Boon Lay Raja's recipe for success

The owner of the popular Boon Lay Raja Restaurant, Mr Henry Tan Kweng Nam, 73, has a confession to make: He cannot cook. But he makes up for it by poring over recipe books and diligently studying the menus of other restaurants.

He then gets chefs at Boon Lay Raja to whip up new dishes based on the ideas that come to him. He is also the resident guinea pig whenever his chefs experiment with new flavours.

"The chefs tweak the flavours, based on my feedback. That is how I ensure that the food is good," Mr Tan told The Straits Times in Mandarin during an interview on Wednesday.

It was announced this week that the 60-table Chinese restaurant, a short walk away from Jurong East MRT station, is selling its 11,248 sq ft space for $15 million.

When the original outlet opened in 1979, it was located in Jalan Boon Lay and most of its customers hailed from nearby factories. It moved to the site in Jurong Gateway Road in Jurong East in 1989.

Mr Tan, a former secondary school principal, was encouraged to enter the food and beverage industry by three university classmates who later became Boon Lay Raja's main shareholders.

But they leave him to run the place, and he has single-handedly crafted the restaurant's menu all these years.

His determination to ensure that Boon Lay Raja offers only quality food has not wavered, said his wife, Alicia, 70, an insurance agent.

Trademark dishes such as Red Garoupa in Nonya Sauce, Roast Duck with Mango and Buddha Jumps Over the Wall came about through Mr Tan's suggestions and experimentation by his cooks.

However, as Mr Tan admits, the work is draining - that is why he and the other shareholders have decided to sell the restaurant.

It is a pity, he adds, that he has not been able to find someone to take over. His two daughters - one is an engineering professor at the National University of Singapore and the other is a cardiologist in Perth, Australia - are not interested.

He asked some of the restaurant's chefs if they wanted to give it a go, but they said no.

"My staff said they were not confident they could do it. It is true that being in the restaurant line is not easy," he said.

His wife notes that the tightening of hiring policies for foreign workers has made it more difficult to get good staff.

Despite escalating costs, Mr Tan has stayed firm in his resolve that the restaurant should absorb the 10 per cent service charge commonly levied by food and beverage outlets. Even so, the waiters are no less attentive, customers pointed out.

Long-time patrons said Boon Lay Raja is well-known in Jurong for serving quality food at reasonable prices.

Housewife Tan Boon Hwa, 58, ate at the restaurant in the 1980s when she was working as a human resource executive at a factory in Boon Lay.

She recalled: "We would hold our company functions there. Some people held their weddings there too; others celebrated their babies' first-month parties. The food was delicious and reasonably priced."

Mr Tan said his recipe for success boils down to three "ingredients": affordable prices, quality food and sterling service.

He hopes whoever buys the eatery space will continue to run the restaurant.

"The buyer could even use our restaurant's name and our staff could continue to work for him if he wishes," said Mr Tan.

He has decided to keep the restaurant open at least until after the next Chinese New Year.

He said: "I want to give my customers a good Chinese New Year meal - one last time."

This article was first published on Oct 10, 2014.
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