If anyone brings up the term "Putien", most Singaporeans will think of the Chinese restaurant chain and its modern Tiffany blue brand colour.
The name "Putien" originates from the founder's hometown — a coastal city in China's Fujian province.
After being awarded one Michelin star in Singapore for seven years and opening 101 outlets globally, Fong Chi Chung shared his comfort food with the world and put the lesser-known Chinese city on the world map.
Despite these successes, Fong and his team do not dare to dwell on these achievements, as he said they are still "treading on thin ice" (如履薄冰).
Dressed in a white polo shirt and chino pants, Fong spoke to Mothership about his work and life experiences at Putien's Kitchener Road outlet.
The origin story
Putien was founded in Singapore in 2000 by Fong, who was born in Fujian province in the 1960s.
He first emigrated to Hong Kong with his parents before moving to Singapore in 2000, bringing along his two sons.
The idea of founding a restaurant specialising in Putien cuisine came to Fong's mind after he was unable to find an eatery in Singapore that could serve him and his young children the taste of their ancestral hometown.
Despite being an art student, Fong took on the challenge and opened the first Putien outlet along Kitchener Road.
His only "F&B experience" prior to opening the restaurant chain was cooking for his classmates at home when he was studying primary school, Fong revealed.
"We didn't know how to strategise. Neither did we use complicated cooking techniques. We just focused on cooking authentic dishes. Over time, we gained customers who enjoy our food, and we continue to improve our food to the liking of our supporters."
Secret recipe behind Putien's success
While Fong wanted to recreate dishes that remind him of home, the generous amount of ingredients used in the restaurant's famous lor mee is nothing like home-cooked food.
Prior to the interview, Fong put on his chef's hat and demonstrated how to cook the signature dish — Fujian Red Mushroom Seafood Lor Mee.
According to Fong, a total of 18 ingredients go into an authentic and appetising bowl of Fujian Red Mushroom Seafood Lor Mee, including clams, scallops, and prawns sourced from different countries.
Notably, the soup base is boiled with red mushroom, which is a rare ingredient only found on the slopes of China's Wuyi Mountains, according to Putien.
The red mushroom is what renders the dish its unique red hue, by the way.
From this dish, you can tell how particular Fong is when it comes to ingredients.
While he would never claim to have succeeded, Fong shared two factors that compelled Putien to come this far.
One of which is the choice of ingredients — the restaurant insists on sourcing quality ingredients even for condiments, such as salt and soy sauce.
“We only purchase our ingredients from specific brands after going through careful and rigorous selection, and we always go for the best ones. This way, even if our patrons didn't know how to express their thoughts, they could feel our thoughtfulness from their hearts.
We don't believe that just because our chefs are skilful, our dishes would naturally taste good using randomly-sourced ingredients."
Working at Putien is not just a job
The other factor is none other than his staff members.
Fong' son, Fong Chak Ka, now runs the daily operations of Putien while he channels energy to fostering a strong company culture on top of other responsibilities.
Father and son believe in making their staff feel sufficiently rewarded when the company does well financially.
Some store managers brought home a yearly income of around S$200,000 in 2019, shared Chak Ka.
To Chak Ka, this was a meaningful milestone as the store managers could use this sum of money to improve their families' quality of life.
In 2020, Putien also introduced the "Outstanding Store Managers (三好店长)" award, which serves to recognise exceptional store managers while further encouraging them to develop a sense of ownership over their outlets.
In 2023, five store managers hailing from Singapore, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia managed to clinch the title.
Each of them was awarded a Singapore Airlines business class return ticket to their respective home countries, a RIMOWA suitcase worth around S$2,000, and a tailored suit worth around S$1,000.
Store managers have to feel that they are building their own careers at the restaurant chain, rather than working for someone else. In turn, the store managers will naturally treat their customers better, even when the job becomes tough, shared Fong.
In 2008, the father and son duo also implemented an employee profit-sharing model, which includes redistributing 30 per cent of each restaurant's profits after tax to his staff every quarter and offering them equity-sharing opportunities.
Engaging employees via live stream
Fong also makes it a priority to communicate directly with all his employees.
Putien employees meet Fong and Chak Ka regularly via live stream.
Each session lasts for about an hour, and Fong makes time to meet his staff every month regardless of how busy he is.
Employees can submit questions they have for Fong, and he will share his thoughts and answers during these sessions.
"This way, we can ensure our entire company has a consistent understanding of our company policies and culture from top to bottom," Fong told Mothership.
Putien wouldn't survive Covid-19 pandemic without its staff
For Fong and Chak Ka, the close ties between Putien and its employees helped Putien tide through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Characterising the pandemic as "the greatest challenge" he faced during his 23-year entrepreneurial journey, Fong believes Putien only managed to survive because of the support from his employees:
"Our outlets are scattered across dozens of cities in seven, eight countries, and we couldn't even visit them during the pandemic. [Our inability to travel there] made it difficult for us to come up with policies to help them.
Additionally, as many would know, the pandemic broke out in different regions at different times. No policy can solve this problem. Nevertheless, the store managers stood behind me and said, 'Don't worry, boss, you can rely on us.'
This is the most powerful voice that supported me through the crisis."
Chak Ka was really moved when a few store managers volunteered their savings and told him the company could use them if needed when China and Singapore entered lockdown.
"Besides the store managers, other staff members also told us they don't need their salaries during the pandemic. They told us, 'You can pay me my salary after the company is in a better position,'" recounted Chak Ka.
"If my employees are so nice to me, how can I not be nice to them?" added Fong.
What does the future look like for Putien?
As the world emerges from the pandemic, Fong shared that he looks forward to opening a Putien outlet in every notable city globally, including every province in China.
This way, his purpose of founding the restaurant chain, which was to allow more people to become aware of and enjoy Putien cuisine, will be fulfilled, said Fong.
As for the specific countries Putien is eyeing, Chak Ka added that the business is looking at venturing into the U.S., Australia, Korea, and Japan within the next one to two years.
As the business grows, Fong is sure to keep in mind the well-being of his employees.
"I hope to continue growing and nurturing my team so that they can all earn more. I hope every store manager can earn a yearly income of 1 million renminbi (S$187,820)," added Fong.
Top images via Winnie Li/Mothership & Putien Restaurant/Facebook