White Spot burgers translate well in Hong Kong
Cynthia Suen had a tough time convincing company's president that Triple O’s could make the leap
By Sharda Prashad, HONG KONG
November 1, 2009
When Cynthia Suen first approached Warren Erhart about opening the quintessential West Coast Triple O’s in Hong Kong, he wasn’t keen. Even though the company was in expansion mode, Erhart wasn’t thinking of taking his premium burgers to Asia.
“I spent a lot of time talking her out of it,” said Erhart, president and CEO of Triple O’s parent company, White Spot Ltd. “It was a big risk. I didn’t know how strong the brand awareness would be in Hong Kong. She assured me she knew the market.”
That was eight years ago, and these days Triple O’s busiest two locations — there are 57 — are in Hong Kong, a city where Vancouverites Cynthia, husband Sidney and daughter Candice Suen now spend most of their time.
Cynthia Suen, who is a realtor in Canada and Hong Kong, first became familiar with Triple O’s after she came to Canada in 1964. Her husband, then a student at UBC, would often have lunch at Triple O’s. When the family grew to include three children, a meal at Triple O’s became a regular family outing.
“We used to go when they served you outside, and there was a big plank that came down in the back seat for your table,” Candice remembers.
Cynthia originally decided to look at franchising Triple O’s in Hong Kong because her son thought it could be an interesting business opportunity. But it was eventually middle child Candice who joined her mother as a business partner. “Who wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to be your own boss?” she said. “Besides, I was the only kid in Hong Kong.”
Today, Candice’s two siblings live and work in California, while she spends her time in Hong Kong to run the Triple O’s business with her mother.
It’s mid-afternoon in Hong Kong’s Central neighbourhood where the mother and daughter combo are at the Triple O’s store in Forum, a building adjacent to one of the largest high-end shopping malls in the area.
This location, like all of the others in Hong Kong, was designed by Cynthia’s husband and Candice’s dad, Sidney, who works as an architect when he’s not busy helping out with Triple O’s. There is still a steady stream of customers trickling in and paying about $10 Cdn for a burger combo. There are a few scattered expats, but for the most part it is locals dining on the same iconic West Coast burgers. This wasn’t always the case.
When the first restaurant opened here in 2003, there was no advertising campaign to mark its launch into Asia. It was an instant hit thanks to expats who had been fans of the burger back home. That first store in Hong Kong, in the high-end Pacific Mall shopping mall, immediately became Triple O’s most successful. As Triple O’s became more known through word-of-mouth, it quickly became a hit among locals and has been ranked Hong Kong’s best burger by the Hong Kong edition of men’s magazine Maxim and other local rankings.
Each of the six Triple O’s stores in Hong Kong sells about 400 food orders a day at a price that’s about triple a McDonald’s meal in Hong Kong, or double that of Burger King.
Volume has to be high because of the costs of doing business are so high, said Cynthia. Besides outrageous rent, all of the food is imported, so volume is key. But with a population of 6.9 million, there are enough potential customers to make the Triple O Hong Kong franchise financially successful.
One reason the burger has been so successful in Hong Kong is that customer tastes are the same in Canada and Hong Kong, said Candice. “If you walk into a Triple O’s in Vancouver, there are a lot of Chinese customers and they are originally from Hong Kong. So, we have the same taste profile of customers here as back home.”
All ingredients imported
It took more than a year to ensure that Hong Kong customers would get the same tasty burgers as Vancouver. The Suens had to find the same quality ingredients used in Canada, which was a challenge on the island of Hong Kong, where virtually all food is imported. From the relish and pickles flown over from Canada, to the chicken from Brazil and beef from Australia, there isn’t a cheap way to make Triple O burgers in Hong Kong. The No. 1-selling product in Hong Kong is the mushroom burger (it’s the bacon and cheese burger in Canada). Those button mushrooms aren’t cheap, said Cynthia, but she knows that to keep her customers happy she has to deliver top-quality food.
“When I talk to owners in Canada and the United States, I think they are lucky because they have readily available meats and vegetables,” said Candice, 36, who helps run this business and recently opened up her own line of frozen yogurt stores called Yo Mama. “Lettuce and potatoes are really expensive here.”
The Suens haven’t stopped at importing the same quality food as the Canadian stores, they have also imported identical kitchen equipment. They won’t say exactly how much capital investment is needed to open each store, but say it is comparable to a full-service restaurant, rather than a fast-food outlet.
To make sure the food quality stays high, White Spot’s head office has an Asian representative who visits the Asian stores once a week to sample the food quality and the Suens have also hired an independent food lab to ensure that there is nothing in the food that shouldn’t be there.
While a presence in Hong Kong might serve as an obvious launching point for doing business in mainland China, the Suens are hesitant. “We want to keep the best product we can,” said Candice. “They are tougher to control. It’s much more difficult to ensure the quality of food there.”
Not interested in China
Cynthia is more blunt about doing business in China. “We don’t need the headache,” she said. “My children are from Canada, they are too trusting.”
Candice laughs. She’s not sure about that, but said better expansion opportunities have presented themselves. For example, a customer approached Cynthia about opening a store in Korea; there are now two. And the Bangkok opportunity arose when a consultant who had helped with the opening of the first Triple O in Hong Kong did some work in Thailand and told Cynthia about the potential in that market.
For Erhart, he isn’t depending solely on the Suens to grow the business. This year there will be 10 more Triple O stores, eight in Canada and two in Asia. Earlier this month, he visited Taiwan to meet with two potential franchisees. Taiwan has the world’s second-largest group of Vancouver expats, said Erhart, so the Triple O brand awareness will already be strong there.
Erhart is also talking to possible franchisees about opening Triple O’s in England and Australia. The English franchisee is originally from Vancouver, but the Australian first tasted Triple O’s on a visit to Hong Kong.
As for the future expansion goals for the Suens, Cynthia will look at opportunities as they arise, but her main goal is being true to her faith. God, she said, has guided her business decisions. “People have business strategies and they fail,” she said. “I have my faith.”
Candice laughs again. She respects her mother’s opinion, but Candice said she separates business and religion, while her mother intertwines the two.
Throughout the interview, Candice was quick to cut in when her mother has said things she disagreed with. This habit seems to be part of her own confident and direct personality, but the two have also had to learn how to work together over the years. One lesson the pair has learned is that they need less face-to-face communication to make quick decisions. They have started using their BlackBerrys to communicate more. That means cutting straight to the heart of an issue. The BlackBerry solution seems to be working with even Sidney, who according to his daughter doesn’t know how to use regular e-mail, part of the BlackBerry family network.
“We might not see eye to eye,” said Cynthia. “But we stand hand-in-hand.”
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