in 2012, had called Kay Lee’s roast meats “very good but not memorable”.

He says: “I think this is more of a property deal than it is about food. The recipe is no big secret. There are better ones around. It’s left to be seen if the new owners will go into the business with the recipe.”