Lunch With Sumiko

BreadTalk's George Quek on conquering the world, one loaf at a time

George Quek's BreadTalk Group has ambitions to grow from about 1,000 stores now to 2,000 stores by 2022

When Mr George Quek was a struggling businessman in Taiwan back in the 1980s, he had a dream.

He and his wife were driving up to Yangmingshan, a scenic area outside Taipei, one day when they spotted a beautiful villa.

Enchanted, he took a photograph of it. "I thought it would be very nice to have a bungalow like that at Yangmingshan," he remembers. "That was my first dream."

He never got round to building a villa in Yangmingshan. But since those early days in Taiwan, the Singaporean has gone on to build a $670 million food empire.

Today, he has nearly 1,000 stores under the BreadTalk Group where he is founder and chairman. The stores are spread over 100 cities in 17 countries, including in the Middle East and India.

By 2022, the group foresees it will have 2,000 stores.

The group has an array of brands including the BreadTalk and Bread Society chain of bakeries, Toast Box cafes, food courts like Food Republic and Food Opera, and restaurants like the franchise it holds in several countries for steamed-dumpling chain Din Tai Fung.

But it is bread that Mr Quek is most associated with, and the reason we are meeting is because of his latest bread venture.

In March, the BreadTalk Group announced that it is tying up with Taiwan's famed baker Wu Pao Chun to expand overseas.

The first joint-venture Wu Pao Chun bakery will open in Shanghai later this year. Shops in Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Singapore and Hong Kong will follow.

I've tasted - and love - the bread from Wu Pao Chun in Taipei. Its acclaimed longan with red wine bread is nutty and chewy, the pineapple cakes are chunks of buttery heaven, and the German pudding out of this world.

I ask if he is afraid that Wu Pao Chun would affect the popularity of his own bakeries.

No, he says. "This is a collaboration, like 1+1=2. I don't see him as competition."

Wu Pao Chun's breads are different from BreadTalk's, he points out. For instance, they incorporate European and Japanese bread-making techniques and use a lot of Taiwanese products. These high-end artisanal breads are also priced much higher - a loaf in Taiwan costs about $15 - and because of this, there will probably be only three stores in a city.

"It cannot be like BreadTalk where we can open 100 stores in Shanghai, 100 stores in Beijing, 60 stores in Singapore," he says.

He adds that what BreadTalk brings to the venture is its decades of experience in business, particularly in branding, its network of contacts, and customer reach.

OUR lunch is at Toast Box in Millenia Walk, chosen because it is newly opened - last month - and features a new coffee museum-themed concept. Like his other Toast Box outlets, the decor is light, airy and pretty.

He places a lot of emphasis on the design and aesthetics of his stores, which is not surprising as he loves art.

His name card features a line drawing of him done by the group's former creative director. He is also spiffily dressed. His very slim frame sports a lightweight jacket in blue-beige stripes over a blue polo shirt and dark jeans. The clothes are from the high-end Japanese brand 45R which he has brought into Singapore in a joint venture with 45R's director.

He has a serious, even stern, mien and it is only halfway into our 90-minute lunch that he relaxes and smiles more easily.

We both opt for the mee siam set. One of his PR people is there to help me translate as he is more comfortable in Mandarin, although he answers in English for much of this interview. She has kaya toast.

With so many bakeries under his belt, I wonder if he actually likes bread.

Yes, he says, and eats it almost every day. His favourite is still BreadTalk's original pork floss bun that made the brand famous when it opened in 2000. He also likes its sunflower buns.

As for Toast Box, which started as a stall in Wisma Atria's Food Republic in 2005, the laksa is his favourite. But he had it the day before and so it is mee siam today. He helpfully offers me a tip: You can ask for bread instead of rice when you order the curry set at ToastBox.

He prefers Asian food to Western. "When I visit my son who is studying in London, if I have to eat Western food every day I cannot take it."

He loves the food at Din Tai Fung - "I can eat it every day" - but away from his own restaurants, favourites include Hill Street Tai Hwa Bak Chor Mee. The true-blue Teochew also lists Chao San Cuisine in Phillip Street as a place he goes to for authentic Teochew dishes.

THE F&B business wasn't his first choice of career though. Art was.

He was an indifferent student at Xinmin Secondary School but enjoyed sketching and calligraphy. "I did not like to study. I would walk to school and sometimes on my way there, I would catch fish or catch spiders."

A cousin once persuaded him to take part in art contests held by the community centre. He took part over two years and came in third and second.

He grew up in the Hougang area, in an attap house in Lorong Low Koon, the second of four boys to a seaman, who came from China, and a housewife who was born in Indonesia.

