Mention the name “Tam Jai”, and the image of “Tam Jai Jeh Jeh” (the waitresses) and their distinctive accents come readily to mind. Daren Lau (OneMBA 2011), the Chairman, Executive Director and CEO of Tam Jai International Co. Ltd., has successfully capitalised on an online fad with the noodles shop and turned it into branding gold, catapulting this Hong Kong brand to greater prominence both locally and abroad.
Daren has forged his career in the food and beverage (F&B) industry for over three decades. From five-star hotel to fast food, his vast management expertise spans an array of roles. He has observed Hong Kong’s food evolution from a front-row seat. “At first, the local food culture was predominantly Cantonese cuisine. Then, western foods such as macaroni and egg tarts worked their way into daily diets. And in recent years, elements of Japanese cuisine are gaining a wider foothold in local menus.” Tam Jai’s mixian, a type of rice noodles, took its inspiration from Hong Kong’s “cart noodles” and incorporates Sichuan and Hunan influences as well as novel local elements. It has turned what was once a street snack into a widely popular dish served by a city-wide chain.
Daren said Tam Jai’s unique style encapsulates the essence of Hong Kong’s “cart noodles” with influences of southwestern Chinese cuisines. This has enabled Tam Jai to build an enviable brand.
Unleashing Greater Brand Value through Bold Playfulness
Tam Jai’s ascendancy into a fixture in this “gastronomic paradise” owes a great deal to Daren. His wide-ranging industry experience, ears to the ground and innovative spirit have injected much impetus into the chain. When he worked for the US restaurant chain TGI Friday’s, Daren was sent to the US for six months of training. During that time, not only did he learn about franchising, he also realised an important truth: “In order for a restaurant to be loved by diners, it must be connected to the local culture and integrated into the local life.”
Given restaurants’ customer-facing nature, Daren said it is not difficult to find out whether or not they are meeting the customers’ tastes and needs. So as long as they are continually innovating, experimenting and adapting, Tam Jai will feel the pulse of the market. Daren said that, besides flavours, being bold and playful in marketing is also vital. A few years ago, the “Tam Jai Jeh Jeh” and their accent-ridden Cantonese, the “Tam Jai dialect”, became an online fad. Daren noticed that most comments were positive, and the staff took it well, “They see speaking Cantonese as part of their job and they’re trying hard to serve customers using the local language while integrating into the culture of Hong Kong. Their positivity is truly commendable.” Seizing the moment, Daren and his team decided to turn the online fad into a brand asset, even elevating the language into a trend.
This creative and playful spirit was recently extended to the 25th anniversary celebrations of TamJai Yunnan Mixian. They formed a girl band and put on a fashion show to demonstrate the confidence and talents of the “Tam Jai Jeh Jeh”. “Our staff are our greatest assets and they are our brand’s touchpoints with customers. What we did not only generated greater value for our brand, it also engendered a more pleasant and enjoyable working environment for us. In fact, even our management team was touched by their enthusiasm.”
Daren said the “Tam Jai Jeh Jeh” are the brand’s key asset. He hopes to create more opportunities and platforms for them to manifest their passion and creativity.
Tam Jai recently engaged the students of HKDI to design their uniforms for 25 years later (year 2046). At the fashion show, Daren joined the finale dressed as a “fashion godfather”, embodying the brand’s bold and playful spirit.
Two-Way Communication Engenders Closer Relations
Although Daren is close with his staff, he is also known for his high standards. He described himself having a “reasonably demanding” management style with empathy: “Perhaps because I started my career at the Peninsula Hotel, I know where the bar should be set. Yet, having worked in so many positions over the years, I also understand where the difficulties are in meeting the standards. When colleagues come to me with their problems, I always try to keep the dialogue open and work out the issues together.”
Today, Tam Jai’s two restaurant chains, TamJai Yunnan Mixian and TamJai SamGor Mixian, have a combined number of more than 150 branches across Hong Kong. The enormous number of staff makes it impossible for Daren to meet everyone all the time. Because of this, Daren will try to convey the company’s key objectives, demands and messages to every employee through regular meetings and branch visits. Employees can also share their feedback or thoughts during tea gatherings. This two-way communication enables the senior executives and the frontline staff to connect. Operations and management can also be better aligned and more people-centric.
Daren started as a trainee in Peninsula from 1988 to 1991 and had the opportunity to explore various departments and positions in the hotel. This experience ascertained his passion for F&B.
Internationalising Some Common Fare
Daren recently led Tai Jai International to launch an IPO and to open branches in such places as Singapore and Shenzhen. He revealed that his next goal is to bring Tam Jai’s local, everyday noodles to the world stage. “During the pandemic, we focused on standardising our products to maintain greater quality consistency. Coupled with our mixian’s greatest advantages—it’s easy to make with a myriad of menu possibilities—we’re confident that employees anywhere can capably master the techniques and let Hong Kong people or locals anywhere savour the authentic ‘Tam Jai Taste’.”
In October 2021, Daren led Tam Jai International to become listed on the HKEX Main Board. He said their next goal is to bring the brand to the world stage.
Developing Progressive Thinking Through Continuing Education
Working in F&B is never relaxing. Having leapt from the frontlines to the C-suite, Daren is cognisant of the importance of management knowledge. For this reason, he decided to go back to school around 10 years ago to upgrade himself: “The curriculum of CUHK Business School allowed me to build on my professional experience and augment my management techniques. We also had the opportunity to visit multiple countries and learnt to keep an eye on the business landscape in different regions. All this enabled me to be more forward-looking in business development.”
During his studies at CUHK Business School, Daren visited Mexico and the Netherlands. In addition to experiencing different cultures, he learnt about various business models.
With the rapid shifts in global and local markets, Daren encourages his fellow alumni who are working in the F&B industry not to become dispirited, “Even though our industry was hit hard in the past few years, the most important part is to keep our focus on customers and bring our products closer to them so that we can come out on top. There may be market changes beyond our control, so we must be prepared for any contingency.”
First published in the CUHK Business School Alumni Portal on 6 January 2022 and the iMoney magazine on 15 January 2022, this article was republished with permission from the School’s Alumni and Corporate Affairs Office.