The third-generation operator of the celebrated sukiyaki chain is looking to evolve the business in light of the pandemic, but vows to stay true to its roots
Ms Natalie says creativity is just as important as speed and accuracy to lure customers.
Some people may think success in a family business is a bit like being handed a title on a silver platter, but it wasn’t so for Natalie Phanphensophon, chief operating officer of Coca Holding International Co, a pioneer in the sukiyaki restaurant business in Thailand.
Ms Natalie, 35, is a third-generation descendant of the family that owns Coca Holding. She is braving a spate of challenges related to continued outbreaks that have reshaped the restaurant industry.
With a master’s degree in food science from Reading University in the UK, Ms Natalie has initiated new strategies for the company, but she never imagined one day the Coca business model would pivot from dine-in to 100% delivery.
“It is a very tough time, but the experience of working with British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck — a famous restaurant in the UK — taught me not to panic and to control my emotions,” she said.
“In addition to speed and accuracy, creativity is also important to draw customer interest because of fierce competition.”
Ms Natalie said sales from deliveries have yet to match those from dining in, but Coca is exploring new ways to survive under strict government guidelines.
Coca Suki was established in 1957 by her grandparents, Srichai and Pattama Phanphensophon, initially serving a la carte Cantonese dishes before adjusting to a la carte sukiyaki.
Ms Natalie, the eldest daughter of Mr Pitaya, the only son of the founders, joined the family business in 2016 after earning her master’s degree.
“Having a close link with my grandmother since I was 12 years old, I intended to work and run our family business, building on the success my parents achieved,” she said.
For a company with 64 years of history, Ms Natalie said her biggest challenge is working with and managing multiple generations of employees, suppliers and customers, spanning from Baby Boomers, Generation X and young adults.
“In the first four months upon joining the business, I spent a lot of time with the staff to ensure both old and young workers are on the same page, understanding our core values so we move in the right direction together,” she said.
According to Ms Natalie, competition in the restaurant business is high, with direct and indirect competitors entering the market, particularly shabu chains.
Technology has disrupted the sector, leading some competitors to completely transform their business models.
She insists the company plans on opening more Coca classic restaurants to serve existing customers who have been with Coca for six decades.
“Coca has a 64-year-old legacy, which makes us different from others,” said Ms Natalie.
“I don’t want to shake the tree by changing our brand or becoming a fusion restaurant like so many others.”
She said the company will experiment with new business models to lure the younger generation.
If the Covid-19 situation improves, Ms Natalie said the firm will try its luck in launching Coca Noodle.
“Coca Noodle is a new concept to appeal to young customers. It is minimal, accessible and approachable,” she said.
ROLLING IN DOUGH
Last year Ms Natalie launched Jikko Coca, a Chinese doughnut brand (pa tong go) to the market. It is served from a kiosk, rotating to different Coca branches such as CentralWorld and Samyan Mitrtown, or at events to help build brand awareness among new customers.
“The customer feedback has been good and it offers an opportunity for Coca to expand to new locations we’ve never explored before,” she said.
However, Ms Natalie always reminds herself to remain sober-minded with each step to carry on the Coca legacy because it took her grandparents and parents decades to build its reputation.
In addition to Jikko Coca, the company also introduced the “Coca Pop-Up” concept at the Hua Hin and Krungthep Kritha locations under a franchise model. This type of restaurant has 20 seats and offers 50 dishes.
She said as Coca evolves in line with customers’ changing behaviour, what remains unchanged is the company’s commitment to providing healthy, fresh and clean ingredients to customers.
“I always went to the market along with my grandmother since I was a child, learning how to meticulously choose the freshest ingredients, which is why the food tastes good,” said Ms Natalie.
She also has experience at the consumer product conglomerate Unilever, in addition to developing a product for the retail market in Russia. Ms Natalie plans to launch Coca Suki sauce and frozen food products such as gyoza, chilli sauce, noodles and a dim sum line for retail stores by the end of this year to increase the company’s sales.
“With experience managing restaurant chains in the US [at Richard Sandoval Hospitality] for several years, I melt at the thought of competing all the time,” she said with a laugh.
Ms Natalie handles 12 Coca Suki restaurants, with seven branches in Thailand at Surawong Road, CentralWorld, Sukhumvit Soi 39, Bang Na, Hua Hin, Lat Phrao and Krungthep Kreetha. Its other eateries are in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
She also manages 30 Mango Tree Thai restaurant chains locally and abroad. Coca Group averages sales of 550 million baht a year, with 400 million from Coca Suki and 150 million from Mango Tree.
“We remain committed to opening both Coca and Mango Tree branches in the future, but our priority is launching cloud kitchens and kiosks,” said Ms Natalie. “The delivery channel will continue to play an important role even after the pandemic ends.”
The company plans to open five cloud kitchens this year. The first branch opened last month in Lat Phrao, opposite the Central mall. More branches are projected for Ratchaphruek, Bang Na and Sai Mai.
She believes experience and dedication can enable Coca to last for another 500 years, as her father dreamt.