"We were poor but we were happy," he says. "Our parents loved us and never pressured us."

His older brother is now a businessman in Shanghai, a younger brother runs a prawn mee stall, and another is head of real estate at the BreadTalk Group.

His Chinese name is Meng Tong and George was a name he adopted when he was older. "I saw the name in a book and liked it."

After Secondary 4, he took classes at the now-defunct Singapore Art Academy. Opportunities for Chinese-educated students like him were limited. He signed on as a regular in the army and stayed there for five years.

After leaving the army, he worked in a handicraft shop in Parklane Shopping Mall where he did wood carving and metal engraving. It was there that he met his future wife, Katherine Lee Lih Leng, who worked under him. She is now vice-chairman of the group.

The couple left for Taiwan in 1982 where he wanted to study art. But his savings didn't last long and to make a living, they started a kiosk in a mall selling dragon beard candy, a traditional sugared snack. It expanded to five kiosks.

His rags-to-riches story is well-known. From candy he went into selling Singapore dishes in Taiwan. After hiccups and tweaking of recipes to suit Taiwanese taste, he tasted the beginnings of success.

In 1992, he sold off the business and returned to Singapore. He moved his parents out of the kampung into a small landed property in Hougang.

The next year, he and three partners founded Food Junction in Bishan Junction 8. Putting hawker stalls in an air-conditioned mall was considered a novelty then. Singaporeans loved it and other Food Junctions - as well as imitators - popped up.

He left Food Junction in 2000 to start BreadTalk. The first outlet was at Parco Bugis Junction and it branded itself as a "bread boutique".

Mr Quek at his BreadTalk shop on July 21, 2000. His first outlet was at Parco Bugis Junction and it was branded as a ''bread boutique''. PHOTO: ST FILE

The most fancy bakery then was Delifrance. BreadTalk made the news for selling bread in a sleek setting with white shelves, lots of light and music playing in the background. The buns came with fancy fillings and cheeky names like Crouching Tiger Hidden Bacon.

He went on to other food ventures, including bringing in the popular Din Tai Fung from Taiwan. He also went back to food courts with Food Republic and Food Opera. Toast Box was launched in 2005.

Expanding overseas is inevitable if he wants to grow. "Singapore is an important market but it's not easy to grow, and there are a lot of challenges," he says. "Labour costs are high, rental costs are high and the profit margin is very thin."

WHILE Mr Quek has been feted as a Singapore success story, he has had his share of business setbacks.

A foray into the food court business in China in the 1990s bombed and he lost a lot of money. How much? "$20million," he says softly.

The brand has also had its share of controversy. In 2015, BreadTalk the bakery had to apologise for passing off Yeo's brand of soya bean milk as its own.

Yesterday, it was reported that the authorities have suspended BreadTalk and Toast Box at Plaza Singapura for two weeks for rodent and cockroach infestation. The company has said it will review its procedures and training.

"F&B is a tough business," he says at our lunch which took place early this month. "It's a lot of hard work. Everything must be right every day. The food has to be stable and you must have quality control and service control."

Yet, he loves it. He loves the thrill of coming up with a location and getting the restaurant and food concept right. "My sense is very strong in this," he says matter-of-factly.

I wonder what advice he would give someone hoping to be a George Quek.

It helps to have a role model, he says. His was Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing, who started with nothing.

Another tip would be to build strong partnerships and have a give-and-take attitude with your partners.

Third would be that sheer hard work always pays. "Say you work 10 hours and I work 14 hours. In those additional four hours I learn more, I'm trying more, and I become better than you. It's not that I'm smarter than you. It's just that I'm more willing to learn."

And finally, you have to love what you do. It's not just creating stores and new products that he likes. "I like serving customers. When people say that your food is good, you feel a sense of satisfaction," he says. "You must like your job."

The father of three is on the road half his time. Besides the Wu Pao Chun venture, his mind is on the opening of a Din Tai Fung in Covent Garden in London, slated by year's end.

To relax, he does qigong and is a serious collector of Chinese art. He is also involved in Teochew community work.

His 25-year-old daughter works in the group's bakery division. He has two sons aged 23 and 22. The older is studying in London and the younger at university here.

He says it is too early to say if they would take over the business, which is listed. His children have a lot to learn and this will take long years. It's easier to start a business than take over an established one, he believes. "If you don't run it well, everything will collapse."

At 62, he feels young and retirement is not on the cards.

I say that having close to 1,000 stores must be quite a burden, let alone the target of 2,000. He says he has a good team.

"I sleep very well," he says. Then, breaking into a rare smile, adds: "When I hit the pillow, I'll be asleep by the count of 10."