Ricky Ng, managing director of Blue Lotus Concepts International, was practically born into the food and beverage (F&B) and hospitality industry. His grandfather was a chef in Hong Kong, whose six out of seven children ended up working in F&B-related fields. His aunt ran a small business hotel in Happy Valley, so the 45-year-old recalls spending a lot of time there as a kid and discovering that he enjoyed interacting with people.
Though born in Hong Kong, Mr Ng left at age 14 to study overseas, and did a hospitality management course in Perth. After working in restaurants and hotels in Australia and Hong Kong, he came to Singapore to join the Tung Lok Group, where he stayed for 15 years, rising from assistant manager to chief operating officer.
In 2013, he struck out on his own, teaming up with the Emmanuel Stroobant Group to open Blue Lotus Chinese Eating House at Sentosa Cove's Quayside Isle. He went solo after a year and a half and now, he has just opened his second and third outlet - Blue Lotus Chinese Noodle Bar at Science Park which opened in May, and Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House & Bar at Tanjong Pagar which was recently soft-launched.
Another one is confirmed to open by the end of this year, and there are plans for a few more outlets both locally and overseas in 2018. It's a busy schedule to keep up with, but he's more than happy to be living and breathing his work, he says.
Most people say the industry isn't doing great this year, so why are you choosing to expand now after being rather quiet for almost five years?
For me it was really about the right timing and opportunity. The market is soft but that means you are in a better position to negotiate. It's not about taking advantage of the low cost and earning more profit, though. It's about converting that cost savings to the consumers so they can have better value.
When the economy is good, everyone wants to open a business. But no matter how the market is doing, people still have to eat. So F&B is a good business to be in. It's just about what sort of market segment you're targeting. You may not want to restaurant that targets only the corporate clients, because they may have less spending power. But casual dining is okay.
What made you want to strike out on your own in the first place?
It was the opportunity, and I really liked the location at Sentosa when I first saw it. Working a corporate job means being in a comfort zone, but when you believe in something so much, you want to have full control so you can pour all your effort into it.
Plus, one push factor was that I was about 40 years old at the time. If you don't do your own thing then, you never will. I felt I was more stable, more experienced, and responsible enough to bear with any decision I made, whether it works or not.
Why do you feel so strongly about modernising Chinese cuisine?
Because I'm Chinese! (But seriously) Chinese food has the longest history compared with other cuisines - we're talking about thousands of years. I want people to look at Chinese cuisine and know that it matters.
These days, Chinese food is never the first choice for the younger generation. It's not like in the 80s and 90s when people went out and ate at Chinese restaurants. Now youngsters prefer Japanese, or Western restaurants. They never go out for Chinese food because they associate it with family or a grandparent's birthday, so they have to be very proper there. That's why we try to create a fun element in our restaurants with the food and ambience.
Also, it's so hard to find F&B staff, particularly for Chinese cuisine. So we created a kitchen that uses induction cooking and Western techniques, so it's suitable for staff from both Western and Chinese backgrounds. We're not fusion at all though, our food is very much Asian.
How involved are you in your kitchens?
I'm not a trained chef, but I like to create food and I cook as a hobby. And I learned a lot from the chefs at Tung Lok.
I normally do the first draft of the menu and brief the chefs on how I envision each dish. Then they contribute ideas and we fine-tune. I believe in creating something unique in every dish. Our chilli pomelo crab, for example, we were the first to create it that way. Chilli crab is usually sweet, but ours is spicy. When we first opened, people said that it was too spicy but we put our foot down and said, yes, that's why it's special. We even use Peranakan flavours such as assam, chilli and ginger flower.
Do you have practical advice for a young person who wants to strike out like you did?
The first is that nothing comes easy. Don't expect success to come to you overnight. You must learn to fail. It may demoralise you, but everyone makes mistakes. Just learn from them and don't make the same mistake twice.
To me, being hands-on is the most important. A lot of entrepreneurs buy a business, then pay someone else to manage it. Then, if the business fails, they can blame whoever they want, but they will never understand the full story because they're not on the floor. As an owner you tend to notice the little things. One good way is to see things from a consumer's point of view, and experience your restaurant like they would.