Grand Imperial MD Datuk Tony Wong Nam Loong on the group’s 15-year milestone and what lies ahead

The property developer talks about his acquisitions in F&B and passion for restoring ailing companies.

Renowned for his audacious risk-taking aptitude, he has — time and again — demonstrated his remarkable foresight by fearlessly acquiring and transforming restaurant chains amid turmoil (Photo: SooPhye)

In the realm of visionary F&B entrepreneurs, one name shines brightly: Datuk Wong Nam Loong or Tony to his friends. The experienced property developer added managing director of the upscale Grand Imperial chain of Chinese restaurants to his portfolio after taking over the 15-year-old business at the height of the pandemic in August 2021.

Renowned for his audacious risk-taking aptitude, he has — time and again — demonstrated his remarkable foresight by fearlessly acquiring and transforming restaurant chains amid turmoil. His journey is a testament to unwavering determination, business acumen and the courage to navigate uncharted waters.

“I was semi-retired when this offer to buy Grand Imperial came knocking, I felt it was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he announces when Options sits down with him and his son for a chat at his Hartamas Shopping Centre outlet in Kuala Lumpur. Off the top of his head, he was mentally calculating and deduced he could make back the asking price in a year.


Son salutation

“Mind you, this was in 2021 and we were still not out of the woods [of the pandemic]. So, I consulted my eldest son who is a medical specialist. He went back and studied the history of all the pandemics — from the Spanish flu to the ancient civilisations’ outbreaks in India and China. He said this is a natural cycle and would take about two years,” says Tony, 73.

His son Dr Vincent Wong remembers it well. “He first presented the idea to me in mid- to late-2021. At that time, we were still in the thick of Covid-19 and the numbers were rising yet again. We also had the Omicron variant looming on the horizon — and which later struck in November 2021. There were still a lot of uncertainties when the [prospect of the] deal arose. What if there was another Movement Control Order? How long would it take before people felt confident to eat out again? What about the pace of economic recovery?”


Datuk Tony Wong and son Joshua (Photo: SooPhye)

Thankfully, with rock-solid medical knowledge and training, Vincent was able to analyse the data as well as viral behaviour. “We decided that, like all pandemics, coupled with Malaysia’s effective vaccination programme and time itself, the waves of Covid would eventually be less severe. So we saw an opportunity during this rather bleak time for the F&B industry where we could take this group and help it recover while riding the wave of reopening post-Covid.”

Tony signed the agreement in August 2021 and was given 3+1 months to settle. After clearing all the necessary payments in December that year, the tide turned in his favour, with most businesses and the economy opening up the following month. “The timing was perfect but I was also prepared for the worst. What if my son was wrong? What if the pandemic dragged on another year? I had about
RM20 million on standby in case there were more lockdowns to come,” he coolly recalls, barely flinching at what must have been a high-stakes memory.


Food + fortune

Thankfully, Tony’s chosen route proved to be a success. Grand Imperial’s restaurants managed to capture a sizeable Chinese New Year (CNY) crowd despite many cancellations due to the Omicron scare. “We cleared the arrears owed to the landlord and were able to resume paying almost full wages to our staff, who had experienced significant pay cuts.”

“Did he say he was semi-retired?” Vincent adds in mock disbelief. “My dad is a true entrepreneur. I don’t think he will retire anytime soon. It’s in his blood. I am hoping my brother [Joshua, who is Grand Imperial Group’s executive director] and I have some of that grit too! Dad works as hard today as he always did, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I think he is working especially hard now because what he enjoys most is taking an ailing company, healing it and seeing it flourish. That’s what drives him.”

Fortune, as we all know, favours the brave. In 2022, there was a surge in turnover, exceeding 30% compared with the previous year. For 2023, the numbers occasionally soar to 50% while the average hovers around 35%, making it a fantastic year for Grand Imperial. “This year’s CNY was crazy. We didn’t have enough staff to run the entire operations and customers were unhappy that it took too long for the meals to be cooked and served. We actually only filled up the restaurants to 75% and called it a full house to make sure everyone was happy.” Currently, the workforce comprises about 680 employees.

