Meet Fresh Dessert Franchise
The Sweet Taste of Good Old Times
With a mystique of down-to-earth, old-fashioned flavor, Meet Fresh successfully attracts and retains customers by highlighting the handmade character of its products and spreading the heartwarming legend of its founders.
The Sweet Taste of Good Old TimesBy Sherry Lee, Chao-Yen Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 412 )
Meet Fresh was founded less than two years ago, but already sells taro balls in such quantities that its annual production could fill Taipei's Song Shan soccer stadium twice.
The first Meet Fresh outlet opened right next to the Yumin night market in the Taipei suburb of Banciao in January last year. Within less than two years, the shop's sweets and desserts have become so popular that another 89 stores have opened in northern Taiwan and 30 more in central and southern Taiwan.
Meet Fresh's lightning-speed expansion stands in sharp contrast to the otherwise lackluster state of the industry. The Taiwan Chain Stores and Franchise Association found that the number of chain stores and franchises on the island declined 7.4 percent in 2007.
A bowl of a popular local dessert – taro balls with grass jelly – costs NT$50. On the average every Meet Fresh outlet sells around 2,000 bowls of dessert per day, yielding turnovers topping out at NT$3 million per month. Amid the current economic downturn, consumers are tightening their purse strings, but can't seem to resist the lure of Meet Fresh's traditional sweets and desserts.
The company's secret weapons are its two bosses, Fu A-hsin, the eldest sister of the Fu family, and Fu Hsin-lung, the eldest son. The sixtysomething sister-brother team personally oversees the production process and product innovation.
The Legend of the Two Elders
A caricature portrait of the pair greets customers from the signboard of every Meet Fresh outlet. At the company's factory in Wugu outside of Taipei, the portraits come alive as we meet the Fu siblings for an interview. With their sincere smile and straightforward manner, the duo seems as cordial as parents welcoming home their children.
As a somewhat shy Fu A-hsin smilingly hands her business card to the reporters she says, "My name is Fu A-hsin, I'm Taiwan's Oshin," alluding to the popular Japanese TV drama "Oshin," about a brave woman who triumphs over great adversity.
A-hsin was born into a farming family in Fengyuan in Taichung in the waning days of the Japanese colonial period. As the eldest daughter in a family with nine children, the six-year-old had to help in the kitchen while carrying a younger sibling on her back. When the adults were busy working in the fields, she had to prepare snacks in the morning and in the afternoon, not just for the family, but also for neighbors who helped out on the farm.
A-hsin had a knack for turning taro, which grows in abundance in the Dajia area of Taichung County, into delicious chewy balls widely praised by the locals. When she and brother Hsin-lung decided upon retirement to sell taro balls from a streetside stall, their youngest brother Johnson Fu, 23 years her junior, immediately said he wanted to help them open a shop.
Meet Fresh's marketing builds on the heartwarming story of how the two eldest Fu siblings from the countryside realized their business dream in the big city. But it should come as no surprise that this marketing mystique, drawing on a nostalgic longing for old-fashioned flavor, was actually the brainchild of their little brother. Born in 1965, Johnson is himself something of a legend in the chain store industry.
Back in 1992 before he had even turned 30, Johnson Fu founded the Easy Way Tea franchise, which currently boasts the broadest international distribution of any Taiwanese beverage chain store, with outlets in 15 countries and plans to open shop in Dubai. Sporting black-rimmed spectacles, Johnson Fu has ample experience in the chain store and franchise business. Under the umbrella of his Easy Way International Group also belong the QK coffeeshop chain and the Foot Massage Center chain.
But for Meet Fresh a major challenge was maintaining the high quality of its products despite the rapid addition of new outlets and new franchise takers.
The Secret of Mass-producing Handmade Sweets
Crucial for making top quality products is the selection of superior raw materials. A-hsin insists on using top grade taro from Dajia in Taichung County and Gongguan in Miaoli County.
A-hsin meticulously checks every truckload of taro that arrives at the factory in Wugu. Opening sack after sack, she makes sure that only the best taro tubers make it to the production line, while those that don't make the cut are returned to the supplier. "How could others want to eat what we ourselves don't want to eat?" she asks rhetorically.
