Written by Megean Kelly
Like the rest of the world, the sector is undergoing major changes in Hong Kong as consumers are turning to healthier alternatives
The fast-food business is morphing into a better class of products and services as Hong Kong consumers are becoming more conscious than ever about their health, and the food they tuck in. The fast-food industry in the United States is a multibillion-dollar business. Fast food in the past has meant cheap, quick food that people could either take away or eat in the premises.
The ingredients were cheap as mass production was more important than quality. However, with the trend of people wanting healthier food, the fast-food industry is undergoing a revolution of sorts.
The new type of fast food is referred to by industry insiders as 'quick-casual'. This food is made to order and the ingredients are of a higher quality. People can still choose to take their food with them or eat in the establishment. It just takes a bit longer to get the food, but the wait is worth it.
In Hong Kong, fast food has been a staple for decades and so it is considered a mature market. Now, there are some new players in town who adhere to the quick-casual style and are expanding their franchise outlets across the city, providing food at higher costs.
Triple O's, a Hong Kong fast-food operator under the management of White Spot, a Canadian company, opened up the first of its five outlets in Hong Kong in November 2003 at Pacific Place. According to Candice Suen, director of Triple O's, the company features products that use no preservatives, artificial flavours or monosodium glutamate. Its hygiene and health standards meet Hong Kong's regulations, and the more stringent ones from Canada.
'We're a family-owned company,' she said. 'Hong Kong was our first international outlet. We determined that the territory had the taste profile to make our business a success, so we decided to try opening a store here. Now we have five and plan to expand to at least one more store this year.'
Another company making its first appearance in Hong Kong, in early summer this year, is Fatburger, a major fast-food chain that originated in California. David Sun Jian, managing director of the company in Hong Kong, said the appeal of fast food represented a way of life, with a focus on American culture and to a wider extent on western culture. 'Fast food is becoming more popular in places such as China, which is a developing market,' he said.
Made-to-order food is becoming a dining option, which ensures freshness and better taste, and better quality fast food means customers need to pay more. 'Food prices are higher than other fast-food outlets because of high quality ingredients chosen, combined with ample portions and homemade appeal,' Ms Suen said.
Hong Kong's fast-food experience does not only include the traditional western flavours, but items with a Japanese twist with MOS Burger opening its first outlet in Hong Kong in October 2006. Yamasaki Airo, the managing director, said his company set itself apart from the competition by focusing on meat and vegetable quality. 'We will mainly focus on our food quality and use our high quality food to fight for our existence,' he said.
With over 1,500 outlets in Japan, MOS Burger is the largest hamburger chain there.
In Hong Kong, it has six outlets and plans to open at least one more store this year. While it may seem that the Hong Kong market is saturated with fast-food outlets, all three chains plan on expansion. Ms Suen believes the competition makes everyone better. 'We try harder and have to be more creative. If there is no competition, then it is very easy to become lazy,' she said.
Part of the competition, as with all types of retail business, is the location. 'Location is key. We look for a location with high visibility. So our flagship store will be located in Wan Chai near the Hopewell Centre, with our second store opening at almost the same time in Causeway Bay at Lee Gardens,' Mr Sun said.
And typical of many business sectors, hiring and retaining quality employees is an issue for these quick-casual franchises.
'We are always looking for good staff. We want people who are friendly and who can also follow instructions and adhere to our high standards,' Ms Suen said.
MOS Burger was hiring both full- and part-time crew for its outlets, Mr Airo said. Industry background and experience was helpful for people who wanted to work for Fatburger, but Mr Sun said the company would provide quality training, especially at the manager level.
'We try to instil a sense of ownership of the business in staff. If we can do that, then the quality of service is higher.'
industry focusFast food
Service time The time it takes for the customer to get the change back from an order to the food arriving in their hands.
Mystery shoppers People hired by a company, pretending to be ordinary customers, to evaluate the service levels and the quality of products, and give comments for improvement, which is common practice in the retail and service sectors
Franchise business Where the franchisee rents the original business operator's trademark and method of doing business that involves a standardised approach to delivering a product or service
Veggie burger A non-meat burger, the patty of which can be made from ingredients such as vegetables, nuts, dairy, wheat gluten or a combination of these