Joshua, who studied business in Melbourne, adds: “Dad has the experience, instinct as well as insight developed over decades. And I have since learnt that F&B is a very people-centric industry. It is essential to engage with all staff at every level. [Thankfully], I’ve always had an interest in food. Having worked with dad for years, mainly in the property development side, I feel this is a natural progression, a continuation, of all that we’ve worked on together.”


Grand Imperial Iberico House stands out for its extensive use of Black Iberian pork (Photo: Grand Imperial)

In 2022, the company charted another high with the opening of Grand Imperial Iberico House, Genting Highlands. “Again, it was an opportunity where someone had spent about RM5 million [to set it up] and couldn’t open because of Covid-19,” he explains. With Tony’s proven track record of revitalising businesses, the Genting management agreed to let them take over the space. After some cosmetic changes, they were open for business.

Setting a new standard for upscale dining, this unique restaurant stands out for its extensive use of Black Iberian pork or jabugo, not only served in hotpot meals but also their array of dim sum delights. Additionally, patrons can indulge in the sublime experience of savouring Iberico ribs, expertly grilled with a choice of truffle or red wine infusion.


(Esquire) Kitchen tales

Although Grand Imperial occupies a lot of Tony’s attention for now, it was actually the acquisition of Esquire Kitchen that plunged him into the world of F&B. A household name that many Malaysian Chinese grew up with, Esquire Kitchen was, in fact, born of sheer serendipity. A group of intellectuals kept meeting up above a bookstore in Jalan Bukit Bintang, KL. As they spent hour upon hour engaged in mentally-stimulating conversation, their wives would bring food to them, thus attracting attention from passers-by, followed by requests to partake — and purchase — the tempting dishes.

“Yes, the restaurant’s beginnings can be traced back to a bookstore, opposite the Federal Hotel, where this group of semi-retired businessmen would enjoy tea and their wives’ Shanghainese meals. They were all scholars … I heard one of them is even from St John’s University, Shanghai,” Tony says, referring to what was once the city’s most elite and prestigious university, founded by American missionaries in 1879 and regarded as the “Harvard of China”. But it was closed in 1952 after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

“This dining group gradually got bigger and, eventually, more turned up for the good food than the intellectual discourse,” he laughs. Someone then suggested turning the first floor into a restaurant and that was how Esquire Kitchen came to be in 1974. It was a roaring success, so much so that the then-owner of Sungei Wang Plaza invited them to open a second outlet at the mall, which was also a runaway success. Very quickly, a third restaurant was soon opened. This time in the up-and-coming suburb of Petaling Jaya at the Asia Jaya shopping complex.


Esquire Kitchen's Chinese dishes include the popular Paprika Chicken in Yam Ring (Photo: Esquire Kitchen)

So what led to Tony’s ownership of this well-known chain that specialises in Shanghai and Szechuan dishes like flower buns, Wuxi spare ribs and Tung Po meat? “It all happened in 1998, during the Asian financial crisis and political turmoil in Malaysia. I was in property development — I still am — and it was a trying time. The interest rate shot up to almost 20% because the ringgit was plummeting. A lot of businesses collapsed as a result,” he recalls.

During that time, Tony’s companies were in the process of constructing commercial properties, apartments and other real estate ventures within the Ampang and Cheras vicinity. Regrettably, not a single unit could be sold, regardless of how the price was set. It was over a casual conversation at the golf course (Tony is an avid golfer with a current handicap of 20) that news of a business, jointly owned by multiple stakeholders and whose next generation displayed no inclination to take it on, emerged.

Once again, through thorough scrutiny and analysis of the business, Tony made a well-considered decision to acquire it. “That’s how I started my journey in the F&B industry. Esquire Kitchen had only four outlets then but we expanded it to 14 at its peak. And then came the pandemic,” he laments. “But we had a good run, I got KFC’s Madam Wong, whose husband is a good friend, to help me manage the business for three years,” he says, referring to Gaik Wong, the former executive director of KFC Holdings Malaysia who went on to successfully establish The Chicken Rice Shop with her daughter Wong Kah Lin before selling it to Japan’s Zensho Holdings Co in 2019.