The most difficult part of building the Meet Fresh chain of 120 outlets was training staff to hand-knead taro balls, which after all is what sets their sweets apart from machine-made ones. Several machinery manufacturers have tried hard to persuade Meet Fresh to replace hand-kneading with mechanized taro-ball production. But A-hsin insists on handmade production. "Our customers have an even more sensitive palates than we do. With the first bite they know whether the sweets are made by machine or by hand," she asserts.
Although A-hsin and Hsin-lung are both in their sixties, they are still in charge of Meet Fresh's two main factories in Taipei and Taichung. They personally inspect the production lines and immediately correct employees who do not cut taro balls of equal size.
A-hsin is acutely aware that her personal reputation is at stake. Having lived in Tainan and Miaoli, she often receives phone calls from former neighbors who tell her that they find her face smile from Meet Fresh outlets everywhere. "The whole world would know if we lost our good reputation," she says.
To keep a close eye on quality control, Easy Way International is investing NT$400 million in the construction of a central factory, which is scheduled to go on line in February 2009. It is also applying for ISO 20002 certification for its food safety management system and hopes to open the factory in the future to visitors.
To a certain degree the construction of the factory has debunked the rumor that Meet Fresh is only trying to make a quick buck from franchise fees and will soon get out of the dessert business altogether. Explaining his long-term business strategy, Johnson Fu notes, "If you are going to stand out from the crowd and be more refined, you have to take production into your own hands and be in control of key technology."
Johnson Fu took precautions early on to make it more difficult for competitors to copy his business model this time, probably because he learned a lesson from the Easy Way Tea franchise, whose beverage technology has proven to be easily replicated.
Yet presently other restaurant franchises serving similar fare are cropping up in many different locales. Many people believe that Meet Fresh will encounter the same fate as coffeeshop chain 85 Degrees C, which was quite a novelty at its inception, but lost much of its fresh appeal after its business model was copied by many others. Therefore, this time Johnson Fu is putting a stronger emphasis on training franchise outlets and developing new products. In the past, new franchisees at Easy Way Tea had to train for nine days, but now new Meet Fresh outlets are required to take a two-week course. During the summer and winter, Meet Fresh usually releases six to ten new seasonal products to entice customers to return more often.
But Johnson Fu also has a good nose for the takeout market. This summer, for example, Meet Fresh created a winter melon drink with tiny taro balls that are small enough to be sucked through a fat straw just like the tapioca pearls in the still hugely popular bubble milk tea. Target customers for the novel drink were people who wanted to enjoy taro balls while driving and women who would have ruined their lipstick when eating them with a spoon. The strategy seems to have paid off, since sales went up 20 percent.
Yet Johnson Fu not only is keeping on top of customers' food and drink fads, but is also keenly aware of his franchisees' needs. Steve Day, chairman of the Wang Group, which owns the Wang Steak restaurant chain, thinks that Meet Fresh has been very successful in providing a platform for people who want to build their own business despite the current economic downturn. On the average a Meet Fresh outlet can achieve average monthly sales of NT$2 million with a profit of around 60 percent, prospects that are highly attractive amid this economic slump.
Wei-gong Liou, associate professor at the Department of Sociology at Soochow University, believes that Meet Fresh needs to actively innovate and uphold its aesthetic appeal, or else it will become indistinguishable from its rivals within a year and customer attachment to the brand will decline.
Navigating a sea of cutthroat competition, Meet Fresh has already proven false the widely held notion that traditional sweets and desserts cannot be marketed through franchise chains. But whether the chain can continue to implement strict quality control after rapidly expanding, and whether the brand can gain a deeper cultural significance, will be crucial for maintaining its attractiveness in the future.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Meet Fresh Traditional Sweets Specialty Store
Founder: Easy Way International chairman and president Johnson Fu
2008 Turnover: NT$2.1 billion
Number of outlets: 120, including 90 percent franchises
Chinese Version: 傳統滋味 喚醒都市人的胃