'If you want to get into business, you must do it big or don't do it at all.' This could very well be the motto of Gaik Wong, founder of TCRS Restaurants, the parent company of The Chicken Rice Shop. She talks to Jacqueline Toyad about the chicken-littered road she took to success, her strong belief in empowering her staff and her international hopes for the F&B chain.
IT is 10.45am and the unmistakable aroma of chicken rice is already wafting through the walkway on 1 Utama's ground floor annexe. The source is The Chicken Rice Shop, the 12-year-old food and beverage phenomenon that has everyone singing, "I love, I love, I love chicken rice", as goes the radio jingle.
Inside, two young ladies are proving that chicken rice sits well in the tummy no matter what hour of day it is, wrapping up remnants of what was their breakfast or brunch.
Ismail, the manager of this outlet, settles us down as we wait for whom we have affectionately christened "the chicken rice lady" — Gaik Wong, founder of TCRS Restaurants Sdn Bhd, the parent company of The Chicken Rice Shop.
She breezes in at 10 after 11 o'clock, as sunshiny as the walls of the newly refurbished interior of the restaurant. Wearing a pink T-shirt emblazoned with a rooster head declaring "I love chicken rice" — "That's me. I'm always a hard sell," she quips — Wong shifts us to a table next to the beautiful new feature wall, comprising tiles of various pastel shades, some with illustrations of chickens carved into or painted on them.
She is proud of every little detail in this store, the 59 others scattered across Malaysia, the four in the Philippines and the one in Taiwan. Her sharp eye catches a little puddle of water on the floor across the room.
"Ismail, Ismail… it's wet," she points out.
"Yes mummy, I'll get someone to clean it up," replies Ismail.
Did he just call her "mummy"? Apparently, most of the staff do, something they picked up from being in close and frequent contact with TCRS Restaurants' CEO, Wong Kah Lin, her only daughter — she is a mother of three — who she says is also her best friend.
"Wherever we are, she refers to me as mummy, so they all started referring to me as mummy," Wong says with a bright laugh.
It has to be said that Wong is somewhat of a legend in the F&B industry. In her 25 years with KFC Holdings (Malaysia) Bhd, she played an integral role in expanding the chain of KFC restaurants around Malaysia, taking the company public and even in building the subsidiary Ayamas, the nation's first branded chicken. She retired from the company as chief operating officer and director, a far cry from where she had begun back in the 1970s — a small supermarket brand where she was given every task, big and small.
"From finance to purchasing to operations… right down to counting chickens," Wong laughs. "It was chicken all the way and today, nearly three scores and 10, I am still in chicken."
For Wong, though, how one gets "from the egg to the chicken on the table" matters. Her own rise through the ranks inspired her to ensure a structure was in place at TCRS Restaurants, so that any one of her staff members could grow and have a long and fulfilling career with the company.
"I think it is important for every young person to look at any job allocated to him not as a chore but as personal development. Although at that point in time I was grumbling, I have learnt so much from the experience. Whether they are now accounts executives, floor staff or crew, they end up as a manager eventually — there is career advancement. I find it very exciting, meeting young people, mentoring them, not only my team but also mentoring the children of friends, children of customers. I am also involved with the National Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Malaysia. There is a sense of satisfaction in being able to impart all the knowledge, the experience and the network you have acquired… to share. That is success — to be able to touch lives," says Wong.
The Chicken Rice Shop began with one outlet in Taipan USJ back in 2000. At the start, friends and family were apprehensive — who was going to spend more than RM10 when you could get a decent plate at just RM5 to RM6 at your neighbourhood coffee shop? F&B was such a tough business and to build one on the ubiquitous chicken rice? That was asking for trouble.
But then the outlet was an instant hit, enabling the chain to grow swiftly and organically. Suddenly, The Chicken Rice Shop seemed to be as much a shopping mall must-have as Starbucks and McDonald's, oh, and KFC.
Nothing about The Chicken Rice Shop is extraordinary. For example, its marketing strategy is remarkably simplistic. The brand is not too clever, just a straightforward declaration: The Chicken Rice Shop. The marketing idea? Chicken rice and more. Yet it works.
Leaving the gimmicks to theme parks, the mother-and-daughter team zoomed in on quality control, not only with regard to the food, but also the service and overall customer experience.
