There can’t be too many family teams that are as strong and successful as the Tse twins, Lisa and Helen. Successful city jobs under their belts, they decided to pause their careers and open a restaurant in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter – and guess what? It’s a roaring success.
Not only can the girls boast a buzzing steam of customers at Sweet Mandarin, even in the middle of a recession; but they’ve also won a host of fancy accolades and have cooked with that shouty face chef Mr Gordon Ramsey and even won his best Local Chinese Restaurant category on The F Word.
You think their prowess stops there? No. They’ve started a cookery school, they run corporate team building days, Lisa set up a recruitment company and Helen wrote a book (called Sweet Mandarin) that has been published in 33 countries and will appear on Kindle this autumn.
There’s no slowing these ladies down, their latest project has just been launched – a range of the sauces they use in their restaurant so customers can recreate the Sweet Mandarin experience at home. I managed to squeeze in five minutes with this illustrious pair and pick their brains on what makes them tick and the secret to their runaway success.
Nosh: You both left pretty high flying jobs for Sweet Mandarin, what prompted you to do this?
Helen and Lisa: We grew up in the family food business and after a family trip back to Hong Kong to rediscover our roots, we decided in 2004 that we wanted to open a business. Being passionate about food, people and business we thought it would be great to open a restaurant together. Our experience in the City has helped us enormously with the restaurant.
The business has gone from strength to strength – what are the most important things you have learned in this process and the tips you’d give to other business owners.
You have to believe in your product and service. We love what we do, we love our customers and we are passionate about food. It’s a lifestyle for us, rather than a job. Our advice is choose to do something you love as life is too short.
What has been the toughest part for you in running Sweet Mandarin?
Running Sweet Mandarin is a juggling act. You always have to be on your toes and able to spin many plates!
What has been the best thing about running Sweet Mandarin?
The customers. We love them. They are now an extension to our family.
Family is very important to you guys (you have their recipes on your menu), but do you find working with a family member harder or easier?
Easier. I know they will always have my back. All our conversations are frank and constructive. We spur each other on to do better, try harder, be more efficient.
You have diversified away from ‘just a restaurant’ to include sauces, experiences etc – has this been in response to the current economic climate or just something you planned to do?
We’ve been selling these sauces for the past three generations, since the 1950s. It’s only now that we’ve started to bottle it – and that is because our customers asked us to. Likewise the cookery school was an extension to the work we did with schools. The teachers kept asking us to teach other dishes and I decided to structure the courses so now we offer beginners and intermediate cookery courses to members of the public on Saturdays.
Do you think all small businesses should look at diversification to stay ahead of the game?
You should only diversify if it sits comfortably within the core business.
What was the inspiration for the sauces and how did you go about getting them from your heads and in to the bottle?
We have been selling the same sauces for decades. All that has changed is we’ve put them in a glass bottle with a label (designed by our customers).
Everyone knows you’ve met and been on Gordon’s show – what was it like working with him and did the experience change your goals/thoughts etc in any way?
Gordon Ramsay is a great inspiration and it was an honour to cook with him. He has given me confidence to continue with my business and continue to cook for my customers.
What inspires you to cook and who? Why the food business?
My grandma and mum inspired me to cook. We’re the third generation of women restaurateurs in our family.
If you could invite five guests to a slap up meal, who would they be and why?
i) My grandma – she passed away on 8th December 2007 and I miss her so much and want to know she’s ok in Heaven.
ii) Mark Zuckerberg – he seems like a really cool guy and I’ve just set up a Facebook page
iii) Martha Stewart – she’s THE domestic goddess
iv) Jamie Oliver – he teaches schools about healthy eating. I also work a lot with schools and would love to share ideas.
v) Justin King from Sainsbury’s – he is a friendly guy and I want to pick his brains about retail.
What are the plans for Sweet Mandarin in the future?
To continue to serve customers for many, many years to come and extend our range of sauces.
The Sweet Mandarin sauces are available in Barbecue, Sweet Chilli and Sweet and Sour – they are all gluten, MSG and additive free and are available at £2.50 a bottle from their Northern Quarter Restaurant, or from their website www.sweetmandarin.net