How S’pore Zi Char Brand WOK HEY Grew To 27 Outlets In 4 Years

Zi char, loosely translated as “fry,” refers to homemade Chinese dishes that are stir-fried.

From fried rice to eggs to noodles, this popular cooking method is well represented in hawking centers and restaurants.

As zi char enthusiasts, the founders of the local F&B takeout kiosk WOK HEY saw an opportunity to offer zi char staples with higher quality ingredients, without the high prices of Din Tai Fung or Crystal. Jade.

They also wanted to meet the needs of busy Singaporeans in the form of a convenient, take-out-only kiosk format.

This led them to create the quick and relaxed WOK HEY concept, turning it into a chain of 27 outlets across Singapore in just four years.

Transform Zi Char into a takeaway F&B concept

Jake Chia, Huang Changyong and Adrian Ang, aged 37 to 39, were all colleagues at different points in their careers.

Jake and Changyong met in the Singapore Air Force when they both worked as aerospace engineers, while Changyong worked with Adrian at another catering company.

Growing up, Jake and Changyong have always been big fans of bon zi char. They found themselves addicted to that irresistible charred aroma that accompanies freshly sautéed rice or noodles.

wok hey founders
Left to Right: Adrian Ang, Jake Chia and Huang Chang Yong / Image Credit: WOK HEY

They also turned to the Asian staple whenever they didn’t know what to eat at the hawking center or cafe.

“Zi char is found on most Asian restaurant menus. More importantly, it was a product that was easily understood by all ages and races, ”the founders said.

While well represented in the hawker and restaurant categories, they still saw a gap in accessibility and variety.

Zi char in hawking centers or cafes are relatively inexpensive. However, if you want better quality zi char, you have to be prepared to pay higher prices in restaurants.

Wok Hey
Image Credit: Sethlui.com

In addition, people placed a higher value on customizable food, but zi char food is not easily customizable.

Since zi char’s menus are fairly standard, the trio wanted to offer different variations of fried rice and noodle dishes.

We saw the opportunity to create a modern take on traditional basic Asian stir-fry, delivering tasty, nutritious, value-for-money, and customizable wok dishes.

– The founders of WOK HEY

Additionally, consumer trends were pointing to increasingly hectic lifestyles, so their idea of ​​launching it with a convenient, take-out-only kiosk format was working very well among busy working adults and even college students.

Why they decided to adopt open kitchens

They launched their R&D in June 2016 and six months later they offered the menu.

Their menu is simple and customizable, featuring premium Japanese rice or noodles, paired with fresh ingredients like Brussels sprouts and tobiko to appeal to a wider clientele.

Wok Hey Bugis Junction
Bugis Junction / Image credit: CapitaLand

Subsequently, they launched their first outlet in the Bugis Junction basement in February 2017, with items priced from S $ 5 for a fried rice with eggs to S $ 7.80 for a shrimp udon.

Customizable
Image Credit: ivanteh-runningman.blogspot.com

WOK HEY, which is generally spelled “Wok Hei”, literally translates to “breathe the wok“.

Anyone passing a WOK HEY outlet will be able to see their cooks frying a storm in woks behind a clear glass panel.

We decided from the start that the concept would be all inclusive and meet the needs of customers from all walks of life.

The open kitchen concept was intentionally designed to allow our customers to visually participate in our cooking process and, more importantly, to provide a sense of self-assurance in hygiene, food safety and preparation.

– The founders of WOK HEY

The take-out-only format has also shaped the preparation and packaging of ingredients.

The add-ons are bite-sized, and the packaging has been designed to be easy to handle when eating on the go.

Fried rice with shrimps in a wok hey
Image Credit: @ ck.sg_food

This was aimed directly at customers who led busy lifestyles and wanted a comforting, quick meal.

As a result, WOK HEY became so well received that the meandering queues became a common sight at their booths.

Achieve consistency in every box

With the positive response from customers, they have grown rapidly and in their fourth year they already have 27 outlets across Singapore.

However, the founders told us that their success has not been easy as they have faced challenges to achieve consistency and quality.

wok hey shanghai fried rice
Shanghai Fried Rice / Image Credit: Sethlui.com

To ensure that they deliver consistent quality in every box of WOK HEY in their outlets, they need qualified cooks for it.

Recruiting qualified cooks has always been a challenge. The higher cost of labor will inevitably result in a higher cost per WOK HEY pack that we fry.

– The founders of WOK HEY

They believe in giving as much support – training and equal opportunities – as possible to their cooks so that they can excel at their jobs.

That is why they are able to retain good employees and achieve consistent quality in their food.

Chefs Wok Hey
Screenshot from video / Image credit: smydie / YouTube

The three founders are heavily involved in the business, overseeing the management and growth of the brand, as well as the training of their staff.

In addition, they self-financed the business without the help of outside investors.

One wok at a time

Due to their success, they declined to reveal their income figures, but mostly attributed their popularity to the fact that they had managed to identify a market gap at the time.

They wanted to bring something different to the industry, fusing traditional Asian stir-fry staples with convenience, customization, and value in a quick and relaxed kiosk format.

Despite the huge success of their concept, the founders said they were in no rush to expand into restaurants or eateries because “there are still good growth opportunities for WOK HEY as a fast-casual concept. in Singapore ”.

The kiosk format has served WOK HEY well to date and we have no plans to expand the brand to other formats in the short term.

There might be opportunities for us to grow our F&B brand portfolio in the future, but for now we are focused on strengthening WOK HEY as a brand.

– The founders of WOK HEY

They also said that they are constantly focused on improving the customer experience in all aspects, from reducing wait times, improving product quality and offering greater variety. .

They have also used this pandemic period to further strengthen their SOPs, brand guidelines and support infrastructure, to better prepare for overseas expansion when the opportunity arises.

wok hey limited edition box set
Limited edition box set on ‘Our Bicentennial’ theme / Image credit: WOK HEY

As a local Singaporean brand, they would also like to bring their brand internationally.

While the pandemic has severely disrupted cross-border travel, they are still working on regional expansion plans and are actively seeking suitable strategic partners in the market.

“We hope to redefine the experience and perception of traditional Asian stir-fry stapes, one wok at a time,” said the founders.

Featured Image Credit: WOK HEY / Twitter


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Jothi Venkat

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