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Q&A with Dato Ringo Kaw Fan Chu

(Chief Executive Officer, Atmosphere 360 KL Tower)

Dato Ringo Kaw Fan Chu is a world-class chef and a decorated food and beverage (F&B) entrepreneur. He is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Atmosphere 360 KL Tower, renowned for its “Feel Good, Taste Good, See You At The Top” experience that has kept customers from all over the world constantly buzzing about dining at the very top of the KL Tower. Dato Ringo took some time off his busy schedule to speak to our Customer Service Manager Lindy Ong at Atmosphere 360 to shared his thoughts on the evolution of the F&B industry and what it takes to be successful in this business.

1. You began your F&B career more than 30 years ago. How far has the industry has come today and what are the crucial changes that has taken place?

The F&B industry evolves in a 10-year cycle and, from the time I began my career, the changes that I’ve seen are truly amazing. Almost everything has evolved. The way we cook, the way we create recipes, the way we deal with customers, the way we run restaurants, the way we set up restaurants, and the list goes on.

Evolution will continue and those that fail to keep up with changes will fall significantly behind. Customers tastes and expectations for top quality and diverse F&B has grown in leaps and bounds. So, it is important to constantly be on the pulse of the ground realities both at local and international levels.

For instance, generally most restaurants have signature dishes and these dishes have been on their menu for almost as long as they have existed. Back in the days, people throng these places just to savour these special dishes. However, times have changed. In today’s society, people travel extensively to places all over the world.

They have acquired different tastes, flavours and their taste buds yearn for more. We have to be prepared to think out of the box and customise dishes for customers to enjoy new flavours. Many of my regular customers like their favourite dishes cooked in different styles. If your cooking stagnates, customers will move on in a blink of an eye.

Let’s take roast duck as a popular Malaysian delicacy, for example. Once upon a time, we had the regular style of roast duck served in restaurants with slight variations in cooking methods. Now we have to be more creative. I’ve had customers wanting to enjoy roast duck with belacan and other spices to savour something different,

As a Chinese chef in Malaysia, I have to master many ethnic cuisines as we have a large number of Malay, Indian and foreign customers. We have to think of food that has Malay flavours and work with curry which are popular among Indians. Even the Chinese have different flavour preferences such as Hokkien, Hakka and Hainan.

So, our menu considers taste buds of every community, including western food, and dishes are prepared to ensure everyone feels at home. Innovation is one of the biggest reasons for Atmosphere 360’s long-standing success and we will continue to do what it takes to keep our customers coming back for more.

2. What are the key challenges that you had to deal with since the day you became an entrepreneur and what are the lessons learnt?

The 10-year evolution cycle itself presents a constant challenge. One of the biggest hurdles for our business is the economy. When there is a downturn, business can drop to unfavourable levels. Some restaurants may suffer a 25% dip while other less prepared or equipped outlets could suffer up to 50% drop in revenue.

Past experiences always teach valuable lessons to face adversity. I have suffered many hard knocks in the last four decades of being in this industry. Through a lot of hard work and perseverance and, confidence in my ability as a chef and entrepreneur, I managed to ride the storm and continue pushing forward be successful.

During an economic downturn, don’t even think about profits. You must first worry about how you can maintain a breakeven. So, I can say with authority that if you don’t learn the lessons from the hard knocks you have endured and continue to make the same mistakes again, it’s best that you just stop doing this altogether.

Sometimes when we taste a lot of success in the early years of our business, we tend to get a little big headed and start spending lavishly on renovations and expanding the menu to include more exotic dishes. When the economy takes a big hit, we struggle to keep up with the very changes that we rashly initiated.

In instances like this, the smartest thing to do is swallow your pride and go back to basics. Do what has served your business well, learn from your mistakes and keep your customers happy. It’s always good to grow your business but it has to be done sensibly with proper planning, keeping in mind sustainability and stability.

Also, you have to make sure that the quality of your food always remains high. Successful restaurants test the tastes of their cooking many times to ensure consistency. This is a key factor that draws customers to a restaurant. They trust the quality of our food and it is our responsibility to live up to their expectations.

Nowadays you see many eateries blossom quickly but fade away just as fast and eventually the shutters come down. These are classic cases of trend-based outlets that don’t necessarily have a plan B. They thrive tremendously at the peak of the trend but when trends change, customers’ tastes also change, and they find it difficult to sustain.

