Shrieks of children's laughter pierce the PastaMania Singapore Management University outlet early on a Monday morning, sparking bright smiles from food services conglomerate Commonwealth Capital’s senior executives, Ms Yeo Yin-Yin and Mr Wilson Lim.
The obvious delight of the kids, who are attending a PastaMania Doughworkz session, speaks of the success of this marketing programme, which encourages children between four and 12 years old to channel their inner chef for several hours, whipping up scrumptious pasta dishes and rolling dough for pizza.
Fun aside, the Doughworkz series was launched to cement PastaMania’s positioning as a family-oriented restaurant that serves up simple pleasures.
WARMING UP TO GLOBALISATION
With six eateries opening across IndoChina within the next 18 months, residents in Cambodia and Myanmar will have the chance to sample PastaMania’s Italian fare.
Ms Yeo and Mr Lim say the firm also has its eyes on markets such as Bangladesh, India, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
But China is where their higher ambitions lie at the moment. Ms Yeo, managing director for China and international business, says, "Shanghai alone has the potential for 50 stores, and (there's potential for) maybe 500 in the whole of China, if we adopt a franchise approach."
Concerted efforts to bring PastaMania overseas only roared to life in 2013, about a decade after Commonwealth Capital bought over the brand. Those ten years served as an incubation period, during which PastaMania perfected its systems, from efficacious table turning to tip-top kitchen operations and building up a strong franchise system.
SUCCESS THROUGH FRANCHISING
"When franchisees come onboard, it is important that they learn how to operate a restaurant profitably. We took 10 years to fine-tune and define the systems to precision. Today, we probably have the best systems and operations. Everything is well-oiled and well-run," Ms Yeo says.
Four elements stand out in PastaMania’s growth into the F&B powerhouse it is today:
1. A uniform brand
One thing that never changes even while managing business owners with diverse objectives across varied markets – branding must never be compromised, states Ms Yeo.
Every PastaMania franchisee is equipped with a full suite of branding, marketing and branding collaterals. “All the systems will be shared with them. There will be language adaptations and tweaks in mechanisms, but the entire brand culture and identity is very much controlled to ensure consistency throughout the chain,” says Ms Yeo.
Invariably, misalignment in expectations may arise. Ms Yeo relates how one franchisee, for instance, enthusiastically wanted to set up PastaMania at a food court kiosk. "It may be hard for the franchisee to appreciate that a food court positioning is very different from casual dining, especially with the difference in overheads. But this is where we step in and draw the line."
2. Strict quality
The chef at the kitchen stove deftly scooped ingredients and controlled the fire, in fluid movements, as if he had gone through the motion countless times. Perhaps he really did. "Every chef has to be verified. Not just in terms of speed, but also the weight of the ingredients, the order in which the ingredients must be added,” says Ms Yeo.
The same goes for the franchisees. A 10-week induction programme marks the start of their commitment to PastaMania: four weeks of examinable online training to learn all about the brand, followed by a month of on-site training in Singapore or Shanghai, and the final step - training at the franchisee’s site in the lead-up to the restaurant opening.
3. Progressive technology
For any brand seeking to anchor its international franchisor status, implementing an efficient enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to boost productivity, reinforce consistency and tighten security across all outlets is critical.
For PastaMania, its global ERP system Gaitway will be rolled out to franchisees all over the world come end of the year. This includes a Menu Planner module - a vault of valuable information, where all PastaMania recipes are stored. Every detail about each dish is laid bare - from its ingredients, to grammage, to each preparation step.
"In the old days when we didn’t have such a system, everything went by Word and Excel documents. It was terrible because our information was compromised. You never knew who got hold of all these things," recalls Ms Yeo.
Such a system also makes implementing recipes in individual markets much easier. Ms Yeo explains: "For example, in IndoChina, the portions are typically smaller. If you need to reduce a chicken sausage salsiccia pasta dish by one-third in size, it doesn’t mean that you cut down all the ingredients by one-third as the taste, look and feel might be very different."
4. PR as a brand awareness tool
Earlier this year, PastaMania partnered IE Singapore in Shanghai to boost its public relations capability, a crucial stepping stone in the highly competitive Chinese F&B scene.
Invited media from popular digital channels such as Sina.com, Youku and popular microbloggers pitted their pizza-making skills against kids as young as four years old at the first Doughworkz workshop in China.
The resulting media coverage was encouraging, with online viewership soaring past 60,000. Videos capturing adorable ruddy-cheeked kids carefully slicing sausages and slurping up pasta with gusto won the hearts of Chinese netizens, translating into a 15 per cent spike in sales that month.
The company, fairly new to China’s complex digital media landscape – having been in China for just two years – was pleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of the publicity effort.
Mr Lim, Commonwealth Capital's executive director for China and international business says: "It was an entirely new experience for us. There are a lot of bloggers in China, but only a few actually make an impact. So, we have to be more discerning when selecting influencers."
On the back of the workshop’s success, he has already put in place a series of food promotions and roadshows. One thing he has learnt from the campaign: PR is an ongoing must-do to complement brand building.
PastaMania has collaborated with IE in other ways too. The agency was a critical support pillar, says Ms Yeo, providing vital information on market conditions, regulations and market potential throughout PastaMania’s globalisation process.
At the moment, PastaMania has three outlets in China, all of them in Shanghai. Now that it has mastered branding and picked up the nuances of managing public relations, it is set to chase the dream of having 500 PastaMania eateries bloom across the vast China market.