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Fong Chak Ka: "We want to celebrate Singapore food culture, such as through hawker food or lesser known local dishes. I hope to bring Singapore culture to a global level."

Charting the way forward for Putien

27/11/2020 - 05:50

Fong Chak Ka, vice-president,
Putien restaurants

AT 13, while most of his peers were running across soccer fields, Fong Chak Ka was doing a different sort of running. The teenager was a food runner at his father Fong Chi Chung's restaurant, Putien.

It may have been hard work, but Mr Fong, 28, totally enjoyed life in the food business. In fact, he admits not remembering much of his childhood, except spending a lot of time at Putien, which began in 2000 as a no frills coffeeshop in Kitchener Road. That outlet is now a stylish restaurant with one Michelin star to its name since 2016.

There are currently over 70 Putien restaurants across Singapore, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

At 16, he was allowed to serve customers, and be part of the food tasting team. "My dad believes that if children like a certain dish, it can't taste lousy," says Mr Fong. But while Putien is known for its signature Fujian Lor Mee, Mr Fong's favourite dish is the Sweet & Sour Pork with Lychees. When time permits, he drops in unannounced at the restaurants not to inspect operations, but "to simply enjoy a meal".

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He was born in Fujian and, together with his family, arrived in Singapore in 2000. After graduating with a degree in business management from the University of California, he joined Putien as an assistant to the head of operations. It was largely an administrative job, but Mr Fong says that while he was already familiar with the front of house, he needed to learn more about the back end.

In 2018, he was appointed its vice president. He manages the restaurants while his father sources quality ingredients. Younger brother, Chak Wai, is also in the family business.

As the eldest child, were you expected to take over the business, and why did you want to join the company?

My father and I didn't have any formal discussions about me joining the company. But shortly before graduation, I realised I had passion for the brand and the food industry. Back then, my peers and I wondered what we would do after graduation. But since there was an opportunity to join the company, I took it. During our long-distance calls, Dad would sometimes ask for my opinion on certain decisions. He wanted to hear from me, because even though I was not involved in the day to day operations, I understood the business. I didn't sit him down and announce officially I would join the company, but it was a natural process for me.

About five months after I joined as an assistant, Dad asked me to be head of operations. Honestly, I wasn't confident about doing the job. It was intimidating standing on stage addressing 40 outlet managers for the first time. But it was almost at that moment that I knew I was ready to head the business.

What kind of businessman is your father?

He's very open-minded. He listens and takes each suggestion seriously. He also cares a lot for his employees. Putien shares 30 per cent of its profit with its employees. After joining, I better understand the rationale behind it. It brings the employees closer together like a family, since everyone works hard. I remember my dad would have drinks after work with his chefs and outlet managers. We had employees who came from other countries and he would always make them feel welcome.

What is the biggest lesson he taught you?

I remember one incident when I was much younger and forgot to serve a dish to a customer. The customer complained and my dad was furious with me when he found out that the dish had been left out for about 10 minutes. He threw away the dish and had it recooked. I didn't understand then why he threw it out, since it was only 10 minutes. But now I know that anything could have happened during that time and the quality of the food would be affected. My dad only wanted to serve the best quality to his customers.

He treats the restaurant like his home, and people who walk through the doors are guests of our home, rather than diners. There is a lot of communication between customers and us, that is how we stay relevant to the market demand.

Putien has a unique owner-operator model. Tell us how does that work?

In 2018, there was a restructuring and my father introduced this model where outlet managers are in charge of all key financial and strategic decisions related to their restaurants, instead of the conventional hierarchical model where one general manager oversees all the outlets.

We want the flow of information to be as efficient as possible. So rather than wait for someone in the office to decide what needs to be done, outlet managers have that autonomy and authority to do that.

We don't hire outlet managers, instead we groom them. We train them in finances, human resources and all other aspects to help them manage their bottom line.

Each outlet manager is responsible for their own restaurant and profits, so I'd say the business is easier to run now than under the old model.

We have checks in place to ensure that each outlet maintains a standard. We follow closely feedback left on social media platforms as that is where diners give honest feedback, and we also have mystery diners. We also do internal audits on the kitchens and food safety, and have a data team that does financial checks and benchmarking.

Under this model, outlet managers are more confident. They have a sense of ownership for their outlet, and the people who dine there are their guests, and not just guests of Putien. In fact, since the pandemic hit, our outlet managers are more worried than management about how Putien is doing overall.

Speaking of the Covid-19 pandemic, how is Putien doing?

No one was prepared for its impact. There were a few quiet months, but Putien pulled through fast. I'd say about 80 per cent of our customers have returned, and we expect more to dine out with us again when phase 3 starts. Even our Jewel Changi and Resorts World Sentosa outlets which used to be tourist-heavy are performing generally well. Because of the training they've had, even before the pandemic hit, each outlet manager knew what they had to do to keep afloat.

During the circuit breaker period, we introduced takeaway and delivery options, and the outlet managers even personally delivered food to their regulars. But we know they werejust temporary solutions. So, we focused on how to enhance the dining experience when restaurants could allow dining in again. Apart from implementing social distancing rules, we also offered diners alcohol wipes and sanitised utensils. We needed to make people feel safe when they dine at Putien.

As the second generation business owner, what changes have you brought to the company? And what are your plans for the future?

I think I brought in a more multicultural mix to the company. In my father's time, Putien was a more Chinese-cultured company. We now have more English-speaking employees and non-Chinese staff. I think this multicultural mix is important when we want to expand to Western locations, such as to the US or to Europe.

We are looking at more international expansion, such as opening in Japan next year. But how fast we expand is dependent on having the right outlet manager in new markets.

But as part of our 20th anniversary, we are launching Yum Sing! - a new dining concept at Clarke Quay, with a 1960s feel that will include food and entertainment. We have successfully introduced the cuisine of Putian in China, so now we want to celebrate Singapore food culture, be it through hawker food or lesser known local dishes.

I don't view the pandemic as a hindrance to us launching a new brand. I hope to bring Singapore culture to a global level, to the point that where there is a Putien, there is a Yum Sing!.