A simple way to kick start your restaurant journey is to begin with serving a certain number of dishes. Consolidate popular ones and eliminate the rest. Keep improving them and make them better through exercising high-quality control. This will allow your restaurant to grow organically and sustain for a long time.

Another thing that I strongly believe in is getting customer feedback. Ask them what they look forward to beyond the menu. The powerful impact of this is my customer becomes my master, my sifu and my adviser. Repeat customers are just as important as attracting new ones and positive word of mouth is priceless in this industry.

In conclusion, these are some of the major challenges that I had to deal with and overcome throughout my F&B career. There will always be ups and downs. It is important to have determination and total appreciation of your customers.

Anyone can be a good chef but to be a great chef, my philosophy is that your heart must always be in the right place. You must have:

A loving heart – Love yourself, your family and your customers

A happy heart – Love your profession, cook with love and serve with love

A caring heart – Care for your family’s and customer’s happiness. Understand shortcomings and appreciate effort.

This philosophy has made me a better chef and an even better entrepreneur.

3. How has technology impacted the F&B industry especially your business?

Technology has been the biggest influencer not just in my industry but literally every aspect of our lives. Attaining success in F&B today requires quick adaptation to new digital waves to accommodate the demands of the public. After all, the customer is always right and if you think otherwise, this is not the business for you.

Thanks to technology and digital platforms, customers are far more knowledgeable than times past. Take cooking as an example. In those days, in order to cook special dishes, you have to learn from master chefs. The higher the profile of the chef, the more it will cost you to learn hence, only a select few can afford to do so.

Today, thanks to YouTube, people can go online and easily find recipes and ways to cook dishes from around the world. It’s a big difference from learning cooking through books as videos give clear demonstration on how dishes are cooked and prepared. After watching and trying it a few times, you can easily get the hang of it.

Technology has also increased efficiency in our payment systems and customer relationship management. We are able to know and understand our customers much better today. Cooking too has immensely benefitted from technology. It is done much faster, helps cut down labour intensive hours, and increases safety in the kitchen.

Cooking is also done with more hygienic means, which avoids contamination and food poisoning. There is no denying that implementing state of the art technology is a costly affair. In the long run, however, it gives better safety, more efficiency and definitely reduces the cost of manpower requires to do these jobs.

One day even facial recognition technology could help restaurants identify regular customers and their preferences, be it food, service or seating arrangements, which can help us instantly keep them happy and satisfied. While this is not implemented yet, you never know how powerful a tech tool like this can be in the future.

In a nutshell, embracing the latest technology for your restaurant is crucial to your business’ success. Technology complements people skills perfectly and together, you can be assured of happy customers and brisk business.

4. How did your relationship with Cheng & Co begin and how has it benefitted your business?

I would say that my relationship with Cheng & Co is God sent. It happened as a matter of coincidence. Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai is a good friend of mine and someone that I respect a lot. He used to invite me to join him for talk sessions and dinner quite often.

It is during one of these sessions that I had the opportunity to meet Cheng & Co’s Executive Chairman Dato’ Dr Chua Hock Hoo, who is also a good friend of Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai.

At that time, I was dealing with some shareholder problems and things were getting complicated. I was feeling down and it was a big distraction for me as I had a business to run and hundreds of loyal customers to satisfy.

I was having an informal conversation with Dato’ Dr Chua and I openly shared these issues with him. He instantly told me to come by his office to discuss. Me and my partner went to his office the next day for a meeting with him and his team.

Very quickly Cheng & Co helped me work out a structure to deal with my shareholder problems and, six months later, we managed to sort out the issues and I could continue managing my business with a peace of mind. This is why I said it was God sent.

This is how my relationship with Cheng & Co began. I am always grateful to Cheng & Co and their professionalism in helping me resolve this problem and providing continuous guidance on management and shareholder related matters.

The lesson that I learnt here is that we cannot assume that we are too smart for guidance. Learning is a journey for life. We have to admit that somethings are just beyond us and we need to engage top-quality professionals to help us navigate the rocky roads, like I did with Cheng & Co. They are industry experts for a reason.

My advice for young entrepreneurs is, to grow your business and run it successfully, you must engage the best consultants that you can. A top-class company secretary, legal advisor and accounting firm is a must to always keep you and your business on the right track, allowing you to firmly focus on your core business goals and planning.

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