As popular as it is in the Cantonese diet, the wonton noodle has long suffered from its image as a street food, something to be consumed in a grubby dai pai dong. But some restaurateurs and noodle makers have given the humble snack something of a makeover. Applying savvy marketing, they show the staple can also be a gourmet item with appeal beyond its traditional circle of consumers. Among these is Ho To Tai. Once a family-run operation, the restaurant began in Yuen Long almost 50 years ago and built a thriving and loyal clientele around its wonton noodles (as with pasta, gourmets go to great lengths to look for flavourful noodles with the right al dente quality). Then it took on a partner, adopted a more modern approach, and over the past three years has opened another restaurant in Mongkok as well as sophisticated noodle stores in Wan Chai, Kwun Tong and Mongkok. 'Many customers who go to our restaurant in Yuen Long also bring home our special dried noodles,' executive director Yue Che-keung says. 'They often complain it is too far to travel to Yuen Long for a bowl of noodles. So we decided to open up branch restaurants and a dried noodle store to cope with demand.' Unlike most noodle shop owners, Yue, an MBA graduate, has applied modern marketing skills to the traditional business - from packaging to product development and service. 'We want to get rid of people's preconception that the Chinese noodle is an old-fashioned food for the older generation. We don't want to see our market diminish,' Yue explains. 'We are trying to reach a bigger circle of customers.' So when Ho To Tai opened its first dried noodle shop in Tsuen Wan, the owners hired a designer to work on the decor, the packaging and logo to give their product a contemporary edge. The result is a sophisticated gourmet shop more Central than suburban Tsuen Wan. It stocks nine varieties of speciality noodles, including conpoy noodles, egg noodles and its best-seller, shrimp noodles. Customers take away their purchases in nifty boxes, along with leaflets offering cooking instructions. The strategy has attracted a stream of young customers who admit they were drawn because the shop 'looked posh'. Yue believes the younger generation is an untapped market. The challenge is overcoming their perception of the noodle as something really passe rather than getting them to acquire a taste for it. 'Who says young customers don't like noodles? Look at how much instant noodles they eat,' he says. 'They just find Hong Kong-style noodles too old-fashioned. It is simply a matter of presentation.' To cater for health-conscious customers, Ho To Tai also plans to add to its choice of spinach noodles, a new carrot variety. Where Ho To Tai is updating a traditional business to win more customers, new eateries such as the Noodle Bar in Lan Kwai Fong are investing the old-time snack with a cleaned-up retro appeal. The Noodle Bar targets yuppies who don't mind paying more for their traditional favourites in more ritzy surroundings ($42 to $66 for a bowl of noodles compared to an average of under $20 in ordinary noodle shops). 'We don't aim at customers who want to pay less than $20 for a bowl of noodles,' says food and beverage manager Stanley Law Ming-wah. 'Many people think wonton noodle shops are dirty and shabby. It stops customers, especially those dressed in suits, from going into the shop,' he adds. Law said the restaurant spent about $1 million on renovating the premises. Besides noodles, the eatery offers items such as barbecued spare ribs, prawn cake, and beef rolls. It will also serve alcohol. However, other noodle-makers believe the tried and tested ways are best. Mak's Noodle (better known as Mak Un Noodle) is among them, developing from a family business in Guangzhou in the 1850s. 'Wonton noodle is wonton noodle. It has its own style and culture. It would be awkward to make a wonton noodle shop look classy. It just doesn't fit,' said Mak Chi-ming, who now manages the shop on Wellington Street which bears his father's name. Another Mak's Noodle in Causeway Bay and the Famous Family Noodle in Tsim Sha Tsui, also sprang from Mak Un's business but are now run by a son-in-law, who serves a new menu in pristine surroundings.