A grand entrance

A grand entrance

It's been barely a month since Crystal Jade made its grand US$14 million (S$18.4 million) debut in the heart of San Francisco's financial district, but chief operating officer James Quek is already casting his net wide for more business opportunities within the US and beyond for the Singapore-grown Chinese restaurant group.

"We can't just do one investment of US$14 million - we need to leverage on it," says Mr Quek, 58, who came on board after L Capital - the equity arm of LVMH - acquired most of the group from its founder/CEO Ip Yiu Tung in May this year.

The immediate plan, says Mr Quek, is to expand in California now that it's got a foothold in the state, with plans to open a couple more concepts in the Bay area, and then to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He was recently on a recce trip to Dallas and Houston, and the group may go ahead to open in Houston, which shows more potential for a high-end Chinese restaurant than Dallas.

"Recently I met a developer in Hong Kong who is from Vancouver and he is also keen to bring Crystal Jade to Canada," adds Mr Quek.

But Crystal Jade Jiang Nan is by far the most ambitious undertaking by the group, and was already in the works even before L Capital came into the picture, says Mr Ip, who was in San Francisco for the grand opening on Nov 18.

That night saw the city's Who's Who descend upon the 20,000 sq ft of Oriental splendour in the prime Embarcadero district to the deafening gongs of a lion dance and a non-stop flow of dim sum and Peking duck.

"It is already very saturated in Singapore," Mr Ip says of his desire to open in the US. "We thought about the US and Europe because that is how you can become a global brand. Besides, in San Francisco - I checked myself - no one (Chinese restaurants in the city) is better than us so we are confident we can do much better."

It's not with false pride that Mr Ip says that. Despite the city boasting a high proportion of ethnic Chinese residents, the quality of Chinese food has remained sadly lacking.

With the likes of R&G Lounge and Z&Y Szechuan restaurant offering good food but lousy ambience, or Hakkasan and PF Chang's providing the cool factor but a Westernised Chinese menu, there's barely any competition in the mid-high market that is equal parts style and authenticity.

Crystal Jade Jiang Nan is something that's a long time coming, adds Mr Quek, saying that many of the guests who attended the November opening told him that they wouldn't step foot in Chinatown because of the poor hygiene and food quality, "so they're really happy with what they have seen".

Yes, they could have started small with a couple of cha chan tengs (casual tea shops) but "is that what we want?" asks Mr Quek.

San Francisco is a rich town, the Embarcadero is prime real estate and the upper tier market is just the right demographic they are pitching at, so the objective was to make a big impression on the city.

In fact, the opening party saw even the present and past mayors of San Francisco helping out with the ribbon-cutting.

It was the culmination of three years of hard work to pull the whole thing together after Crystal Jade was first approached to do business in San Francisco by the city's economic development office.

It was originally set up to attract business from China and a trade representative who came across Crystal Jade in Hong Kong didn't realise it was a Singapore company.

Nonetheless, the wheels were set in motion, with San Francisco-based businessman Gus Murad as their local partner, although he has a small share of some 10 per cent.

Originally, the plan was to open in the Four Seasons hotel, but they were not able to come to an agreement and decided to look elsewhere.

The Embarcadero site, which had been empty for some time, came to their attention and when Mr Ip saw the space, he liked it immediately.

The first unit they looked at was smaller, but they decided to take on the unit next door, for a combined space of 20,000 sq ft.

Some 16,000 sq ft was turned into a spacious dining hall for around 200 diners, with the remaining space used to create an outdoor space that can be used for private events.

Its opulent surroundings designed by hot interior designer Ken Fulk mixes elegant yet elaborate chinoiserie with colonial English charm to winning effect.

Besides a state-of-the-art kitchen, the US$14 million went into creating a sumptuous gallery-like lobby with a stairway that leads into the main dining hall, past lighted fish tanks filled with swimming seafood of the day.

A tricked-out living room with all the plush trappings of home provides comfortable space for lounging with a drink from the Liu Ling Bar.

There's also a space on the ground level for a takeaway section selling Singapore food.

For Mr Ip, who will continue to act as an advisor to the group, Crystal Jade Jiang Nan - which focuses on regional Chinese cooking rather than just Cantonese - is his last big hands-on project as he eases into retirement. He has been the main food-sourcer for the project, insisting only on wild-caught seafood, free-range chicken and pasture-raised meats.

He's totally in love with Californian produce with its quality "and the prices are not that bad", adding that they've been able to keep prices at a level that, while premium, are still lower than what they could be. "We could be charging 25 per cent to 30 per cent above market level, but we managed to keep it down to about 10 per cent or less," says Mr Ip.

Even so, that hasn't stopped diners from complaining about the prices and service on online review sites, but such is par for the course for a new entrant to the market.

And business has been good so far - "we're not full-full, and we still haven't opened our banquet or takeaway Singapore food kiosk yet, but business has been very consistent," says Mr Quek.

And of course, opening in a new market poses its own set of problems which can make or break the business. Chief amongst the issues Crystal Jade is facing is the quality of their staff.

"When we started to hire we found that a lot of the staff are below standard. They may have worked in other Chinese restaurants but when they come over, their work is so bad we even have to dismiss them."

So, "yes there is still room to improve but we have the right product. So long as we run our operations well I don't see why we can't stay sustainable for the long term".

And, at the very least, for Singaporeans looking for a familiar Chinese food fix, a taste of home will be waiting for them.

Crystal Jade Jiang Nan

Four Embarcadero Center

San Francisco, CA 94111

Tel: +1 415-399-1400

www.crystaljade.com

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