This interview was recorded before Phase 2: Heightened Alert
SINGAPORE — It’s a wet Thursday afternoon the day I’m scheduled to meet Royal Pek Wen Yang, co-founder, of Xian Dan Chao Ren, the newest and only salted egg kiosk to hit Punggol Waterway Point. We meet at Isetan Scotts where the crowd is thin and the sales staff are a tad restless from the lack of customers. I take a seat at Leckerbaer, a cup of Latte at my side as I prepare for this interview.
A few minutes later, Royal strides into the mall dressed in the signature Xian Dan Chao Ren uniform of a fitted white t-shirt with the shop’s chicken mascot emblazoned at the front. He’s also wearing a trippy yellow cap, not by any means a fashion choice I’d endorse, though entirely congruent with the outfit choice today. In between juggling kitchen duties and growing the brand, Royal has his work cut out for him. But as someone whose LinkedIn reads like a sure and stable future in the world of finance, I’m curious to know how a newcomer views the uncertain and at times rocky F&B industry today.
Zat Astha: How will you describe what you do to someone you are meeting for the first time?
Royal Pek: I sell food, and I try my best to make it look good to you. I wouldn’t say anything more than that I am simply trying to create something—value. I’m here to provide you with good food, using branding and marketing to make the dishes I cook up appetising.
You do not consider yourself an entrepreneur? You do, right? It's on your Instagram profile.
Okay, to be fair, that term is very strong and to many people, toxic even. It’s the kind of word that begs attention. With that word, people who have not launched any business would what to hear from you, while the rest just wants to cheat you. For me, I use that word as a challenge. It makes me want to push myself more and prove other people wrong. It’s the kind of tension that makes me feel very motivated.
Why did you decide to pursue the business of food?
I’m different from many other F&B owners who, for example, started baking from home and have that passion for cooking. It was really by chance that at the right moment in time, some business partners reached out to me looking for a finance and marketing person. Food itself wasn’t a domain I was familiar with. But once I got my feet wet, I realised that there are many untapped opportunities, although it can be pretty competitive.
It’s hard to find an edge in this industry and to come up with new products. What has worked is to be crystal clear with what you know and focus on that. So now, the challenge is to try to beat that straightforward but complex market—that is what spurs me on. Plus, it helps that I’ve always liked salted egg.
You’ve always like Salted Egg? Why?
Regardless of where you find salted egg, whether it’s in Singapore, Malaysia or even Indonesia, the taste of salted egg is actually a combination of what we grew up with. People think that it’s nice simply because it’s put together so well—that it’s a heady combination of sweet and salty. But actually, it’s the type of taste that we have been eating from young—at least as an Asian kid. It’s familiar.
But once you put it together, it becomes this creamy, decadent, luxurious dish that just works. It combines all my favourite flavours as a child growing up. That’s why I love it so much. It’s strong enough to hold its own. For a good two years, I spent time playing with different types of sauces and various permutations, which ultimately culminated in the menu at Xian Dan Chao Ren today. It’s all very fun.
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You seem to like what you do. Do you think that it is essential for a successful F&B owner to start with doing something that they like?
It definitely helps a lot to be doing something that you like. It just flows right. You’re focused, and when on the job, time passes by fast. On the contrary, if you’re doing something you don’t have a passion for, it’s tough to compete with other people in the same industry. Others who are intrinsically in the flow will always beat you to it because they don’t think they’re working, at least not in the traditional ‘this is just a job’ sense. Your chances of succeeding are just that much higher if you’re doing something you like.
Do you think you are successful because it is a relatively novel item amongst the sea of like, doughnut, and other things? Or is it because you are offering something that other place doesn't have?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Salted Egg as a dish has been around for the longest time, sold amongst other dishes, but never the star. It seems as if no one is bold enough to open a shop selling exclusively salted egg offerings. I’ve been in the F&B industry for about three years now, and I know that people are still ordering it. So I wouldn’t say that the trend has died down.
A better way to put it is that no one has dominated this particular food segment yet—therein lies the challenge. It’s pretty obvious why people avoid selling only salted egg—the margins are not very high. You also need some specialised skills to manipulate this dish and ensure consistency. Even right now, I still struggle with it, even after trying to standardise the processes and systems. It’s always going to be a work in progress, like all good things. But I’m confident that the interest in salted egg dishes is here to stay.
What do you think the future of F&B looks like?
I imagine it will all be about customizability. Imagine walking to a store, and they have all your data there through an app. The store knows exactly what you like and prepares a dish that’s customised precisely for you. Of course, operationally, it will be challenging initially, but I think we can eventually get there.
It all ties in with the statistics that a person who likes something you offer at a store has a 42 per cent chance of returning every day. Then maybe the second time they bring their friends, and then the third time, they come back again because they’re familiar with the menu. During the fourth visit, that’s when the customer becomes a regular patron. So that’s the challenge: marketing to customers such that they come back that many times.
And which part of the F&B future scares you the most?
That people won’t like salted egg dishes any more. That would ultimately put me out of business. And it is a possibility, what with the rising trend of consumers being more health-conscious and aware of what they put in their body.
I would, of course, consider plant-based meats. Personally, I think they taste good, but that’s probably because, ironically, I’m not a very picky eater. But I feel that there is just something in real meat that cannot be replaced or substituted with its plant-based counterparts. It’s good for the consumers and society, no doubt. But for me, right now, it’s less of a priority.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you have made in your food journey that you have never told anyone about?
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s a sacrifice, but it does take an inordinate amount of time and effort. There’s a lot of compromises to be had. It could be time with your loved ones, family, partner. People would ask if I want to meet up for a drink, but I can’t because, for example, I have to count the earnings of the day. And after that, if the business is not doing as well as I expected, I have to think about bringing in sales for tomorrow. Rinse and repeat.
It’s not that I don’t want to go out and spend time with people I love. I do. But that time I spend away from the business if it doesn’t lead to a good outcome for the company, is that time well-spent? It’s very tough for me to balance it.
It’s also difficult for my family and me. After a whole day of talking to thousands of customer, smiling and interacting, sometimes when I’m done with work, I don’t want to smile or speak to anyone anymore. I’m smiling so much for people I don’t personally know that it takes my joy away from people I care about. And that it’s so stupid right, but I really can’t help it. I’ve been in the kitchen the whole day, and I’m tired. It’s tough to accept that I’ve had to sacrifice my relationships with the people I love.
Last question. When you look at the state of dining in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
People are willing and not reticent about spending money. It’s the reason why so many restaurants can survive. The trend is that people are spending more and more in this industry; I mean, you don’t want to be in a business where people are spending less and less, right? If you’re selling reasonably good food, then that equation of diminishing returns doesn’t apply. People are willing to pay, and in that respect, that gives me hope.
So, your answer, in the gist of it, is purchasing power?
Purchasing power, yes.
It is a very honest answer. And I tend to agree.
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