Country Manna makes quiet return

Diners who remember hearty chicken soup capped with puff pastry and roast spring chicken from Country Manna can savour them again.

The restaurant, which had its heyday in the mid-1990s, made a quiet comeback when it opened in July last year at West Coast Plaza. The 80-seat restaurant is now co-run by one of its original founders, Mr Francis Low.

While signature dishes such as baked fish meuniere and spring chicken are on the menu, he has expanded the menu by 20 per cent to include more "value-for-money hotel-style dishes" such as Beef Wellington and Beef Stroganoff. He has also added pizzas, a salad bar and a drinks and soft-serve counter.

Prices of the classic dishes hark back to the old days. The chicken soup and roast chicken cost $3.99 and $11.99 in the 1990s and are up to $2 more now.

Mr Low, 65, believes there is a market for "evergreen country- style food". The former operations manager of the now-defunct pizza joint Milano's says: "Over the years, people told me they have missed the food at Country Manna and how the restaurants brought back memories of having celebrations there, so this restaurant is a testing ground to see if diners remember the brand."

The 2,500 sq ft restaurant has no-frills interiors and nondescript crockery and cutlery, compared with its rustic wood-panelled decor and earthenware that were a feature in the old restaurants.

Country Manna's Francis Low with the restaurant's Spring Chicken and Country- style chicken soup.
Country Manna's Francis Low with the restaurant's Spring Chicken and Country-style chicken soup. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Country Manna opened in 1992 and, at its peak, had 16 restaurants - 13 here and three in Kuala Lumpur. The chain had an annual turnover of $12 million to $14 million.

Mr Low sold the business in 1998 to garment firm Heshe Holdings.

By 2010, only two restaurants - in Sembawang and Serangoon Garden - remained.

For the next 15 years, he worked as a business development manager for Canadian pizza chain Panago and as a restaurant consultant for a bakery chain in Beijing and dim sum chain Bao Today here.

In 2012, three months after returning from China, he bought back the licensing rights to Country Manna for a five-figure sum and opened a restaurant in Suntec City. But that decision turned out to be "the worst period for Country Manna".

He says: "I was not ready and entered the market without understanding the scene. The restaurant scene was more competitive and diners were more discerning."

A combination of staffing woes and construction work in the mall forced the restaurant to fold within six months.

He is confident Country Manna's latest incarnation can thrive by tailoring its operations to the demands of the food and beverage scene.

To cope with the labour crunch, he uses automation in the kitchen: A US-designed conveyor belt oven heats up the soup and bakes the puff pastry top at the same time; and there is also a steam kettle, which cooks and stirs soups and sauces within a pre-set period.

He is also working on securing halal certification to draw more customers, even if it means scrapping the popular baked back ribs with barbecue sauce. The restaurant will serve beef ribs instead.

Mr Low, who is married to a 65- year-old retired childcare teacher, has no children. He calls Country Manna "his child".

He says: "I was most reluctant to give Country Manna up in 1998 as I felt it had not achieved its full potential, but if I can take a backseat after opening six outlets in the next two years, it would be considered a real success."

Diners are embracing the return of Country Manna. Electrical supply manager Patrick Ling, 65, has visited the new restaurant seven times since it opened. He says: "My family used to dine at Country Manna on Sundays. I always ordered the baked fish and chicken soup, as it was so special to peel off and dip the puff pastry in it. I felt sad when it closed and have missed the food."

Human resources manager Carol Teo, 42, was surprised to stumble on the restaurant recently. She says: "The chicken soup is the ultimate comfort food for me. I am happy I can still recognise the menu with the same simple dishes."

  • Country Manna is at 154 West Coast Road, West Coast Plaza, 02-44, tel: 6464-0331, open: 11am to 9.30pm daily
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Country Manna makes quiet return'. Subscribe