The result saw a steady number of Chinese restaurants spring up across prospecting towns. However, once the gold rush was over, many Chinese expats returned home, leaving Australia’s love of Asian cuisine unsatisfied.
Flash forward to modern times and you’d be hard-pressed to find a suburban street corner that didn’t feature a Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai or, in more recent times, Japanese restaurant, albeit often slanted in a way that appeals to a predominantly Western audience.
And for good reason. According to market research firm Roy Morgan, three of the four most popular cuisines favoured by Australian consumers are of Asian heritage.
Chinese fare was considered the flavour of choice, with over 14 million Aussies aged 14 and over indicating a preference for the food, followed by Thai food in third place and Indian rounding out the top four.
However, despite the strong results, the data also revealed an interesting generational trend. Older Australians are more likely to prefer Chinese cuisine than younger Australians, with baby boomers and Gen X presenting the strongest demographic.
Perhaps the influx of migrants to Australia in the 1980s had a part to play in the older generations’ love of Westernised Chinese food, but as time wears on, a more adventurous and young Australian customer is bringing Southeast Asian flavours to boil.
For years, Australian quick service restaurants (QSR) have attempted to bridge the gap between Asian-style hawker street food and Westernised culinary demands, often with little success. It wasn’t until East-Asian inspired chain Noodle Box launched on Melbourne’s iconic Chapel Street in 1996 that someone got the combination right.
With a mix of traditional wok-fired flavours and tried-and-tested favourites, the QSR has grown from that inaugural Melbourne site to more than 80 across the globe.
“Noodle Box serves almost three million dishes every year and has proudly been doing so for over 22 years, but like any dining outlet that comes with its own set of challenges,” says Michael McNamara, network development manager for Noodle Box’s parent company Concept Eight.
“We strive to keep up with evolving consumer behaviour and to constantly be at the forefront of innovation, but our number one priority is ensuring each and every customer has a consistent and great food experience, which can sometimes vary.”
McNamara says that the breadth of options in the market has formed an immersive dining scene that encompasses all aspects of Asian food culture.
“Both Korean and Vietnamese cuisines are highly established in the marketplace, but have maintained the hype and buzz that continues to rise in popularity. At Noodle Box, we have worked with the best wok chefs in the business to bring new life to traditional recipes and satisfy a broad range of tastes.”
Over the past 18 months, the brand has continued to develop its range of vegan and plant-based options, while at the same time rolling out a series of new look and feel restaurants.
The smaller format stores were introduced to help prospective franchisees get into the market with a reduced entry rate to increase partner profitability.
“Smaller format restaurants have been a great initiative for our business model,” McNamara says. “We are able to deliver the same great menu from a smaller restaurant, which gives us the opportunity to enter real estate that we may not have considered in the past.”
With store numbers set to soar as a result, McNamara believes Noodle Box is in for a monster growth period, with plans to open 10 new stores every year. The expansion will also mark Noodle Box’s first foray into NSW, a state with a rich Asian food history.
While street market-inspired chains have established themselves as key players in the Australian dining scene, a number of new Asian flavours are also making their presence felt.
Take Malaysian sweet bun franchise Papparoti, for example. Fresh baked on-premise every day, the coffee-coated buns are a hit in China, Vietnam and Canada, and have finally made their way Down Under.
Papparoti’s subdued success in Australia comes off the back of growing demand in the domestic market for other sweet Asian desserts and treats. Wander into a food court anywhere in Australia and you’re bound to see a bubble tea brand with a line sprawling out the door.
“We’ve seen a growing trend of Western diners enjoying adventurous foods and tastes like Japanese ramen, Taiwan bubble tea and China hotpot. We believe it is the best time for any potential franchise to enter the Asian dining scene,” says Papparoti ANZ business development manager Adrian Foo.
Despite only having just a handful of restaurants in Australia, Papparoti isn’t exactly a new entrant. Most stores have been operating for at least six years, demonstrating a level of longevity that Foo says is critical to the brand’s ongoing success.
With a new outlet set for Perth, Papparoti’s first venture into Western Australia, Foo reveals the slow and steady approach will garner the strongest return, for both the business and its franchisees.
“Our target is to open two outlets in all the major cities of Australia and New Zealand in the next two years.”
Targeting areas with a high Asian population has also proven to be a winning formula for the chain. But that may be about to change.
“Brand recognition is a big thing, and as a result, Papparoti Australia has been present in high Asian population areas,” Foo explains. “We aim to rebrand and grow its appeal beyond the Asian consumers, however. We do have plans to open more outlets in Western areas.”
While Papparoti has made its mark targeting the predominantly Asian clientele in Australia, another franchise is tackling the Aussie landscape in a completely different way.
“We really appreciate diversity; it helps us grow.”
That’s the message Monkey King Thai founder and CEO Top K. Jitrakthaipakdee has instilled from day one at his Sydney restaurant.
Now with outlets across Sydney, Shanghai and one soon to open in Melbourne, the former career-corporate-turned-Thai-food-franchisor has reason to smile.
“It’s funny,” he says. “I came to Australia in 2000 to study through home-stay and on the first day, my host family greeted me with a green curry, and it was so good! That really opened my eyes to how diverse the Australian dining scene is. There really isn’t a dominant cuisine, and the Australian public are really open to eating new things.”