“Esquire Kitchen has been running on its own but, of late, there has been a sense of complacency among the staff, resulting in a drop in food quality. Consequently, I’ve set up a centre at our headquarters to re-train them. This training isn’t limited to cooking techniques; we’re also focusing on enhancing service skills. Our facility includes a dining area where I can personally observe their service. Alongside some friends, we consistently provide constructive feedback to help them improve,” explains Tony.

Despite his tough stance on always driving his team to maintain — better yet, exceed — the expectations of their patrons, Tony lets on to being a generous employer. “When we do well, we also reward our staff well. We took 40 top performers to Hokkaido, Japan, recently. They were also given a four-month bonus and awards.”


The journey 

With a full plate piled high with property development and F&B today, it would surprise many that Tony actually was set on a legal life, having graduated in law and been called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, London. It was while cutting his teeth at Messrs Shook Lin & Bok and then going on to co-partner a law firm that he realised “taking care of other people’s problems with low returns” was just not his cup of tea. It was while dealing with land transactions that he decided to develop a few small parcels himself.


The Club Bukit Utama (Photo: Grand Imperial)

“My parents were not very well-to-do but they placed great importance on education and really scrimped to send us for overseas studies. My dad was a trader and my mum, a housewife. In fact, I often supplemented my income by working part-time,” he says, citing examples of moving goods around in the basement of Selfridges and working at Sam Cook, a greengrocer’s in Hampstead’s high street. Back in the day, there was not much clear direction when it came to choosing a career path. You generally followed whatever advice your parents offered, which often leaned towards professions like doctor, lawyer or engineer.” One of his brothers became a doctor while another pursued a career as a pharmacist. He also has two sisters.

“Whether it’s property or F&B, cash flow is very important,” says the father of three. “My advice to the young ones starting out today is, know what you’re getting into. Don’t go in blindly, always get the right facts. Don’t be arrogant because your know-best attitude will be your downfall.”

As the young buck in the business, Joshua has this to add: “I’ve also learnt how important developing one’s digital infrastructure can improve operations. There are so many emerging technologies and resources that can be positively implemented. The best lesson is that there is always a new lesson to learn every day. And I am always glad that dad is around to lend guidance and support.”


What's cooking?

Grand Imperial is gearing up for a bustling few weeks ahead to welcome its 11th outlet into the fold, the Grand Imperial Restaurant at Setia City Mall, that recently commenced operations and is set to have a grand opening in September. All the restaurants now boast a special feature — live seafood in tanks.

The brand will be celebrating its 15th anniversary with a special promotion by chef Chew Yow Chuen, priced at RM6,888 with saké. “This will be on Aug 18 and just for 10 tables of our die-hard supporters at the Bangsar Shopping Centre outlet,” Tony adds animatedly. Another equally exciting promotion at the other Grand Imperials includes an exclusive menu crafted by renowned Hong Kong Master Chef Peter Tsang, in collaboration with Chef Kenneth Chai, deputy executive chef of Grand Imperial. This exceptional menu will be introduced on the following dates: Hartamas (Aug 14), Sunway Velocity (Aug 15), The Club Bukit Utama (Aug 16), Pavilion KL (Aug 17) and Sunway Pinnacle (Aug 18).

For those looking to sample Grand Imperial’s offerings but need it to be pork-free, Tony has taken this important demographic into consideration as well with his Grand Imperial Seafood Hotpot & BBQ restaurant located on Level 9 of Pavilion Elite in downtown KL “We also need to focus on the banqueting segment, which remains a substantial contributor [to the group’s earnings],” he says. “Even more so now, that the demand [to host celebratory events] is back. These days, you even see a lot of wedding lunches going on, due to the difficulty in getting slots to organise banquets at dinner time.”

Sounds like Vincent was right about his father, after all. Retirement, semi or not, is definitely not in Tony’s plans anytime soon — a fact all foodies about town will rejoice at, for sure.


This article first appeared on Aug 14, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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