At 12 o’clock, nearing lunch hour, the crowd starts to trickle in Asia Square Tower 2. One knows it’s lunch hour when the tables at the food court will have name tags or tissue packets placed on them, the classic Singaporean way of informally reserving the tables.
Wafuken — wafu, a Japanese style of Western cuisines; ken, short of kenko, wellness in Japanese — is no stranger to all the buzz. Regulars flock to the humble stall for a reason and a good one — the winning point is their sous-vided proteins, a unique cooking technique that uses immersion in hot water for a long period, resulting in some of the most tender and succulent meat.
We sat down with Jake Pang, the managing director of Wafuken over their famous Donburi, of course, for an exclusive interview on his passion for healthy food, the story behind Wafuken, and how Fave has helped his business.
Q: How did the idea of running Wafuken come about? Why healthy food?
A: I was overweight. At 17, I weighed about 90 kilograms. My transformation story began when I wanted to enter a local boxing competition and my coach told me I would have to weigh at least 70 kilograms to qualify.
While I was trying to lose weight, the biggest obstacle in my weight loss journey was diet. When my friends and I went out, I wanted to eat clean, but back then there weren’t many options for healthy food… That are not vegetarian meals. I had to rely on my own meal preps which means a lot of cooking. And the rest is, well, history.
Jake when he was young
Q: People think of healthy food as boring and tasteless. How do you cut these common misconceived ties of healthy food with Wafuken?
A: Try our chicken breast — moist and tender, all sous-vide. It’s how the concept of Wafuken came about.
Healthy food is not exactly something everyone is willing to go into because, yes, there’s this stigma of healthy food being tasteless and bland — not true. Having to always eat clean can be quite frustrating, and so we are introducing Wafuken to the Singaporeans. All of our proteins are sous-vied.
Signature sous vide chicken, premium Japanese brown rice, onsen egg and pickles.
Image credit: Wafuken Facebook
Q: With over 4 years in business, what is the biggest challenge in running Wafuken?
A: Trying to lead a healthy lifestyle in Singapore can be expensive. I’m a consumer myself, I understand it can be difficult to eat a 15-dollar lunch every day.
Running a healthy café itself is also quite challenging. We are talking about three overheads — the rent, the food cost, and the manpower. With rent, the business is down for 2 to 3 years of commitment. As for food cost, it’s tricky to play with the supply as we do not want to compromise our quality. And, because we do not want our F&B manpower to get the short end of the stick, the costs are usually passed down to our customers.
Jake Pang and Deon Tee, co-founders of Wafuken
Q: Fave and Wafuken — we go way back to the early days of Fave in Singapore. Tell us how has it been.
With FaveDeals vouchers, we’re giving out deals, attracting mainly new customers who think, “Okay, maybe I’ll go and try this place.” FavePay comes into the picture next, and that’s when we started our loyalty programme with a 10% cashback. It keeps customers coming back.
A big bulk of our revenue is from returning customers. Returning customers are important to us because it’s the regulars who you can always count on especially in terms of feedback — has the consistency been up to standard, what they like to see in the menu.
Q: Why do you think businesses should go cashless?
A: It’s common to see FavePay in businesses now, even in hawker centres. It has become something that people are more comfortable with. 60% of our sales are derived from cashless payment methods, FavePay being one of them.
Going cashless is really the way forward for businesses. On the business side, it eradicates human error — a miscalculation by cashiers due to keying in wrong amounts or having banknotes stick together, having to go the bank to exchange banknotes or coins, depositing sale of the day, and things like that.
Q: Wafuken recently adopted Fave Takeaway. Why do you think more and more customers are choosing Fave Takeaway?
A: Well, I guess they don’t like and just don’t wanna talk to my cashier (laughs).
60% to 70% of our customers are regulars. They know what they want — they want their lunch quick and easy. With Fave Takeaway, they no longer have to queue, they can just order themselves, make the payment via FavePay, and wait as their order is prepared.
Singaporeans are okay with queuing up, but if they can skip the queue, I don’t think anybody would be like, “No, I want to queue” (laughs).