Mum’s home-cooked meals, for the whole world

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Fong Chi Chung’s story reads like a parable: A classic tale of the Country Mouse, armed with little more than a heavy parcel of ambition and dreams, making a mark in the bustling big city.

In 1987, seeking a different life, Mr Fong left his hometown of Putian, a small agricultural village in China nestled between sea and mountain. After a pit stop in Hong Kong, he found himself in Singapore, where he would go on to lay the humble, but sturdy, foundation upon which he’d eventually build a global food empire.

Mr Fong started the Chinese restaurant Putien in 2000 -- an homage to his hometown -- as a small coffee shop on Kitchener Road. When the doors to the restaurant first opened, he had a staff of just seven people. For the first three years, he said, the outlet operated at a loss.

But through these challenges, Mr Fong clung firm to his vision.

“I wanted to introduce the cuisine of Putian to the world,” he said. “Delicious and unpretentious dishes that remind people of mom’s cooking.”

Putian cuisine, Mr Fong explained, is “very much like home-cooked food.” It’s characterised by uncomplicated and wholesome dishes made with the freshest of ingredients -- like hand-milled vermicelli served with seafood and vegetables, and yams stir-fried with a touch of honey till golden-brown.

Putien, a homage to Mr Fong’s hometown in China, operated at a loss for its first three years. Today, has 10 outlets in Singapore, along with restaurants in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai.

Within a few years, Mr Fong says, business started to improve. Satisfied customers kept returning and the restaurant’s reputation strengthened.

Today, Putien is one of Singapore’s most successful restaurants and one of the country’s most rapidly-growing F&B exports. The brand now has 10 outlets in Singapore, as well as restaurants in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taipei and Shanghai. In 2016, Putien will open in Indonesia for the first time.

Their Kitchener Road branch in Singapore has also just received one Michelin star by the Michelin Food Guide. And no one is more surprised by their global success than Mr Fong himself.

“When I first started Putien, my expectations were simple. I just wanted to open a vibrant and lively restaurant where people could come with their families and friends and enjoy the food,” Mr Fong said with a laugh. “It never occurred to me that it would become a global chain.”

Putien’s offerings are reminiscent of ‘home-cooked food’, characterised by uncomplicated and wholesome dishes made with the freshest of ingredients.

When asked about the secrets to his success, Mr Fong was unequivocal: there were no tricks, he insisted – only a love for the job, persistence, integrity and an unwavering commitment to the nurturing of a positive work culture for all employees. Consistently good food, and an effective branding and PR campaign were also imperative, he said.

Here, we highlight three important elements critical to the paving of Putien’s road to global success - in the words of Mr Fong himself.

1. A commitment to quality and one’s own values:

“IE helped us organise presentations and roadshows; and in 2014, we were part of IE’s Shanghai PR project, which helped us get the attention of local media and enhanced Putien’s image as a Singapore brand.”

“I remember a disagreement I had with my first head chef. He had come from a 5-star hotel and wanted to create an extensive menu of 100 dishes, but I told him that I wanted just 30 dishes for the restaurant. He wasn’t happy… so I told him, ‘Whatever dish I offer my customers, I must personally like it. Only then can I have this passion to do my job well and introduce these dishes to my customers.’ This principle endures till this day. Even now, we only have 60 or 70 dishes, including desserts, on our menus.

I want the dishes we serve -- wherever it is in the world -- to all be of the same high standard. These are dishes cooked with passion and with the very best ingredients. My hope is that when people want Putian food, they’ll come to my restaurant, and know they’ll get a good meal.”

2. A commitment to effective branding and PR

“When I started Putien, it didn’t occur to me that I could bring our branding to a higher level. We had a logo, uniforms, and that was all. But then, with the help of consultants, we managed to develop our business further through better branding."

PR and branding is essential to your business’s survival overseas, and IE’s GCP grant can help you with transforming your business by honing your brand.

3. A commitment to your work “family”

“At Putien, one thing I’m very proud of is our work culture. We try to take very good care of our employees.

Whenever they’ve completed a year with us, employees get treated to a free overseas tour.

We also devote one-third of our profits every quarter to dividends for our employees. I feel that this is something they deserve.

In my heart, I hope that my whole team can grow with me. My vice president of operations, for example, started off as a chef and he’s now worked his way up. Some of our employees now also own shares of the company.

Ultimately, I have many, many customers and I cannot take care of all of them. I can only take care of my employees who in turn will take care of my customers.

To me, sharing your successes and your achievements is very important.”

Next stop: The World

Mr Fong says he hopes to eventually set up Putien outlets in other major Chinese cities, as well as in Japan, Korea, the Middle East and Europe.

IE has assisted Putien in its international expansion. Under the Global Company Partnership scheme, for example, IE advised and supported the company’s forays into Hong Kong and China, helping in the set-up of flagship stores and conducting market feasibility studies.

“IE has been like a guardian to me,” said Mr. Fong. “Going forward, I’m sure our relationship with them will help us in the [further] globalisation of our business.”

Let IE partner you to achieve your global vision, through our Global Company Partnership and Market Readiness Assistance programmes.

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