Behind one of Sydney’s fastest-growing Chinese restaurants

11 October, 2018 by
Annabelle Cloros

Once upon a time, Chinese cuisine was restricted to a food court offering or your neighbourhood favourite. Fast-forward to 2018 and the country now has a range of modern Chinese restaurants on offer, covering everything from yum cha to dim sum, barbecued meats, live seafood and noodles.

Chefs Gallery has rapidly expanded across Sydney since its establishment in 2010, with the group set to experience continued growth in 2018 and beyond.

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Founder of Chefs Gallery Kaisern Ching talks to Hospitality about the group’s biggest challenges, the perks of operating in shopping centres, the differences between running a business in Asia and Australia and reveals what the future holds for the brand.

Gap in the market

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Ching was the man responsible for bringing the Din Tai Fung franchise to Aussie shores, where he ran the business for three years. Not long after, he decided to branch out and establish his own concept, but Ching learnt a number of important lessons about Australia’s dining landscape while on the job.

“Working for an international franchise, you learn a lot about process and standardisation,” he says. “You learn how to keep the quality consistent by having strict process controls and human resource controls, and standard operating procedures allow the business to run smoothly without all the issues of start-ups.”

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Operating an international franchise comes with a number of limitations, and Ching wanted to establish a brand that was tailored to the local market.

“Din Tai Fung came from Taiwan, and it’s very hard to adapt the way things are done,” he says. “There are limits on the products we could offer and limits when came to local labour and work ethic. So we decided to create a brand that is closer to the market in terms of what the customer wants and for future staff members, which is how we came up with Chefs Gallery — a brand adapted to the Australian market.”

Identifying and overcoming challenges

Chefs Gallery has been operating since 2010 and is now a fixture in the Sydney dining scene, but Ching was faced with a number of hurdles during the launch phase of the business.

“When we first started, the key challenge was education,” he says. “Eight years ago, we didn’t have a lot of modern Asian restaurants and the main restaurants were in Chinatown, which were predominantly Cantonese cuisine. We faced issues with educating people and bringing a Westernised version of Chinese food to everyone.”

But the goal was clear: to deliver a modern interpretation of Chinese cuisine that was attractive to a range of customers. “We haven’t lost the authenticity of Chinese cuisine and are able to let consumers have the best of both worlds,” says Ching.

Determining locations

Chefs Gallery currently has six stores around Sydney, with two CBD venues. The other four are located in shopping centres in North Ryde, Bankstown, Hurstville and Parramatta, which means the restaurants are exposed to a significant amount of foot traffic.

“We believe in bringing the product home for our customers,” says Ching. “A lot of our customers are young professionals and are predominantly aged between 25 and 40; there are some young families and couples as well. So when we look for our locations, we go for areas where we can target people from this profile.”

Running venues in shopping centres has a number of perks alongside high levels of foot traffic; however guaranteed customers come at a cost. “The rent is slightly higher in terms of the monthly recurring rental payments, but there is a lot of value when it comes to working with a shopping centre,” says Ching. “If you’re a standalone venue, you need to pay for rubbish collection, security and air conditioning. But when you’re in a shopping centre, it’s all included in the rent so overall it works out — as long as you have the right product and the right level of revenue.”

Attracting and retaining staff

Sydney is an incredibly flooded marketplace and the industry is in the midst of a staffing crisis that shows no signs of improvement. Ching currently employees 200 workers, and says it’s not difficult to attract staff, but keeping them can be a challenge. “Recruiting is easy, but it’s about getting the right person,” he says. “There are so many restaurants opening and many people go to greener pastures,” he says.

To ensure staff are invested in the business, Chefs Gallery conduct performance reviews with staff members every six months. Employees are also able to receive bonuses which are determined by the performance of the venue along with their rank, i.e. a head chef or sous chef. “We have a lot of incentive programs to keep our staff excited,” says Ching. “If you’re a head chef, part of the package will link to the performance of the shop’s turnover. If you’re in the lower rank, like sous chef and below, you get a share of the bonus.”

Education and training is also at the forefront of the group’s operations, and Chefs Gallery pay for chefs to attend food safety courses, which is an essential qualification employees can utilise throughout their hospitality career. “We send them to courses constantly,” says Ching. “Our chefs all need to attend them so they’re aware of the requirements.”

Chefs Gallery also have their own in-house training programs run by senior staff members, which cover specialised skills including dumpling and noodle making. “Some skill sets are harder to come by via recruitment, so we have specially designed programs for people to attend,” says Ching. “It’s good for cross-training and people with no experience who still want to join the team. They learn something and it’s good for them — you can’t take it away from them.”

Expansion plans

Sydney can expect to see one or two new Chefs Gallery locations launch in the Sydney CBD, but the brand has recently announced a new concept, Food Assembly, which will house a number of brands in one location. “We are getting into the quick-service space and are looking at having smaller format takeaway-driven types of concepts,” says Ching.

Food Assembly will open in Wynyard Station and take the place of the group’s current yum cha operation. The restaurant will have one menu that encompasses a number of concepts including Porter Filter coffee, Shanghai Dumpling, Bao Bao hot pot, Canto Pop (bento boxes) and Ipoh Express (Malaysian).

“If you go to one restaurant, you’re committed to one type of cuisine, but Food Assembly will have a bit of everything, so you can have chicken rice and a coffee from the same place so people have choices in one location.”

The first Food Assembly is scheduled to launch in September, with the group confirming another location will open in Steam Mill Lane in Sydney’s Darling Square later in the year.

With its footprint reaching across Sydney, Chefs Gallery has cemented itself within the dining landscape, offering a consistent and reliable dining option to customers. “We pride ourselves on being innovative,” says Ching, “but at the same time, our concepts are affordable and accessible to pretty much everyone.”