The Life Interview with Ricky Ng: Blue Lotus restaurants' boss a stickler for good service

Managing director of restaurant group Blue Lotus Concepts International Ricky Ng places his customers above all else

Customer satisfaction comes first - that is the mantra of Mr Ricky Ng, 45, managing director of restaurant group Blue Lotus Concepts International.

And he walks the talk as he excuses himself frequently over the course of a three-hour interview to speak with customers.

He is not just playing the role of a courteous host as he watches his staff like a hawk. He also takes orders for drinks, serves food, chats with the chef, ushers diners indoors when it starts drizzling and gets extremely bothered when a signboard for the restaurant blocks the corridor.

He asks a staff member to get it moved immediately and then gets up to do it himself when it is not placed at the angle he wants.

This was day four of the opening of his latest eatery, Blue Lotus Mediterranean Kitchen + Bar in Alexandra Road - the only non-Chinese concept in the group.

It was also tenants' night - about 1,500 people work in the area - and Mr Ng was being a good neighbour.

Often, people complain because they are not asked. If the person is unwell, he may find certain dishes too salty or too bland. If you find out after the first course, you can ask the chef to adjust accordingly.

MR RICKY NG, 45, managing director of Blue Lotus Concepts International, on how his hands-on approach has helped to minimise the prickly issue of difficult customers

"People must come from the 1km to 2km radius for the restaurant to survive. You can't expect someone from Jurong or Tampines to purposely come here and eat," he says, reiterating what he had previously told The Straits Times when his Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House at Tanjong Pagar Centre opened in July.

It has been quite a year for the savvy entrepreneur, who started the Blue Lotus brand four years ago at Quayside Isle with the Emmanuel Stroobant Group. He went solo after one year due to "different expansion plans".

There are four new restaurants in this year's line-up: Besides the Alexandra and Tanjong Pagar joints, Blue Lotus Chinese Noodle Bar was unveiled at Savourworld in Science Park in May and he has one more venture coming up - at the Stevens Road site housing the hotels Mercure Singapore on Stevens and Novotel Singapore on Stevens - by the end of the year.

It will also be a Chinese Grill House concept, similar to the one at Tanjong Pagar, but the menu will incorporate more dessert and tea options, catering to those who want high tea, brunch and desserts.

A tea room concept is also in the pipeline for the Chinese Grill House outlets, something that he is still fine-tuning.

Asked about the flurry of activity after four years, he chuckles and says: "The market is soft and opportunities have come up. People still have to eat. I'm not opening for the sake of opening."

(Clockwise from left) Mr Ricky Ng and his wife Chloe Chan after winning Asian Restaurant of the Year at this year's World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence; Mr Ng at Rottnest Island, Western Australia, in the 1990s; and at the couple's wedding in P
My Life So Far: Mr Ricky Ng and his wife Chloe Chan after winning Asian Restaurant of the Year at this year's World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RICKY NG

Also, he wanted to build a strong foundation for the Blue Lotus brand first.

He says: "People equate Ricky with Blue Lotus. That's good to start with, but it's not just about me. They need to see Blue Lotus as a guarantee of good food, ambience and service."

His "fun-dining" version of "new-age" contemporary Chinese cuisine is best exemplified by his signature chilli pomelo crab - a creation inspired by British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay during the Singtel Hawker Heroes Challenge in 2013.

The businessman says: "When Ramsay won with his own version of chilli crab, it made me realise that people are receptive to new dishes.

"Since chilli crab is usually sweet, we thought of making a spicy one. It took us four months to master it. Some complained it was too spicy, but when we toned it down, others said it was too similar to those at other restaurants, so we stuck to the original spice level."

Other dishes which spruce up familiar favourites include chicken rice paella; fried pork trotters with ginger and vinegar sauce; and hot stone pork lard truffle-flavoured fried rice.

He envisions taking the brand's concepts overseas in his five-year plan and one of the ventures includes Xiamen, China.

In Singapore, he does not rule out venturing into the malls and heartland areas and is also looking to set up a central kitchen to further expand his catering arm.

Born in Hong Kong, he grew up living in his aunt's small motel near Happy Valley. It was also where his parents worked and it served as the playground of the only child.

His grandfather used to be the Chinese executive chef in Hong Kong's former Kai Tak Airport and six of his seven children worked in the food and beverage scene.

Mr Ng, now a Singapore permanent resident, says: "I grew up in the service line. It was part of my life. I would be dressed up in a bowtie and be given special attention, so I enjoyed it. I loved meeting people."

It is no wonder that he is such a stickler for good service.

At 16, he moved to Perth, Australia, to do a hospitality management course and he has fond memories of the jobs he took there.

As a bar steward, he spent the first year just wiping glasses with a sponge - scars from the many cuts he suffered can still be seen on his hands.

