Man behind Boon Tong Kee says he leads a simple life

Man behind Boon Tong Kee says he leads a simple life

He does not wear a designer suit and tie to work. Nor does the man, who owns chicken rice chain Boon Tong Kee, come to work in a chauffeur-driven car.

When we met Mr Thian Boon Hua at his flagship Balestier Road restaurant, he was dressed simply, in a white round-neck T-shirt and shorts, and he wore open-toed sandals with white socks.

And so it came as no surprise when Mr Thian, whose restaurants took $20 million in revenue last year, told us he lives in a five-room HDB flat and drives a Toyota Camry.

The 60-year-old's humility comes from his tough past.

He dropped out of school at age 13 and could only find a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen in 1965.

Day and night, Mr Thian toiled in the kitchen, washing dirty plates and bowls while watching the chefs work.

His hard work paid off when his shifu (master) started to teach him to cook a few dishes, but lessons were hard.

"In those days, my shifu would kick me and beat me, or burn me with a hot frying pan," he said.

"I worked my way up from the lowest rung in the kitchen. I grew up very fast in the harsh environment, but this was also the time when I learnt the most."

Mr Thian is one of the Hawker Master Trainers in the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme launched last week to preserve Singapore's hawker heritage.

Other veteran hawkers involved include Madam Lai Yau Kiew of Ji Ji Wanton Noodle Specialist and Mr Tan Ah Guan of Apollo Fresh Cockle Fried Kway Teow.

Mr Thian left his job in the kitchen to set up his own business when he wanted to settle down and start a family at the age of 27.

Borrowing money from his wife, his mother and his younger brother, he raised a capital of $5,000 for his chicken rice stall in Chinatown in 1979.

"If I continued to do odd jobs in the kitchen, I wouldn't have enough money to feed my family. Supporting my family became my biggest motivation for making my business succeed," he said.

Back then, Mr Thian struggled to sell six chickens a day at his small stall.

Now, he owns seven outlets across Singapore.

Hoping to keep the hawker culture alive in Singapore, Mr Thian wants to pass on his expertise to the younger generation.

"Local food is a very important part of Singapore's culture. When you think of Singapore, you think of good food, and chicken rice is one of them.

"I am willing to teach, and now, I need to find people who are willing to learn. I don't want the tradition of making good chicken rice to end," he said.

Mr Thian, who has five children aged between 17 and 32, is not worried about teaching someone outside his family his methods.

Currently, only his oldest son is helping him out in the business after having worked as a cook in the food and beverage industry for the past five years.

Speaking of his children, he said: "I want them to gain valuable experience in the working society for five to six years before working in Boon Tong Kee. I want them to see the outside world and not simply use my business as a safety net...when they face obstacles outside."

He added: "I don't mind teaching an outsider as long as the person learning is passionate and has the right attitude. He can set up his own business afterwards and add his own flavours to the dishes, too."

His recipe for success

It's not all in the chicken

Mr Thian said anyone can download recipes for chicken rice from the Internet, but not everyone can give customers a good dining experience. He believes in serving food to customers with sincerity and passion so that they will want to return.


Instead of selling only chicken rice, he includes side dishes such as sweet and sour pork, crispy beancurd and winter melon soup in the menu to cater to the customers' varying tastes.

Using table cloths

Mr Thian uses table cloths in his restaurant chain even though they add to the cost price of the business. The cloths allow for easier and faster clearing of the tables so that the next batch of customers can be seated quickly. This increases the turnover rate of customers.

Smaller portions

Mr Thian noticed that the younger generation prefers food in smaller portions so that they can order more dishes. Thus, he now serves food on smaller plates.

Home delivery

To make it more convenient for customers, Mr Thian introduced a delivery service. Customers can order the food and have it sent straight to their homes.

Saving for a rainy day

Running a successful business like the Boon Tong Kee restaurant chain isn't always a bed of roses.

In his 30-year career, Mr Thian Boon Hua's biggest challenge was the bird flu scare, which hit the restaurant hard twice, in February and August 2004.

Business took a dive. Sales of more than 100 chickens a day fell to barely 10 daily.

But Mr Thian had financial resources set aside since 1998 to deal with just such a crisis.

He had raked in a lot of profit during the swine fever scare in 1998, when many people had switched from eating pork to chicken.

$1.2m reserves

Instead of becoming complacent and squandering his money, Mr Thian had placed $1.2 million in a backup fund.

This came in handy when the bird flu hit, allowing his business to stay afloat.

He said: "In a business, we must always be well-prepared and have a sense of urgency. I was always worried about the day that a crisis would hit me, and finally in 2004, it did.

"If I didn't know how to deal with it, all my life's hard work would have been gone during that crisis."

He added: "It was such a low point in my life. I was very worried but I had to be responsible to all the staff members under me. I always told them that we were going to make it no matter how bad it was. I had to step up to be a strong leader."

Get The New Paper for more stories.

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.