At the shop, the chicken-flavoured rice is consistently fluffy and one has the choice of pairing it with steamed, roasted, honey barbecued or braised chicken. There is also chicken curry for those looking for a little spiciness, and for variety, there is stuffed fish balls and beef stew, to name but a few. A meal at The Chicken Rice Shop is not complete without the traditional nyonya pai tee as appetiser and shredded vegetables and chicken meat served in dainty pastry shells and topped with a tangy sweet sour chilli sauce. Service is almost always friendly and swift, and compared with some trendy bistros serving chicken rice at RM18, The Chicken Rice Shop offers value for money. Only RM14.99 for two pieces of nyonya pai tee, a personal portion of chicken (your choice of preparation), Ipoh bean sprouts, a bowl of chicken rice, soup of the day, a soft drink and a dessert.
When asked if she foresaw how successful the brand would be, Wong replies without any hesitation: "Of course. If you want to get into business, you must do it big or don't do it at all."
And the business is getting bigger.
Where The Chicken Rice Shop is concerned, there have been endless enquiries. But Wong and her team are taking their time, looking for the right partners.
"There is joy in being able to take a Malaysian brand regional and, hopefully, international one day. That is in the works. There is a big market, which you can see here. Foreigners, tourists, they love chicken rice. It is so global now, you know, when it comes to Asian food," says Wong.
"I believe the market is tremendous in the West, in the US; in fact, we have a lot of enquiries from Australia, the US, and of course the Middle East. It is an easy dish that is easily embraced by everyone, every race, religion and age profile."
TCRS Restaurants has four brands under its belt today, including The Chicken Rice Shop. Sweet Chat Café and Dubu Dubu Seoul Food are two brands nurtured in-house. Established in 2007, Sweet Chat Café takes its cue from The Chicken Rice Shop, building a culinary repertoire around local favourites, but focusing on desserts such as durian pancakes and bubur cha cha. Dubu Dubu Seoul Food, run by Wong's youngest son Kah Yong, is banking on the growing popularity of the Korean pop culture here. This brand was also conceptualised by Wong and her family. Fairly new, it has one outlet in Mid Valley Megamall and one three-week-old outfit in 1 Utama.
Pancake House International is the only brand in the TCRS portfolio that is not homegrown. "We were already well established when this F&B group, which is big in the Philippines with over 300 restaurants, including Pancake House, started asking around. When it approached us, we did a little exchange programme — it was more about taking The Chicken Rice Shop to the Philippines than bringing Pancake House into Malaysia. Of course, it was perfect timing because at the time, Malaysians did not really have a place to go to for pancakes, and Pancake House does make the best pancakes," Wong says, slipping in a sales pitch.
"If we see other brands not in direct competition with The Chicken Rice Shop, we will surely see if it makes sense to have it in our fold. The early bird catches the worm." (Don't you just love her chicken-bird lines?)
Much like the worm, though, she cannot seem to get away from the F&B industry's fierce pecks. She tried, shortly after retiring from KFC.
"Then I thought to myself, 'Why waste all those years of experience and the network I built?'"
Needless to say, Wong is happy with the choice she has made. Apart from running TCRS with her family, she keeps a regular schedule of daily workouts at the gym in the evenings and serving as a board member of the Monfort Boys Town and a member of Mercy Malaysia's board of trustees.
"After all these years in the F&B industry, my biggest joy is in being able to develop a local brand into one with global potential. There is real satisfaction in that," beams Wong.
"It has also been important to me that I built a company with a work culture in which everyone is part of one big happy family, where the gap between management and the staff members is so narrow."
She tells me about her travel plans in the coming weeks for both work and play. Play includes two weeks on a cruise with her "soul mate" (read: husband) in Istanbul.
"We try to do this every year in different parts of the world. And then you come back fresh. It really is important to see what the world has to offer. I like to expose my team as well as part of an incentive, to give them the opportunity to travel, to see what other people are doing, how efficient they are. For example, they have just come back from Hong Kong, where labour is so tight and yet they are able to do it. Why can't we? It is important to establish that sense of belonging, that understanding," she says.
"It is so important to empower every individual in the company. I have opened so many restaurants that I cannot be here and there at the same time. Neither can the general manager of my operations team. So, we need to make sure we have an individual we can trust to do the job."
Wong smiles at Ismail, who waves from the other side of the room.
"Respecting and recognising them is important, and participating in the growth in all aspects. You can be firm yet fair. There must be a lot of love. At the same time, you must know when to come out with the rod. Recognition is so important, and knowledge. We constantly train them with a specialist group that does both team building and a customer service leadership programme — all ongoing. You can see how these have enhanced the staff's confidence. And you get satisfaction out of that."
Wong is ready to take us to the other side of 1 Utama where Dubu Dubu Seoul Food has just opened. "You have to try it — it's delicious."
On our way out, Ismail slips Wong a business card. "Mummy, just now a man said he wants to meet up with you."
"Okay, thank you," she says, pocketing the card.
"Yes… from Indonesia."
This story appeared in The Edge on Oct 8, 2012.