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Tai Wing Wah
For many Chinese families, the approach of the Mid-Autumn Festival conjures up images of picnics under the moonlight and moon cakes, and for Hongkongers, Wing Wah moon cakes are as synonymous with the festival as the woman that it celebrates, Chang'O.

Although the history of Wing Wah Group may not be as long as the tradition of eating moon cakes, its achievements over the past five decades in shaping the local catering industry, especially Chinese cakes and delicacies, are as well known as the moon cake story.

Wing Wah's story began in the 1940s, when its founder, Lau Pui-ling, like many refugees fleeing China at the time, landed in Hong Kong with the dream of opening his own business. With a sharp eye for spotting business opportunities, he saw great potential for a restaurant in Yuen Long, which at the time was merely an undeveloped town. In 1950, he partnered with the late Chiu Lut-sau and opened a four-storey restaurant with a take-out counter selling cakes and delicacies and named it Wing Wah.

In 1962, Wing Wah was incorporated as a limited company. This marked a new milestone in its business development. It was in that year that Mr Chiu decided to leave the day-to-day operations of the business to Mr Lau, who became the chief executive officer of the group. He invited local famous gourmets Tse Pin and Chan Fei to become partners, and the new team quickly made Wing Wah an established brand throughout Hong Kong. Today, aged between 70 and 80 years old, the partners still advise on corporate affairs.

The development of Wing Wah from a restaurant in Yuen Long to a network of over 20 cake shops and restaurants all over Hong Kong was not without its problems, said Lee Ying Kuen, manager for Wing Wah Cake Shop_s operations in Mongkok.

In 1963, Hong Kong was suffering from a serious drought. With the territory's reservoirs almost dry, the government implemented water rationing and residents only had running water for just four hours every four days, which brought the restaurant to its knees. Wing Wah started its opening hours from 1 a.m. and with the staff's solidarity they finally rode out the storm.

In 1968, Wing Wah faced another major setback when the Wanchai Pier was relocated. As a result, turnover at its nearby branch on Lockhart Road dropped by 60 per cent. To rebuild its patronage, the management decided to lease a shop on the bustling Stewart Road, a move which soon pulled the business back into the black.

Along with the challenges came innovation. While Hong Kong was blistering from the drought of 1963, Wing Wah came out with white lotus seed paste moon cakes, which proved to be very popular and still rank as one of the company's best selling moon cakes today.

Wing Wah understands that innovation is the key that enables them to profit in difficult times, and has launched a wide range of foods to appeal to every taste and occasion. XO sauce, herbal jelly, tea and rice dumplings are a few examples of their products which can be found in the kitchen cupboards of most Chinese households.

Though in many ways a traditional business, the company has been quick to adopt new ways of doing business, and in the late 1990s, it launched its online order service through its Web site.

"We were the first traditional Chinese cake shop to offer such a service in Hong Kong, and it has been well received locally and abroad," Elizabeth Woo, senior officer handling Wing Wah's advertising campaigns said.

"Instead of buying relatives and friends moon cake coupons, which they then need to pick up by themselves, customers are increasingly using the online service to have gift-wrapped moon cakes delivered straight to the places where their relatives and friends live. Many orders are actually from overseas customers who want to surprise their relatives in the Mainland."

Innovation aside, shrewd fiscal management has also helped Wing Wah survive during harsh times. Over the years, Wing Wah has invested in bricks and mortar, and owns many of the properties where its shops, restaurants and food processing plants are located. Free of the burden of paying rent, the company plans to buy more properties in the coming years, Mr Lee said.

Despite the gloom surrounding the catering industry at the moment, Wing Wah also plans to continue expanding its network of stores. Among its 20 outlets around Hong Kong, last year it opened a shop at Whampoa Gourmet Square in Hunghom to capitalize on the new residential and hotel developments there. It also opened two outlets at Hong Kong International Airport for travelers to buy cakes and snacks as souvenirs for their friends and family, as well as three shops at selected MTR stations.

Wing Wah also has expanded into the Mainland market. With two cake shops in Guangzhou and Dongguan respectively and a food processing plant in the latter, the company plans to increase brand awareness among Guangzhou residents through strengthening its advertising and promotion campaigns there, showing them that Wing Wah Cake Shop from Hong Kong makes the tastiest quality food.

Looking ahead, Wing Wah is optimistic about the consumer market in China along with the rising purchasing power of Mainlanders. It is also confident that the local catering industry will recover and grow further with the government's drive to attract more tourists.