Executive Chat featuring Kelvin Chen of Manchu Wok

Kelvin Chen Manchu Wok CEOKelvin Chen is the CEO of Chinese QSR company Manchu Wok, based in Toronto, which has 160 restaurants across the US and Canada, located in malls and non-traditional locations. Manchu Wok is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Café De Coral, a company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Chen was born in Hong Kong, educated at the University of Southern California, and has held senior management roles in the restaurant industry throughout Asia and now North America.

You recently expanded the Manchu Wok portfolio by developing two new concepts. What can you tell me about them?

We have for 30 years been specialized in Chinese food. Our view of the current North American market is that it is more sophisticated and open to other Asian cuisines than ever before.

Our first new brand is SenseAsian. It combines the more recognized Asian dishes under one roof. It has fresh, cooked-to-order items from a grill, as well as more traditional steam table items for people in a rush. Being a mall-based concept, we are cognizant that some customers only have a limited amount of time for lunch. We also feature more vegetable, tofu, and seafood items because that reflects the expectations of what customers today are looking for – a more balanced diet.

The first SenseAsian is in downtown Toronto in the business district, and we are opening a second one in October.

What is your second new concept?

The second one is called Wasabi Grill and Noodle. The first location will open in Toronto in October. Wasabi will offer a Japanese Teppan Grill for cooked-to-order items, a selection of sushi, and soup and fried noodles with different toppings. That’s in response to customers’ acceptance and request for Japanese food as well as increasing popularity of noodles as comfort food. The fact that we offer food other than Chinese food has been very well received by customers, franchisees, and land lords.

What are your other plans for growing the company?

There are not a lot of new malls being constructed, and if we stay a mall-based company, then our speed of growth is tied to the speed of growth of mall space, so we are also looking at moving to the street.

Our other way of growing the business is to continue to support our franchisees.  We are not in the business of just selling franchises. We are in the business of making our brands successful.

How many franchisees do you have?

About a hundred, give or take.

What do you think is key to successful operations in the non-traditional environment?

The primary difference of a non-traditional location is that it is more likely that it’s run by a franchisee. To me, the success of operating in a non-traditional environment is simply that it is even more important we support our franchisees well and produce quality products consistently. I don’t think it’s anything vastly different.

Do you think that shopping malls will continue to be a viable location?

I think people will continue to congregate to shop or eat, mingle, or be entertained, so places that serve these purposes will continue to have a place in society.

The question is how shopping malls will change. If they provide shopping, eating, and entertainment, can these activities continue in ways that make them viable as a business? Can they provide the right mix and cost structure and create the right chemistry for the magic to happen?

If shopping malls need to change, they will. Consolidation weeds out excesses and is healthy in the long run.

What cultural advice would you give to Americans about doing business in China?

Having grown up and studied up and having worked and lived in West and East, I do find cultural gaps to be considerable and not necessarily narrowing. Yet the approach to understanding is not different. Getting good help, listening, and having an open mind will help.

The openness of Western culture has led to very sophisticated marketing skills, whereas the historically closed Chinese culture has been focused more on execution, so a willingness to adjust and complement each other will help. As an example, it is not enough being able to have a good product. It is just as important to let the market know that you have such a good product.

My view is that while the Chinese can make a good product, there is still a lot to be learned on how to market the product.

On the personal front, I understand that you’ve gotten pretty good at ball room dancing?

I’ve been doing it for about 12 years now, and I enjoy being able to move with good music. It’s really a lot of fun. I like waltzes, fox trots, and that kind of thing.

Some people like to dance with a regular partner or dance teacher, but I see that as kind of cheating. I believe that if the man leads well, he should be able to dance well with a partner who has a dancing background. It’s a good workout and sure makes you popular with the ladies.

Rebecca Patt specializes in executive recruiting for the restaurant industry. Want to have an executive chat with Rebecca Patt? Contact her at Rebecca.patt@wraysearch.com.

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