School of hard woks: Ex-restaurant magnate works hard to rebuild catering business

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 2:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 2:23pm

Hong Kong is a city of survivors; few, however, embrace the never-say-die spirit quite like Chan Hing-to. The 55-year-old runs a small stall serving Western meals at the Shek Wu Hui cooked food centre in Sheung Shui. It's a humble venture compared to 20 years ago, when Chan was the boss of a chain of 48 restaurants, which at its peak recorded a turnover of about HK$1.5 million a day.

Opened in 2008, the Sheung Shui stall is Chan's return to the food business, a decade after the collapse of his Farm House Restaurant group. His outlet does brisk business during lunch and, although he has the help of two staff, Chan is often rushed off his feet between cooking and waiting on customers.

Chan looks older than his years with his head of white hair and fatigue evident on his face. But then, he has been logging 15-hour workdays, every day, year after year.

"I've only had four rest days over the past four years. Every day, I wake up at seven, start on paperwork for my business at 7.30am, go to my food stall at 10am and work until 10pm. [From washing dishes and cooking to serving customers], I do everything myself."

Wearing an apron, with his left armed bandaged after being scalded at the stove, Chan has fallen a long way from his position at the top of a restaurant empire that once employed a workforce of 1,300.

Yet he insists, "Having one eatery and 48 restaurants is no different to me. It's just work."

Chan hoped the Sheung Shui food stall would serve as the cornerstone for a new catering business. But his attempts to expand have run aground so far: rent hikes forced the closure of a branch in Kwai Chung in 2010. Of two later ventures in Sham Shui Po and Cheung Sha Wan, only the former survived.

He started in the latter before securing an official restaurant licence; it resulted in a HK$7,000 fine, which the cash-strapped Chan had to pay in instalments. He wound up borrowing HK$10,000 from loan sharks to tide his family over the Lunar New Year period, and now faces hefty interest payments.

"My finances are not stable now. It's like living moment to moment. The money I earn today will be gone tomorrow. I borrowed HK$10,000 from loan sharks, but HK$2,000 of that was for administrative fees and I have to repay another HK$5,000 just for interest."

As desperate as Chan's predicament seems, it does not come close to the dire financial straits that forced the closure of his Farm House Restaurant group 16 years ago; he was declared bankrupt in 2001.

"I made a bad decision in trying to do everything to save my catering business. When the Asian financial crisis struck in 1997, I thought it would be over soon. I decided to take out a HK$30 million loan and waged a nine-month battle [to keep the group going]. But it turned out to be a reckless move," he says. "My creditors took away everything. The only things they didn't want were my clothes and books."

The sudden switch to a hand-to-mouth existence took a lot of getting used to. His wife Brenda and their three young children enjoyed a comfortable life for years: they lived in a 3,000 sq ft apartment with panoramic views in the Mid-Levels, were looked after by several maids and chauffeured around in three limousines.

The initial period was undeniably difficult, but his family eventually adjusted and gave him plenty of support, Chan says.

"When I think back, those years were the best for my family life. Before, I was busy managing the catering business and did not have much time to spend with my family."

To make ends meet, he became a salesman, getting books from publishers on consignment to sell on the street.

"I even hawked surgical masks and Harry Potter books," Chan says. A favoured spot to set up his wares was in Lam Tin, outside a branch of the Popular book store. "The shop closed at 8pm, and I set up my book stall right in front at 8.15pm."

His wife, a former secretary, found a job as a health care worker.

Chan's ability to adapt in the face of adversity was honed from childhood. His parents fell on hard times when he was 11; after his father's plastic toy business failed, the family moved to Wah Fu Estate, three adults (including his grandmother) and six children squeezed into a tiny public housing flat.

Chan's parents struggled to support the family; so when Chan reached Primary Six, he decided he had to work and earn money to continue his studies.

Initially the young Chan got odd jobs helping to distribute newspapers; but even then, he showed a strong entrepreneurial streak: by the time he was in Form Two, he became a distributor himself and made enough to set up as a money-lender in school. His best customers, he says, were students with triad links who seemed constantly short of cash.

"As I earned more money from giving high-interest loans, I became a bookie and organised numbers-based gambling game at school."

The betting eventually came to light. "I got a big demerit because of that," he says. "But it was quite a lucrative business and I never had to worry about money when I was young."

Chan topped his school in the Form Five public exams, and went on to study history at the University of Hong Kong. Immediately after graduation, he took off and spent nine months travelling through Europe.

"I slept in train stations sometimes. I worked as an illegal labourer, washing dishes, picking grapes and waiting on tables," he says. "It was an eye-opening trip."

At loose ends after his return to Hong Kong, Chan taught briefly in a secondary school and sold office furniture before joining Café de Coral as a management trainee.

Within a year, he and three friends pooled HK$750,000 to open the first Farm House Restaurant in Central in 1987. It featured wood-panelled decor that evoked a suitably rustic atmosphere, and the menu included borscht soup, steak and other Western dishes - all MSG free.

The combination was popular with diners, and within a decade more than 40 Farm House branches opened across Hong Kong before it all went belly up in the wake of the financial crisis.

His Sheung Shui stall, The Farmhouse Spaghetti, also sells Western-style meals but is aimed at lower income customers. A set meal with beef stew, soup and garlic bread costs just HK$38.

And although he has just had to close his business in Cheung Sha Wan, Chan's heart is still set on expansion - he hopes to open 100 eateries within his lifetime.

"I have three goals in my life. One is to make sure my three children and wife can lead a happy and independent life. Two of my children are now studying in university, and the youngest will sit for university exams next year. So I can say my first goal is half-attained.

"My second goal is to open 100 restaurants, whether in Hong Kong or the Pearl River Delta region. My previous Farm House Restaurant empire was short of that target by 52 outlets.

Though Chan is well into middle-age, his ambitious life plan gives him plenty of time to achieve his 100-restaurant goal - he plans on working until he is 95.

His final ambition, he says, is to write a book on Hong Kong history dating back 5,000 years.

"I don't partake in many forms of entertainment, I just read books. I love history, Chinese culture and arts. Like Han dynasty historian Sima Qian [who completed his seminal Records of the Grand Historian after he was castrated and jailed for offending the emperor] ... the suffering I endure will benefit my future writing."

Certainly, he reckons the wisdom gleaned from his study of history has helped him get through the most difficult period in his life.

"Although I had 20 creditors breathing down my neck, I never lost a night's sleep. Reading expands your horizons and takes you out of your parochial view. In the grand scheme of things, my financial troubles are only trivial," Chan says.

"If you feel a strong engagement with history, you will find it easier to deal with life's adversities."