Veteran restaurateur who acquired Grand Imperial gears up to seize post-Covid opportunity

Wong: Lesson to learn is we must keep enough cash and don’t have too many borrowings. (Photo by Sam Fong/The Edge)

KUALA LUMPUR (July 28): While many businesses shuttered during the height of the pandemic as the country went through one lockdown after another, those who survived, especially the ones in the food and beverage industry, are now seeing a surge in business as previously cooped up consumers seek experiences — be it travel, dining or shopping — outside their homes.

Seeing the unprecedented opportunity in the huge amount of pent-up demand, Datuk Wong Nam Loong — the business owner of popular restaurant chain Esquire Kitchen — acquired Grand Imperial, the 14-year-old homegrown Chinese restaurant group that was established in 2008. At the end of 2021, he emerged as its new owner and single largest shareholder with a 90% stake.

And business at Grand Imperial has been booming, he told The Edge when met at the grand opening of the restaurant chain’s new outlet in Bukit Utama, Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

“The bounce back has been greater than what I expected,” said Wong, now Grand Imperial’s chief executive officer, who is expecting the group’s turnover this year to exceed what it achieved in pre-pandemic 2019, putting it firmly in the black after two loss-making years.


The dinner celebrating the opening of Grand Imperial’s new outlet in Bukit Utama, Petaling Jaya, Selangor (Photo by Sam Fong/The Edge)

In fact, even before movement restrictions were fully lifted in April for the country to transition into the endemic phase of Covid-19, Grand Imperial’s business already experienced an “incredible” upswing during Chinese New Year, Wong said.

While the restaurant group again faced challenges when the wave of Omicron infections peaked in March, it still managed to return to its recovery path soon after that, with the country’s endemic transition.

“I think those restaurants that managed to survive [the pandemic] will do well. Because a lot of restaurants have collapsed — about 30% have closed down their businesses. Hence, the number of restaurants is not as great anymore,” he said.

Datuk Wong Nam Loong (third from left) at the grand opening of Grand Imperial’s new outlet in Bukit Utama, Petaling Jaya, Selangor (Photo by Sam Fong/The Edge)

The acquisition proves again the wisdom of the old Chinese adage, that in every crisis lies the seed of opportunity. Just like how Wong saw an opportunity in Esquire Kitchen, which he bought over from its cash-strapped owners at the tail-end of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis.

Interestingly, Wong was not interested at first to acquire the Grand Imperial business when approached by its shareholders because he was semi-retired. But on studying the business, and seeing how its valuation had turned “very attractive”, he decided to take over the business.

“It is indeed a rare opportunity that only happens during a crisis. They (the former shareholders of Grand Imperial) lost their way and were desperate [to exit the business].

“They over-expanded at the wrong time and borrowed too heavily,” Wong said, referring to the time when the restaurant was, like many other businesses, hit hard by the pandemic.

“Lesson to learn is we must keep enough cash and don’t have too many borrowings. So that in the event something like this happens again, we are better prepared (to weather the crisis),” Wong said.

Now, not only is walk-in traffic high, Wong said the restaurant chain is seeing a huge number of bookings for wedding banquets and such social functions, which account for about 30% of the group’s turnover — with all popular dates, including weekends and public holidays, now fully booked until the end of the year.

Having taken over the business, Wong is looking to “strike while the iron is hot” by opening more outlets. After the one in PJ, he plans to open another one in Setia City Mall, Shah Alam, next year, which will be the group’s 10th outlet.

On differences between his two restaurant businesses, Wong said Grand Imperial has established itself well in the Chinese fine-dining space while Esquire Kitchen is targeting the mid-range market and is more affordable compared to Grand Imperial.

And there are synergies to be derived from the two restaurant chains sharing the same owner now, especially in IT system, warehousing and other logistics solutions, “and the chefs can learn from each other and enhance their skills”, he added.

If all continues to go well, Wong may list his F&B business — comprising both Grand Imperial and Esquire Kitchen — by 2026.