4Fingers has appetite for Western markets

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SINGAPORE: It started off in Singapore as a single, standing-only Korean-style fried chicken outlet, but the boss of 4Fingers Crispy Chicken is keen for the chain to spread its wings to places including Australia, the United States and Europe. 

Australia is top of the list for chief executive Steen Puggaard, who confirmed to Channel NewsAsia that the company will open two outlets in Brisbane and one in Melbourne by the end of June. 

These outlets are just the start of the expansion plans, with potential sites being canvassed in Los Angeles and interviews under way to find a business development director for Europe.

CHANGES FOR THE WESTERN MARKET 

While the chain has expanded rapidly in Singapore, from a single outlet in 2009 to 12 today, the successful formula will be tweaked slightly for overseas markets, said Mr Puggaard. 

“In Australia, we want to emphasise the fast, casual quality of our food. We will have artisanal juices, and there’s no real reason for us to be Halal-certified in Australia, so we are adding beer, wine, ciders (and) light alcohol,” he said. There will not be big glossy menu boards, but pegboards instead. The menu will be the same, but portion sizes will be bigger, he added. 

“Australia for us is kind of a market that we are using to adjust our brand and our menu to Western markets. So what you’ll end up seeing in the US will be very similar to what you see in Australia,” he said. 

Mr Puggaard is no stranger to the food and beverage industry, having started with McDonald’s in 1996. He came to Singapore in 1999 as the fast food chain’s regional marketing manager. Also under his belt are also stints with Burger King and fine dining brand Les Amis. 

SUCCESS IN SINGAPORE 

As the number of outlets has expanded in Singapore under Mr Puggaard’s stewardship, so has the company’s income. The business has raked in S$30 million in revenue so far this year from the 10 outlets it owns (there are also two franchised stores), a sharp increase from the S$2 million in the whole of 2013. 

Korean-style fried chicken chain 4Fingers is going places, with outlets in Australia slated to open in June, and more outlets to come in the United States and Europe. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)

When the first store opened in 2009 at the basement in ION Orchard mall, there were days where the sales would add up to just a few hundred dollars, Mr Puggaard said. As traffic to the level started increasing, the store gained popularity.  

In 2012, a neighbouring store closed down, creating an opportunity for 4Fingers to provide tables and seats for customers. Until then, customers only had counters, where they could stand and eat. There are also three outlets in Malaysia, with one more coming up soon, and two in Indonesia.

In explaining the chain’s success, Mr Puggaard pointed to the 4Fingers brand, which is a “little bit different” compared with other fast food offerings, and staying focused on the quality of food. 

“What we are seeing is that consumers in mature markets are looking for something different. There is an amount of brand fatigue, where people are behaving loyally to old brands but they are looking for better options, he said.

Korean-style fried chicken from 4Fingers. (Photo: 4Fingers)

Growth has been fuelled by demand for fast casual food, which he described as a “notch up” from fast food, with better service and quality and a focus on value-for-money rather than low price. He said that customers typically pay more at 4Fingers than at other fast food outlets. A 6-piece wing or drumlet meal with a drink and fries costs S$10.95. 

Mr Puggaard also said the chain has a “rebellious” feel, selling Korean-style chicken but also mixing up traditional Chinese and Japanese elements in its food offerings. He gave the example of the katsu chicken sandwich, which is made using a Chinese mantou bun, kimchi and coleslaw with chicken and lettuce. As the Dane, who is a Permanent Resident here, described it: “It’s all a happy rojak.”

The chain has also stuck through the years with the family-owned business in Penang, Malaysia that is behind the soy sauce that goes into making 4Fingers chicken. The soy sauce is made simply, with just soy beans, salt and water, through five months of fermentation. 

“As soy sauce ferments, it separates into layers. The bottom layer is the one that’s most flavourful. That’s the one we tap off,” he said. Natural herbs and spices are then added to the soy sauce, he said. Each chicken piece is then coated with the sauce individually.

Each piece of chicken is battered individually using 4Fingers’ proprietary sauce. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)

While mass manufacturers have approached him to make the sauce, he felt they would not be able to replicate the quality. 

Mr Puggaard, who never used to enjoy fried chicken, now sees himself eating at one of the outlets here at least once a week.

He said: “Our secret to growth has been to remain true to what the brand is all about, and making sure we don’t get distracted as we grow, to try too many things that we are not good at.”

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