At another restaurant called Empress Court, he competed with fellow staff to see who could get more revenue or open bottles of wine faster.

In 1994, the then 22-year-old moved to Queensland's exclusive Hayman Island, where he worked as the manager of a Chinese restaurant at the resort hotel (also called Hayman Island). It was there that he learnt the value of teamwork.

His restaurant was one of seven food and beverage outlets and it had 16 tables of two.

On his third night of work, he did 70 covers, way more than the usual 20. "I was new, aggressive and I overdid it. In the hotel, it is all about teamwork. The 100 guests want to experience paradise and not be packed next to another couple.

He adds: "If my restaurant was full, it meant others were empty. The chef and staff would be overworked as well. I was not a team player."

He also had a stint at the Conrad Hong Kong hotel before coming to Singapore to join the TungLok Group in 1999.

That marked his first official foray into the Chinese fine-dining scene with a restaurant group.

(Clockwise from left) Mr Ricky Ng and his wife Chloe Chan after winning Asian Restaurant of the Year at this year's World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence; Mr Ng at Rottnest Island, Western Australia, in the 1990s; and at the couple's wedding in P
Mr Ng at Rottnest Island, Western Australia, in the 1990s. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RICKY NG

Starting out as the assistant manager at the then Club Chinois restaurant at Orchard Parade Hotel, he learnt the "finest details" of fine dining - from ironing table cloths to making sure glasses are clean.

It went right down to how the logo under a saucer is placed, such that when a diner flips the saucer, the logo faces him the right way up.

He spent 15 years with the group, rose up the ranks to chief operating officer and was key in expanding different concepts with TungLok's president Andrew Tjioe, 58.

Calling him his "mentor" and "brother", Mr Ng says: "Andrew took Chinese food to the next level and I have learnt so much from him."

Mr Tjioe recalls Mr Ng when he joined the group as being skinny, tall and "not botak" and likens him to a young Keanu Reeves.

And he adds: "For someone to work himself up to the level of chief operating officer, he had to be very hard-working and capable of delivering results. He had the drive and was our auntie-killer.

"Internally, he also dealt with the staff very well. When he said he wanted to move on, I gave him my full support."

Mr Ng is also grateful to Mr Tjioe for allowing him to take a year off from TungLok in 2003, when he was uncertain of whether he should stay on in Singapore.

He detoured to Sydney, where he worked as a Mercedes-Benz car salesman for three months. It turned out to be a crucial learning experience.

He says: "You channel the right car to the right customer. If they need it for family use, sell the safety features, show them baby car seats. Similarly, when diners show up, you offer set and a la carte menus and the drinks list. You ask if they want a light or heavy meal, whether they prefer seafood or meat.

"Some see it as upselling, but it is not about earning more. It is to make sure the experience doesn't fall short. You can't have diners pay the bills, walk off and complain to their friends."

Acknowledging that he is extremely hands-on in the business, Mr Ng has just one regret - not spending enough time with his family.

His retired parents - who live in Perth - do come to Singapore to visit. "But I see them only when I pick them up from and send them to the airport," he says. His father is 72 and his mother is 67.

Hoping to spend more time with them, he adds: "You can start a business again, but you cannot get time back. And my wife has sacrificed a lot for me."

His Malaysian wife, Ms Chloe Chan, 33, quit her banking job to join him and she manages his office, administrative matters and restaurant operations. They got married in 2012 in Perth.

(Clockwise from left) Mr Ricky Ng and his wife Chloe Chan after winning Asian Restaurant of the Year at this year's World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence; Mr Ng at Rottnest Island, Western Australia, in the 1990s; and at the couple's wedding in P
Mr Ricky Ng and his wife Chloe Chan at the couple's wedding in Perth in 2012. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RICKY NG

Ms Chan, also a Singapore permanent resident, says: "When he ventured into his own business, I felt that, as a wife, it was my duty to support him in any way I could.

"It may be challenging for me, but it would have been more challenging for him if I didn't support him."

Mr Ng has an 18-year-old son, Ryan, from a previous marriage. He is studying at hospitality institute Shatec and helps out at the restaurants when necessary, but there are no plans for him to go fully into the business yet.

And as Singapore continues to cement its identity as a foodie destination, Mr Ng emphasises that local businesses need to be known for good operations and service too - these cannot be squeezed out because of high rental.

He notes that the scene has either cheap or expensive food - "it is very hard for mid-range restaurants to survive".

He says: "Restaurants are easy to open. Just register the business, sign a lease and it's done. But if you are not hands-on in the business, you are already at risk.

"You can have the best manager and chef - who don't come cheap - but if your concept is not right, customers don't enjoy themselves. You need people to say they will come back.

"You have only one chance. You cannot screw up."

• Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Stickler for good service'. Print Edition | Subscribe