After completing his studies in Australia, Jitrakthaipakdee returned overseas to commence life in the corporate world. His journey took him to the heights of APAC leader for global information technology business IBM in China, but at the request of his brother, Jitrakthaipakdee took the step out of his comfort zone and into the kitchen.
“My brother is 12 years younger than me and he always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Throughout our childhood, we saw how my grandmother cooked and it was hard work, but I believed that with my business and management experience, I could put together a business case that offered lifestyle,” he says.
That was more than five years ago, and to this day, Jitrakthaipakdee still employs the same management processes he developed while in corporate management positions.
“Just like when I was at IBM, all the managers meet on Tuesday, we review the dashboard, assess KPIs and chart how we are travelling on our career pipeline objectives. Many of the workers we have are students or on a temporary visa, but we always put the option forward, that if they work hard, we’d be happy to sponsor them,” he says.
While Monkey King Thai may not be a household name just yet, the casual dining restaurant chain is slowly gathering international appeal. The brand recently launched its inaugural Chinese location in bustling downtown Shanghai.
“At the moment, Shanghai is one of the hottest cities in the world,” Jitrakthaipakdee explains. “Transportation is so cool, the population is huge, there is a lot of disposable income and, more than anything, Shanghai residents value eating.”
The expansion has been enormously successful. Taking the company’s refined Australian system and replicating it in China has allowed Monkey King Thai to break into the landscape with ease. Jitrakthaipakdee reveals that after only four weeks, the outlet was the highest rated restaurant on the Chinese version of TripAdvisor.
He puts the Shanghai success down to the foundations he laid here in Australia.
“We’ve always been really selective; we believe in a strong foundation,” Jitrakthaipakdee explains. “I see a lot of new food operators who judge success by the number of stores – we don’t. Instead, we think long term, we are looking for someone with the same DNA as us.”
Culture fit is key for Monkey King Thai. Jitrakthaipakdee reveals that many of the chain’s franchisees aren’t experienced in the hospitality industry at all.
“Different cultural angles are what we love. I can teach anyone to cook in two to four weeks, and I can do this because we segment roles,” he notes. “In many restaurants, you need to know everything, but at Monkey King Thai, you train on a specific skill. We believe that the system runs people, but people run the business.”
Far from the high-octane wok-fired environment of Monkey King Thai, however, lies a far more dulcet decorum.
In its native Japan, sushi is held in the same regard as high art, with masters spending a lifetime perfecting their craft. Much like the Japanese culture itself, sushi making is an understated yet wholly refined process that has become intertwined with the Australian culinary melting pot.
While other Asian cuisines may cater to a more adventurous hawker-style offering, sushi chains have become an easily accessible entry point for the more cautious consumer.
“We have noticed that our customers are wanting innovation; however, they don’t want unusual flavours and instead would prefer to try something that looks exciting yet the flavours are immediately relatable,” observes Gavan Meadows, general manager, sales and commercial partnership for national franchise Sushi Sushi.
“Australia has a very diverse palate and we are very creative when it comes to food innovation. First and foremost, the product has to look enticing. Customers don’t want to waste their time and money on a product they are uncertain about, so the product mix has to be compelling and understandable.”
It’s an ethos that Sushi Sushi has been able to explore over many years, introducing a number of Western-focused offerings that have generated strong sales for the chain’s franchise partners.
Meadows reveals that despite its prevalence in Japanese culture, some Aussie consumers still have to overcome the fear of seaweed.
“Through our research, we have discovered that 60 per cent of Australian consumers do not eat hand rolls as they do not like nori (seaweed sheet), so we had to create a range without them,” he jokes.
Unlike Noodle Box and Monkey King Thai, Sushi Sushi has built its network through convenience and speed, allowing the brand to operate in high foot-traffic areas such as food courts and kiosks. However, that presents a new challenge in itself.
“The marketplace is getting much more challenging as shopping centres continue to expand in footprint and add more food retailers for customers to enjoy, and this means that as retailers we have to innovate,” Meadows says.
“The pace of innovation has definitely increased over the years and we are making larger, more visible changes. Costs are continually growing for retailers, so we also have to find new ways to create value for our customers, rather than simply increasing prices to cover the higher cost of doing business.”
As a result, Sushi Sushi is revamping its strategy, increasing new models and menu items that appeal to a wider audience.
“We are expanding our offer into dining precincts as we are now moving into restaurants with table service such as in Bondi Junction in NSW. We are also expanding into restaurants with sushi trains which our first store will open in Canberra Central later this year.”
Meadows reveals that regardless of site format or selection, the process remains the same. Getting it right is essential to the profitability of the brand’s franchisees.
“Every proposed Sushi Sushi location must move through our business modelling process. There are several key competencies each location must deliver. If these competencies aren’t met, we’ll pass on it.”
Even with 130 locations across the country, Sushi Sushi isn’t afraid to mix up the formula, so long as it is backed up with evidence. It all comes down to demographics, Meadows reveals.
“We are really hoping that we are going to excite our current fans and introduce new adoring customers with a complete brand refresh focusing on all touchpoints and by creating places that people want to stay,” he says.
Like all fast food and casual dining offerings, the Asian QSR scene is experiencing a period of strong change. A wealth of new entrants to the country, new players to the market and new flavours to the palate are changing the way consumers interact with the franchise brands they’ve come to love.
“The Asian category is very dynamic, fresh and full of flavour and each angle is being pushed,” says Sushi Sushi’s Meadows.
This was originally published in sister title, Inside Franchise Business.