Chicken Rice Paradise
The Hainanese chicken rice is one among our nation’s greatest food icons. But what has it got to do with NUS Business School? Lots, considering how one shop that’s dedicated to this specialty is as much as a tradition for one NUS family as it is a pride for our School.
Of all the various business models, how did you know this was “The One” – a chicken rice shop?
It has always been my desire to run a business, but I didn’t know which business to go into. So, as a foodie, I started researching about the chicken rice business. Both my parents are Hainanese. We have a family recipe for traditional Hainanese chicken rice passed down from my grandmother – in fact, my mother holds the key recipes in the family. We wanted to sell this homemade element. And I liked the fact that the business will bring me closer to my family and family as we work together to develop it.
Also, we had premises that an uncle had been using to run a provision shop. When we found that the area was being redeveloped into a food hub, I jumped on the idea of opening a restaurant there.
Your father was a lecturer at NUS Business School, and your mother was Deputy Director at NUS Computer Centre. So did they bring their experience and expertise into the business?
I consulted my father a lot when starting the business. He made me aware of the nitty-gritty details of business – how to materialize it from dream to reality. He told me that “what looks difficult on paper is even more difficult in reality” so I had to be prepared for the challenges.
My mother is very capable in the kitchen. She is more of a cook than I am, and ensures that the quality of the food is tip-top. As she had a people-oriented job in the University, she knows how to interact well with the staff and customers. She taught me how to be professional yet warm at the same time. That is a challenge for me at this stage because the chefs and cooking staff are older than I am and I have to handle them gently, yet be their boss.
As for me, my business school background has instilled the importance of planning finances well.
Many of our customers are from NUS because of our family’s background and close connections with the place. While I know that marketing is very important, I realize that nothing beats word-of-mouth. The family recipes are still in the family’s hands. We diligently make all the crucial sauces ourselves, so it’s truly homemade. This keeps people coming back, and they tell others.
You practically went straight from business school into running a full-fledged business. Didn’t you need a period of apprenticeship or understudy first?
Well, it is not a one-man show. Everyone in the family shares ideas. I used to help at my uncle’s provision shop where I was cashier and learnt to introduce products to customers. So I did learn from someone running a business. I had also worked in another uncle’s shop, a pharmacy, where I helped with accounts, labeling, stocktaking, etc. In fact, I wish I had paid more attention to my accounts module in Business School because I am doing all the accounts in the restaurant now, so as to keep track of every aspect of the business.
I also spoke to friends in the food business. They told me to be prepared for two years of hard work where I may not make money, but that within the first year I’ll get the indicators as to whether I am on the right track.
So, knowing that Singaporeans love food, that we had a treasure trove of great family recipes, that family was on hand to pitch in, and being inspired by other young people in the food business, I went into this.
This is a long way from the financial world that most business school students dream of. What is it like?
My working hours are so different from my peers, and my financial situation is also different. There is no glitz and glamour nor cushy air-conditioned comfort. But I wake up looking forward to work, and have great satisfaction in doing what I enjoy and in being my own boss. I can’t describe the satisfaction of seeing my customers returning regularly, treating this like their own home where they sometimes have both lunch and dinner, and ordering their food even before they arrive. I have something I can call my own.
Everyone makes their own path and this is mine.