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Q&A with Larkin Cen

Catering Today sits down with Larkin Cen, MasterChef finalist and founder of Woky Ko, who explains how his passion for food led him to follow his dreams. He also shares the ways Covid-19 has affected his business as well as the lessons he’s learned in order to keep it going.

Where did your passion for food come from?

I grew up like many British-born Chinese kids, in a Chinese takeaway which is where I developed my love for Chinese food. We came from very modest beginnings yet we used to eat like kings, because there was a great passion with food in my family. I tried to go down the professional route and qualified as a lawyer but I’ve always liked working for myself, and food is also where my passion is – so it kind of made sense to follow my dreams.

The reason why I went into this industry was because I felt almost this injustice in the way that Asian food was perceived, how it’s often devalued as a cuisine. I wanted to explore this area whilst learning more about the cuisine myself and also to show people our creations. We dived into different parts of Asia to develop ideas from ramen to hand pulled noodles, baos and so on. The business was formed because I believed that Asian food is great and we should really celebrate how great it is.

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I set up in Wapping Wharf in 2016 in a converted shipping container restaurant. Fortunately it was so popular, we were able to build a business out of it. In the first three years we started off with a turnover of about £300,000, which then doubled the year after, then just before Covid we were just shy of £1.2m in the year, with four restaurants. To achieve that within the four-year period was an incredibly proud moment.

What led you to apply for MasterChef?

I think I was just really frustrated and fed up at work one day and on a whim I applied for it at my desk during my lunchtime. It only took half an hour to answer a few questions and then all of a sudden they were asking me for casting days and things like that. They told me that I had made it onto the show and asked if I could attend a cook-off.

I didn’t really think that much of it when I applied but I thought if I got far enough, it could give me a good start in my career change. I applied for MasterChef knowing that I would be leaving my job and so now it was all for nothing. I never really watched the show before – I should have probably done more research, but I knew it was a very powerful brand and it definitely opened doors for me.

How has the transition from operating a restaurant to delivery service been?

They are two different business models. These days if you want to do deliveries, you’re 50% logistics company and 50% a food company. I think the greatest challenge was actually creating food that travels really well.

The funny thing is, my first business didn’t succeed owing to a lack of experience. But everything happens for a reason. When Covid hit, it was a really dark time – this was before any furlough schemes were announced and it was just a sudden closure which just left a lot of people really devastated. The experiences I’ve had with my first business actually saved my business now, however, because all those lessons I learned the first time I could implement this time round.

Firstly, you need to get your logistics right. You need to make sure that the food being delivered is on time, at a perfectly acceptable temperature as well as being able to travel well. You also need the price point to be right, as well as the packaging and accessibility.

What you will lack in a delivery centre is the interaction between the customer and the staff, which is a big part of the experience. What was important to me was ensuring that we gave a great experience when they have a takeaway as well, and that’s why we really take the time and communicate that to customers. Just before Christmas we sent everyone Christmas cards in their takeaways just to say thank you for their support. That communication and personal touch is really important.

How has Covid-19 affected your business?

It’s affected it massively. In Bristol out of the four sites we have, only one of them is open at the moment. The success of delivery in Bristol though meant that we decided to open up a new kitchen in Newport, which is now our first Woky Ko in Wales.

What are some of your predictions for 2021 for the hospitality industry?

I think there’s a few issues coming up. The hospitality industry has been absolutely hammered in the last year, and its survival has been helped by the furlough scheme and grants, but also the biggest actual help is not actually the grants or anything like that, it’s the VAT decrease.

I personally think the government should continue to support the hospitality sector with the 5% VAT rate because what hospitality businesses will suffer from this year is a cash flow crisis. They’ve been shut while bills are accumulating so what will happen is those bills need to be repaid at some point. I always liken cash flow to the lifeblood of the business. If you don’t have cash flow it could lead to the death of the business.

I think takeaways will dip slightly at the end of Covid and will take time to rebuild confidence, so even for 2021 it will be a really challenging time for hospitality, however those brands with a good following and who have innovated during lockdown will hopefully reap the benefits in 2022 and beyond.

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