No one would have thought hawker food could be awarded Michelin stars, until 2016. Singapore-based Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Chicken Rice & Noodles became the first of two hawker stalls to be awarded a Michelin star. Very quickly, it gained international recognition as the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world. Three years on, Chef Hawker Chan continues to ride on the waves of a celebrity chef, expanding into 6 countries (excluding Singapore). “The fame will not last forever, we have to strike while the iron is hot,” he advised. Here, the incredibly humble and down to earth Chef Hawker Chan alongside visionary CEO of Hersing Culinary, Angel Chong, shared in detail the ins and outs of scaling Liao Fan Hawker Chan into a global brand.
- What Chef Hawker Chan can offer is his craft and experience while the younger generation offers innovation with technology. Working together with the complementing expertise of the older and younger generation is what made expansion possible.
- You need to embrace technology and grow with the times. Like a chameleon, you need to keep on innovating.
- To be aspirational, you need to be an inspiration first, to help others to be successful too through setting standards and innovating.
- If you examine the Chinese word for reputation 名利 carefully, you will find that the priority is to build your brand (名) before profit-making (利益). Chef Hawker Chan truly believes that customers can sense how genuine you are in your business.
You started in the food & beverage industry when you were 15 years old. What prompted you to start your own business 27 years later?
I’ve always had the entrepreneur’s itch. I opened my first stall at Chinatown Complex Food Centre in 2009. The rental was one of the cheapest around, and I lived nearby too so, I thought to myself, why not give it a go?
What was the immediate effect after Hawker Chan was awarded a Michelin star in June 2016?
My business grew by 3 to 4 times overnight. However, I kept my daily servings at 200 plates to maintain quality. Even then, our team of 4 was pushing at maximum capacity.
A week later, potential business partners started to approach me and I chose to partner with Hersing Culinary because they had the resources and capability to scale similar F&B concepts. I was impressed by how Tim Ho Wan, a brand specialized in Dim Sum, can be commercially successful in so many countries. We started this partnership two months later.
Yes, I was awarded a Michelin star three years ago, but how long will this star sustain me? Fame will fade away. You have to hit when the iron is hot.
Chef Hawker Chan
Your brand is now in 7 countries (including Singapore) with 17 outlets in total, all done within the span of two years. Do you think you expanded too fast?
We built our brand outlet by outlet. We’ve never launched our outlets simultaneously. When there is an opportunity, and the existing outlets are stable with at least three months of steady operations, we will then continue to grow. I would say it is a steady pace.
What are the criteria you look for in a franchisee?
Background check Firstly, we review their background. They do not necessarily need to be in an F&B business beforehand. We will evaluate a franchisee by talking to them to find out what their motive is. Is it for money-making? Is it passion-driven? How do they run their current business? Can we build long term rapport with them?
A good example would be our expansion into Malaysia. Our first branch outside of Singapore was Taiwan. Being Malaysian, many people asked why I took three years to open a branch there. We do not sell the franchise until we are confident that the potential business partners are aligned with our values. And finally, we found the right business partner in Ipoh and opened at Jalan Theatre on 26 February 2019.
Passion-driven with hands-on experience A crucial element is that we want the owner to be hands-on in the kitchen. If the owner’s main priority is to make a profit, the business will not be sustainable. There is a difference between passion-driven and profit-driven. The majority of potential business partners we met with have the capital required. However, it is that “magic touch,” that we seek after.
Flexibility There is no commitment to open a minimum number of outlets. We sell our franchise outlet by outlet.
How do you manage food consistency across all outlets?
Sales Report There is no better tangible report than the results of monthly sales. Every outlet needs to submit the report of their monthly sales to us and are answerable to any irregularities in the numbers. There are no targeted sales figures, but every outlet must at least maintain their month-to-month sales. If there is a dip in the sales, we will evaluate with the franchisees on their food quality.
Quality Check We conduct training and ensure our food is at its peak by sourcing for all the freshest ingredients available locally in the franchisee’s country itself. Only our sauces are made in Singapore which we then export to our franchisees.
Compliance to the Standard Operating Procedure If the franchisees do not comply with our Standard Operating Procedures, we will evaluate and redo training sessions. Our team in HQ (Singapore) consistently travel to each country to conduct quality checks.
Quality of food is our priority. We want everyone to be able to enjoy the best quality food at the most reasonable price. After all, we were the first hawker to obtain a Michelin star, which is our key selling point. You don’t have to be rich to eat the best.
Angel Chong, CEO of Hersing Culinary
What keeps you going in this industry?
Set an example Every business has its challenges; no one industry can give you instant success or profit. To be an aspiration for others (franchisees) to meet our standards, I need to be the inspiration; an inspiration to help others to be successful. Every day, I strive to innovate, to set the standards, to be at the forefront of our business. Customer’s praise is my biggest accomplishment. I’ll do it again and again, every day.
There is no such thing as exhaustion except for physical burnout. You need to think of ways to pick yourself up.
There is a Chinese saying, 把握今天，成就明天, which translates to: accomplish today to the fullest for tomorrow’s success.
Chef Hawker Chan
You have a low staff turnover rate. That is a fantastic feat. How do you maintain your staff?
Foster a work environment of complementing forces It is a challenge to find the right talent. That is why you need to build your reputation first. What I can offer (the older generation) is my craft. It is not because the older generation is more capable, we just have more experience. The younger generation is about innovation with technology. Together, we can take this brand further.
Opportunity and recognition We will train our staff and let them explore their creativity by giving them the freedom to create new dishes. When you have an environment that enables your team to grow and give recognition, they will work with you.
Motivation There are only two motives behind why people would want to work with you – to earn money or learn a new skill. Everyone wants to build themselves up. I like working with the younger generation. It moves us forward.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
- Ask yourself what your business can offer – can you guarantee that it is above the rest?
Your offerings must be at least above average in the market. Of course, you must strive to be the best! My craft is about perfecting the right soya sauce chicken rice and roasted meat that caters to my customers. Once your offering is made right, everything else will come your way – reputation, the right talent, and profit.
- Can your passion sustain you to pursue your own business?
Everyone can be successful; it is about how much you can persevere. Perseverance is an essential component of this journey. If you’re already complaining as a junior staff, how can you climb to the top? The pressure of a CEO is far greater than that of a junior staff!
- Ask yourself what can you do better?
Where you spend most of your time, that is where your success lies. Every day, you need to value your time and keep pushing yourself to go further.
Chef Hawker Chan
What is the most challenging component in your business?
The pace is fast and intense in this industry. It is a daily challenge. How do we keep up with new trends? How do we introduce new dishes but maintain our brand values at the same time? You need to learn how to anticipate customer’s needs and ride the waves as they come.
Twenty years ago, hand-pulled noodles were a luxury. It is costly to hire a master to make the noodles. But now, because of innovation, almost every Chinese restaurant has hand-pulled noodles on their menus. Unfortunately for the masters, they cannot prevent this from happening. They have to keep up with the times and find a way to stay relevant with current trends. It is not an option.
That is why I partnered with Hersing Culinary to build this brand. My skills are not enough to scale my business. I need the younger generation’s know-how and expertise to complement my craft.
What is next for you and Hawker Chan?
We are now in 7 countries with 17 outlets in total. We hope to continue this healthy and steady growth in the coming years. We will be opening very soon in Kuala Lumpur around October. Find out more here for updates. We hope to give everyone a healthier alternative to fried chicken. The main goal will always be for everyone to have access to affordable chicken rice.
This interview has been translated and edited for clarity. Edited by Lim Ai Leen. Words by Theresa Burhan. Selected photos by Hersing Culinary.