The Wong sisters are barely 30, but they're already dominating Asia with 17 F&B brands

The Wong sisters are barely 30, but they're already dominating Asia with 17 F&B brands
PHOTO: Bonnie Wong

I daresay you might find these brands familiar.

Here's Bangkok Jam at Plaza Singapura, Rocku Yakiniku at Bugis+, Eat At Taipei at JCube and Barossa at the Esplanade Theatres.

They don't look similar, nor do they serve the same cuisines.

But these restaurants share one thing in common - they are all run by one family.

Founded by Anthony Wong, Creative Eateries began as 'Hot Stones', a Holland Village restaurant in 1992. 2 years later, fine dining Patara Thai was launched and then Siam Kitchen, and Shabuya.

The list goes on.

Fast forward to 2017, the company now operates 17 F&B brands, including catering services, in Singapore, Malaysia, China and Taiwan. While Wong serves as CEO, his 2 daughters - Bonnie and Bernadette - have stepped up to the plate.

Despite their busy schedules running an empire, they were kind enough to take the time out for me.

Here's what I learnt from these enterprising siblings.

Starting Young

As second-gen entrepreneurs, much of the groundwork had been laid by the time the sisters joined.

But don't mistake this for privilege, because they have been 'part' of the company since young.

"We grew up following our father around during his rounds," Bonnie says, "we would listen as he talked to his staff. As students, we would also rope in friends to become cocktail waitresses at events, it was our part-time jobs."

And the experiences gave them much more than just pocket money, her sister concurs.

"We grew up understanding the operational and interpersonal challenges of the business."

Today, this understanding of people's strengths and limitations is "the first step towards knowing how to better manage staff," Bernadette says.

Managing Diversity

One of the burning questions I had was about how they manage brand diversity and more importantly, prevent business cannibalisation.

It's all about location, price points and target audiences, Bonnie reveals over the phone.

Suki-Ya and Rocku Yakiniku are both located in Bugis, but are not adjacent.

Bangkok Jam and Siam Kitchen both serve Thai food, but they target different people.

The first is in the city, targets PMETs, and is more for individual diners (personal plates). Their menu tends towards Western fusion, with sirloin steaks and sticky rice burgers. Siam Kitchen sits in the suburbs, with halal, Asian-influenced dishes available in group sharing sizes.

Tajimaya Yakiniku serves premium ingredients at higher price points. All-you-can-eat Rocku Yakiniku creates what Bonnie calls 'restaurant-ainment', with live bands.

But it's also important to keep your ear close to the ground, she emphasises, not every brand starts out perfect.

"Rocku Yakiniku was actually an ala-carte restaurant, but after a while we realised the system simply wasn't working, so we decided to pivot to buffet-style. Within 3 months, we hit profitability."

"Evening drinking hall Kuro Izakaya also began differently."

Kuro Izakaya at Suntec City
Photo: Creative Eateries

"After launching, we listened to what the customers wanted, and also monitored for top-selling items. In fact, our kushiyaki menu has actually expanded twice, because that's what diners want."

"It's important to take direction from customers."

But nothing lasts forever, as the sisters recount past deaths.

One such one was Xi Men Ding, a Chinese F&B place that shut down late 2016 because it was no longer competitive.

"We try not to get overly sentimental," Bernadette says, "and focus instead on our future journey. As long as we can provide secure employment, we consider the future bright."

"It is the resilient team capable of climbing the peaks and travelling the low valleys who will build a stronger, more experienced business."

A Family Affair

Today, Bernadette manages corporate affairs and licensing, Bonnie takes care of the front-end, operations, sales and marketing.

Although they grew up learning the business, actually being part of the company remains a steep road.

For Bernadette, IT productivity was something she did "not envision would have become so critical."

The learning journey has become an amazing, empowering process for her and indeed, provided her with opportunities to understand the business from all angles.

Bonnie with the catering team of Shiok! Kitchen at a garden party @ Istana
Photo: Creative Eateries

For Bonnie, whose roles have evolved from marketing to finance, catering and now operations, each brings its own challenges. To overcome this, she finds teachers in staff and stays in close contact with her father to clear her doubts.

But for the trio, home is home.

"We settle our work in the workplace so that we're in the right frame of mind, and it's important to respect each other's boundaries. Especially since people tend to judge family members harsher than colleagues."

"It's about creating distinctions, at work we take emotion out of the equation," Bonnie states resolutely.

"In our view," Bernadette adds, "commitment is what any team can benefit from be they family members or not."

But with family, "we can count on the unity and shared objectives of family members to drive our business forward."

"A good balance of that, along with the support of staff, creates a great working dynamic."

The Freshness Factor

Brand death deals a blow, but it also becomes important lessons about the shrinking life span.

"The Siam Kitchen now is actually the 3rd iteration. Every 6 to 8 years we revamp the brands, menus and designs so everything stays trendy and fresh."

Photo: Creative Eateries

One way they keep creativity alive is with travel, and Bonnie shares how Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Bangkok and New York are rich with inspirations.

"Singapore's malls lack differentiation but in New York City, the city feels alive and every restaurant is unique. In the Ginza district of Tokyo, every new corner brings a new experience."

Comparing the East and the West, she admits Asian destinations are better as we take a lot of direction from our neighbours.

After exciting her 5 senses overseas, she adapts the experiences for home. And as for her most memorable dish?

"The time I had pig trotters in curry stew! It was a Thai restaurant in Australia."

It sounds like a combination that wouldn't work, I laugh. But apparently it did.

They have 17 brands now, and Bonnie reveals that they plan to open 2 more this year.

"Flaming Don is set for August. You can look forward to donburi, self-serving kiosks and free-flow teas and miso. Meanwhile, the second brand will be Taiwanese cuisine, but we have yet to register the name."

They've also spent the past months ensuring groundwork for franchising is laid and are close to closing their first deal for the year, she gushes.

Final Words

As I closed off the interviews, I asked the sisters what they had learnt about entrepreneurship.

"Seek friends in the stakeholders of the industry you're keen on," begins Bernadette. "Most of the time, there are already solutions to the issues you're facing. It's important to recognise that in some instances, there is no need to reinvent the wheel."

"When your staff go the extra mile, that's the definition of success," Bonnie continues. "At Creative Eateries, every brand might be under different management, but consistency and quality is very important."

"One person I look up to is Danny Meyers of Shake Shack. He has a strong company culture, so the customer always leaves happy."

And as for how the customer is always right?

"Well, 98 per cent of the time," she says.

Purchase this article for republication.

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