Little compares to the happiness that is felt across the table of a great meal shared with family or friends. Or to that moment when you experience the sights, smells and tastes of a new culture for the first time.
It’s an experience Mr Chai Lekcharoensuk, founder of Simply Asia Thai Food & Noodle Bar, wanted to create when he came to South Africa 25 years ago. Back then, he couldn’t find any Thai food that reminded him of home and so he opened Wang Thai Restaurant, in Cape Town, an upscale establishment that promised an authentic Thai dining experience: mouth-watering meals made by Thai chefs, using only the freshest ingredients.
“The success of Wang Thai inspired Mr Chai to make Thai cooking something everyone across South Africa could enjoy,” says Enzo Cocca, Group General Manager of Simply Asia. “And so, he changed the restaurant format from fine dining to family friendly restaurants – and the Simply Asia brand was born, with the first branch opening in Cape Town’s historic Heritage Square.”
Thai food was not unfamiliar to South Africans at the time, as Thailand was a popular travel destination. But Mr Chai identified an opportunity to bring speciality, authentic Thai food and trading formats to the market and, by 2006, the company had opened 12 restaurants.
Today, customers can experience the taste of Thailand at 64 outlets across South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, as Simply Asia continues to grow its footprint across the continent. By the end of 2017, the restaurant count will increase to 66 – and 72 by the end of 2018.
Quality and authenticity
Every restaurant in the franchise chain operates on the same values that the very first restaurant was built on: quality and authenticity. It’s these values that Enzo believes sets Simply Asia apart in a market that is now crowded with a wide variety of specialist food styles and trading formats.
“Consumers have a lot of choice today. They can find high-quality, readily prepared food anywhere, from restaurants, to food trucks, to supermarkets. There are a lot of competent local and international traders entering the market every day, many offering similar cuisine.”
So, how does Simply Asia keep customers coming back for more – and appeal to new customers?
The answer to that question is in the question itself: “Customer retention has been key to our growth,” says Enzo. “We have to stay relevant to our customers and still be able to attract new customers every day.”
Simply Asia’s growth strategy centres on four pillars: training, innovation, partnering with the right people, and leveraging tools and technology that provide real-time insights into its operations.
“Franchise owners and their teams are continually trained and upskilled to ensure they always offer the best possible customer service and experience,” says Enzo.
He adds that a Simply Asia franchisee is not a hobbyist looking to make an extra buck but is a passionate businessperson who is committed to the values of quality and authenticity above everything else.
“Many of our franchisees own multiple stores and treat their investment as a serious business. We believe this strategy breeds a different calibre of franchisee – one who is driven and understands that the secret to success is hard work, respect and transparency.”
Innovation at all touch points
Underlying all of this is an aggressive approach to innovation, says Enzo. Innovation extends across product offerings and business models and it’s one reason why Simply Asia has maintained its relevance and appeal to new and existing customers.
“Innovation, to us, means delivering new experiences to our customers, whether that’s through more variety and flavours on our menus, our rewards programme that puts cash back in customers’ pockets, or through partnering with service providers like Uber Eats to bring convenience to our customers,” says Enzo.
In a market where customers are spoilt for choice and competition is high, the key to success is having access to the right information, at the right time, says Enzo.
“We control the entire supply chain, from Thailand right to our stores. When you work in the restaurant industry, control of your business processes is important. Information must be real-time and reliable so that you can properly manage your inventory and quickly make the right decisions as situations arise. If you don’t have that information, you can’t see where you’re going.”
For Enzo, the various tools within the Sage Evolution and Payroll solutions give him access to that information and allow him to analyse data in real-time to easily pinpoint issues and opportunities.
“In June 2017, we added 15 new items to our menus across our network of restaurants. As these items were perishable, we needed to optimise the ordering and delivery of fresh ingredients across our production facility, three distribution centres and, of course, all the stores,” says Enzo. “Sage gives us the insights we need, when we need them, resulting in zero wastage and optimal stock levels across the network.”
Transparency, trust, respect
Taking the guesswork out of supply and demand has given Enzo more time to visit Simply Asia stores and to spend time with managers, staff and customers. “At Simply Asia, we’re building more than just restaurants. We’re building opportunities for others and that depends on strong relationships built on trust and respect.”
Enzo has the following advice for anyone looking to either buy a franchise in a chain store, or to franchise out their own businesses: “The key to building a successful franchise group is to fully understand your market and your customers. This is your starting point. If you want to buy a franchise, be sure to interrogate the business model in detail and to get a clear picture of the actual results.”
The people of Thailand place a lot of value on hard work, balanced with friendliness and hospitality. Traditionally, people would greet others by asking if they’d eaten yet. This sums up the Thai way of life, which revolves around sharing and enjoying delicious food in great company.
“When you bring the flavours of another country into your community, something magical happens; a culture is shared between strangers. At Simply Asia, we enjoy nothing more than sharing an authentic Thai experience with our customers.”