Zi char, loosely translated as “cook fry”, refers to Chinese home-style dishes that are stir-fried.
From egg fried rice to noodles, this popular method of cooking is well-represented across both hawker centres and restaurants.
As zi char lovers, the founders of local F&B takeaway kiosk WOK HEY saw an opportunity to offer zi char staples with better quality ingredients, without the high price points of Din Tai Fung or Crystal Jade.
They also wanted to cater to busy Singaporeans in the form of a convenient, takeout-only kiosk format.
This led them to establish the fast-casual concept WOK HEY, growing it into a chain of 27 outlets across Singapore in a span of just four years.
Jake Chia, Huang Changyong and Adrian Ang, aged between 37 and 39, were all colleagues at various times in their careers.
Jake and Changyong met in the Singapore Air Force when they were both working as aerospace engineers, while Changyong worked with Adrian in another F&B business.
Growing up, Jake and Changyong have always been huge fans of good zi char. They found themselves hooked on that irresistible charred aroma that comes with freshly stir-fried rice or noodles.
They also gravitated towards the Asian staple whenever they are undecided on what to eat at the hawker centre or coffeeshop.
“Zi char can be found at most menus in Asian restaurants. More importantly, it was a product that was easily understood across all ages and races,” said the founders.
Whilst well-represented across both the hawker and restaurant categories, they still saw a gap when it came to accessibility and variety.
Zi char at hawker centres or coffee shops are relatively inexpensive. However, if you want better quality zi char, you have to be prepared to fork out higher prices at restaurants.
Moreover, people were placing greater value on customisable food but zi char food is not readily customisable.
Since zi char menus are quite standard, the trio wanted to offer different variations of the fried rice and noodle dishes.
We saw the opportunity to create a modern interpretation of the traditional Asian stir-fry staples, offering tasty, nutritional, value-for-money, customisable fry-to-order wok dishes.– The founders of WOK HEY
We saw the opportunity to create a modern interpretation of the traditional Asian stir-fry staples, offering tasty, nutritional, value-for-money, customisable fry-to-order wok dishes.
Moreover, consumer trends were pointing towards increasingly hectic lifestyles, so their idea of launching it with a convenient, takeout-only kiosk format worked very well among busy working adults and even students.
They kickstarted their R&D in June 2016 and six months later, they came up with the menu.
Their menu is simple and customisable, offering premium Japanese rice or noodles, paired with fresh ingredients like brussels sprouts and tobiko to appeal to a wider customer base.
Subsequently, they launched their first outlet at Bugis Junction’s basement in February 2017, with items priced from S$5 for an egg fried rice to S$7.80 for prawn udon.
WOK HEY, which is usually spelt as “Wok Hei”, literally translates to “breathe of the wok”.
Anyone who walks past a WOK HEY outlet will be able to see their chefs frying up a storm in woks behind a clear glass panel.
We decided from the start that the concept will be all-inclusive and cater to customers across 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, provide a sense of assurance regarding hygiene, food safety and preparation.– The founders of WOK HEY
We decided from the start that the concept will be all-inclusive and cater to customers across 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, provide a sense of assurance regarding hygiene, food safety and preparation.
The takeout-only format also shaped their ingredient preparation and packaging.
The add-ons are prepared bite-sized, and the packaging was designed for ease of handling when eating on the go.
This catered directly to customers who led busy lifestyles and wanted to pick up a fuss-free, quick comfort meal.
As a result, WOK HEY became so well-received that snaking queues became a common sight at their kiosks.
With the positive response from customers, they expanded rapidly and by their fourth year, they already have a whopping 27 outlets across Singapore.
However, the founders told us that their success did not come easily as they faced challenges in achieving consistency and quality.
To ensure that they deliver a consistent quality in every box of WOK HEY across their outlets, they need skilled chefs for that.
Recruitment of skilled chefs has always been a challenge. The higher labour cost will inevitably translate into a higher cost per WOK HEY pack that we fry.– The founders of WOK HEY
Recruitment of skilled chefs has always been a challenge. The higher labour cost will inevitably translate into a higher cost per WOK HEY pack that we fry.
They believe in giving as much support — training and equal opportunities –as possible to their chefs so that they are able to excel at their jobs.
This is why they are able to retain good employees and achieve consistent quality in their food.
Jake and Changyong oversee the management and growth of the brand, as well as the training of their staff. On the other hand, Adrian is involved in strategic expansions.
Furthermore, they self-funded the business without any help from external investors.
On their success, they declined to reveal revenue figures but attributed their popularity mainly to the fact that they managed to identify a market gap back then.
They wanted to bring something different to the industry, merging traditional Asian stir-fry staples with convenience, customisation and value in a fast-casual kiosk format.
Despite the huge success of their concept, the founders said they are not in a hurry to expand to eateries or restaurants as “there are still good growth opportunities for WOK HEY as a fast-casual concept in Singapore”.
The kiosk format has served WOK HEY well till date and we do not have plans to expand the brand into other formats in the near term. There could be opportunities for us to build up our F&B brand portfolio in the future but for now, our focus is on strengthening WOK HEY as a brand.– The founders of WOK HEY
The kiosk format has served WOK HEY well till date and we do not have plans to expand the brand into other formats in the near term.
There could be opportunities for us to build up our F&B brand portfolio in the future but for now, our focus is on strengthening WOK HEY as a brand.
They also said that they are constantly focused on improving the customer experience in all aspects, be it reducing waiting times, improving product quality and offering greater variety.
They have also taken this pandemic period to further strengthen their SOPs, brand guidelines and support infrastructure, so that they can be better prepared for expansion overseas when the opportunity arises.
As a home-grown Singaporean brand, they would also love to bring their brand international.
Whilst the pandemic has severely disrupted cross border travels, they are still working on regional expansion plans and are actively on the lookout for suitable strategic in-market partners.
“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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