The well-known Thai Wok brand is an example of a Polish family business that, over the course of 10 years, has evolved into a nationwide restaurant chain, which this year will have 25 restaurants. Bartosz Brusikiewicz, managing director and board member of Thai Wok, will talk about how to conduct such a transformation of the format.
When we think of managing a single restaurant, we are talking about a sort of micro-management that is focused around a few employees and suppliers. There are very few single restaurants with a very developed personnel and logistical structure. When you start to manage more than ten restaurants and, on top of that, in different cities, natural problems arise that previously did not affect the functioning of the whole business so much. Lack of centralisation of procedures, communication problems, management problems, controlling, complex inventory management and purchasing processes that enter a completely different level. And there is also the extremely important aspect of staff matters. The owner’s limited time causes them to start developing a delegation structure. And the more complex the structure, the more chaos. Suddenly we find that we need to change our approaches to many areas of our business. This is akin to building a small corporation, or a management pyramid.
In the case of Thai Wok, this rapid growth posed additional problems such as hiring Asian chefs, applying for a residence permit for them and resolving inter-cultural conflicts. As we enter more cities, the mundane availability of original Asian product becomes a challenge – for example, these products can be obtained in Warsaw but are harder to find in Poznań,. Therefore, an important step in terms of building a restaurant chain is to rethink the purchasing and logistics system. This is done by using central warehouses or by outsourcing the management of the purchasing and logistics process, linking up with nationwide suppliers. In this way, we are able to secure the quantities of raw materials needed. By generating a scale we are changing our approach to cost management, and this is where negotiated commercial contracts help. This also gives us security in the form of certified products and a documented supply chain, which is extremely important in mass feeding.
Given the current geopolitical situation, the economic crisis in the form of a shortage of raw materials is far less noticeable for individual restaurants. The chains order products in tonnes rather than individual quantities, so the possibility of making a change overnight is not only a logistical challenge but also a communication one. This problem is completely different when you run one or several restaurants in the same town, where it is much quicker to change the price, replace a dish or modify it.
A restaurant chain is primarily a business that is based on processes and procedures. For the customer, this is synonymous with a guarantee of receiving the same taste and quality. This cannot be achieved without the introduction of processes to standardise the various elements of production. In our segment, a big test was also to standardise dishes so that Asian chefs would not prepare the same dish according to their own flavours, which is quite common in Asian cuisine. That is why we have introduced our own sauce recipes, all kinds of detailed manuals and procedures, so that every dish reaches the same quality and specific taste in every restaurant. This has solved a lot of the problems we faced in the early days with dynamic growth.
Thai Wok is a quick service restaurant (QSR) chain where you cannot spare a few minutes to prepare meals. This process must be optimised so that the customer experience does not deviate from their expectations. When going to a traditional restaurant, we accept the waiting time. In the case of the food court, this process is to be definitely in the spirit of fast food culture. This does not mean, however, that dishes and semi-finished products have to be frozen and reheated or fried. Thai Wok is an example of a restaurant chain that breaks out of this pattern. Our mission is to provide quality meals based on fresh ingredients, so we have introduced optimisations where they do not affect the quality of the meal. Our chefs use fresh vegetables and meat every day, so dishes are created from scratch every day. The special section of made-to-order wok dishes and the popularity of pad thai, which is exactly such a dish, confirm that customers even at a food court are able to wait a little longer for their dish when it is served with a good quality, compared to a traditional fast food restaurant. This aspect is very demanding in terms of management and involves a lot of time and energy from the operations department.
When thinking about setting up a chain of restaurants, we must not forget the complex personnel structure in which the head office makes decisions by verifying their validity for all restaurants. It is worth investing in an operations department that includes a finance, HR, marketing, controlling, investment, procurement, or technical departments. Each of these departments plays a key role in an organisation that employs tens or hundreds of people. Design and communication management becomes a separate major project in such an organisation. It is crucial to support oneself with right tools, such as an intranet, sales systems, warehouse management systems, project management systems or inventory and purchasing platform systems. These tools help to develop appropriate systems for communication between operations departments and premises. This is an extremely important aspect because it is extremely easy to get caught up in communication chaos that needs to be controlled, as the most important aspect in terms of the catering business is sales, quality and customer service. Too many messages interfere with necessary basic operation. In the case of extended teams, there are issues that are often not thought of when creating restaurants. These are mission, vision, values, hiring people for whom our values are in line with theirs, or processes of motivation, assessment, development. We must remember that the catering industry is an industry with a high turnover rate, the recruitment process is often much more expensive than the internal promotion process, and these require training systems. We are talking about developing leadership, managerial competencies within structures. At Thai Wok, we run two training projects addressing two different groups of employees by developing their soft skills and verifying their aptitude for promotion to higher positions.
An organisation that is a restaurant chain also faces an important decision as to whether it is just a chain of restaurants serving food or whether it is an organisation that is starting to build a restaurant brand. And this is where we enter the area of building an entire brand communication strategy starting with the appearance of the premises, a coherent visual identity of a specific tone of voice that is addressed to the consumer through various channels such as outdoor advertising, social media, visual merchandising, or customer service.
It is not possible to answer unequivocally that branding is the next stage of a chain’s development. It all depends on the business model adopted, because this is where you have to start when thinking about transforming individual restaurants into a chain of restaurants.