Boon Lay Raja Restaurant: Owner reveals his secrets

Mr Tan Kweng Nam in the kitchen of Boon Lay Raja. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Mr Tan Kweng Nam in the kitchen of Boon Lay Raja. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
(Above) Mr Tan Kweng Nam, managing director of Boon Lay Raja, says he hopes the new owner will continue running the business. (Below, from left) Mr Tan Wei Jie and his wife Kai took their family to the restaurant yesterday after hearing about its impending sale. ST PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG
Mr Tan Kweng Nam, managing director of Boon Lay Raja, says he hopes the new owner will continue running the business. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

SINGAPORE - Owner of well-known Chinese eatery Boon Lay Raja Restaurant, Henry Tan, 73, has a confession to make: he cannot cook.

But he makes up for this lack of flair in the kitchen by poring over recipe books and studying the menus of other restaurants diligently.

Mr Tan will then get the chefs of Boon Lay Raja to try their hand at whipping up the new dishes. He is also the restaurant's guinea pig as they experiment with new dishes.

"The chefs tweak the flavours, based on my feedback. That is how I ensure that the food is good," Mr Tan told The Straits Times in Mandarin in an interview on Wednesday.

The former secondary school principal's passion in ensuring quality food in the restaurant has not wavered since it opened in 1979, says his wife Alicia, 70, an insurance agent. Mr Tan decided to enter the food and beverage industry with the encouragement of three university classmates who later became the main shareholders of the restaurant.

But they leave the restaurant's operations to Mr Tan who has, all these years, single-handedly crafted the restaurant menu.

His wife said: "He will take photos of the menus of restaurants we visit. Sometimes he would write down the menus by hand. He is constantly thinking of how to introduce new and better dishes."

Boon Lay Raja's trademark dishes such as red garoupa in Nonya sauce, roasted duck with mango and Buddha jump over the wall stemmed from suggestions by Mr Tan and experimentation by the cooks.

Mrs Tan adds that her husband's diligence is the reason Boon Lay Raja's 10-course Chinese New Year set dinner menu is different every year.

However, Mr Tan admits the hard work is draining. That is why he and the other shareholders decided that they would sell the restaurant. Their appointed property agent Savills Singapore announced on Wednesday that the restaurant space is on sale for $15 million.

Mr Tan said it is a pity that he has not been able to find someone to take over the business. The older of his two daughters is an engineering professor at the National University of Singapore while the other is a cardiologist in Perth, Australia.

He had asked some of the restaurant's chefs to take over the business. They would pay Mr Tan and the shareholders rent of $100,000 a month. But their staff members declined.

"My staff said they were not confident they could do it.

"It is true. Being in the restaurant line is not easy," he added.

His wife adds that the tightening of foreign worker hiring policies has made it more difficult to hire good workers.

In recent years, the restaurant's experienced staff members have also been poached by other eateries.

"Just earlier this year, some of our long-time staff left us. Other restaurants were offering them $500 more a month," she said.

However, even with escalating costs, Mr Tan is firm that about the restaurant absorbing the 10 per cent service charge which is common at most food and beverage outlets.

"We have never charged for service and I want to continue this policy," he said.

But not charging for service does not mean that the staff members are less attentive, said customers.

Mr Tan Wei Jie, 32, who frequents the restaurant with his family said, "There is quite a high staff to customer ratio. My tea is always quickly refilled. The waiters and waitresses are also friendly and personable."

Other long-time customers said Boon Lay Raja is well-known in Jurong for its good and reasonably priced food.

The original outlet opened in 1979 in Jalan Boon Lay and the bulk of its customers worked at nearby factories. It moved to its present location at Jurong Gateway Road in Jurong East in 1989.

Said Mrs Tan Boon Hwa, 58, who used to visit the restaurant in the 1980s when she was working in a factory in Boon Lay: "We would hold our company functions there. Some people held their weddings and celebrated their babies' first month parties at the restaurant too. It was one of the few Chinese restaurants in the west at that time. The food was affordable and delicious."

Mr Henry Tan agrees with his customers.

He says his secret for success boils down to three principles: affordable prices, good quality food and good service.

As a testament to the restaurant's popularity, all 60-tables are taken up every Saturday evening as well as lunch and dinner time on Sundays.

"On weekends, we provide chairs outside the restaurant for people to sit while they wait their turn and all the chairs are always occupied," said Mr Tan with a smile.

"My customers just keep coming back," he added.

He hopes the buyer of his property will continue with his restaurant.

"The buyer can even use our restaurant's name and our staff could continue to work for him if he wishes," he said.

As a commitment to loyal customers, Mr Tan has decided to continue to operate the restaurant at least until Chinese New Year next year. He said: "I want to provide my customers with a good Chinese New Year meal one last time."

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