Chung’s finding new ways to innovate food four decades later
Dennis Chung spent months discussing his transition from life insurance adviser to restaurant owner with his brother-in-law, Winston Lee.
Lee, who had made a success out of his own restaurant, Golden Dragon, was persuasive about making the switch to business, and so with a little help from family members and four employees, Chung took the leap.
In 1980, he opened Chung’s Luncheonette and Caterers Limited at 138C Maxfield Avenue in Kingston, a roughly half-acre site that was previously used to restore furniture and appliances.
Chung’s speciality was fast-food dining for customers and concessionaire services for corporate clients, respectively, a model it has tweaked over its 39 years of operation as market dynamics changed.
Chung, as founder, was determined to build a generational business that would survive the years based on the quality of its food and the service provided by its employees.
And, so far, he has delivered. His son is now working on further expansion plans and enhancements to the business, and his grandson has been the driver behind the company’s diversification.
“When I started this business, I believed in three things: quality of service, quality of product, and one thing I believed in, which I think helped us is the affordability. Because of that, I acquired all the big company [contracts] in Kingston,” Chung told the Financial Gleaner during a round-table interview at the restaurant’s Kingston-based head office.
By 1983, Chung, with the help of his son, Jerome, was producing, on average, 1,500 chicken, vegetarian, pork and seafood meals per day to service contracts for corporate giants such as Insurance Company of the West Indies, Jamaica Mortgage Bank, the former Island Life, and IBM Jamaica.
As the business grew its client base, Jerome spent much of his childhood helping his father to maintain the company’s vision statement ‘for the finest food and greatest service’.
A graduate of St George’s College, Jerome, who currently holds the post of director of operations, was introduced to business in 1982 as a high-school student.
“I left school in 1985 and came straight to here,” he said. “I like the business; it’s what I’ve known from the third form,” said the 51-year-old second-generation restaurant operator.
The years brought with it changes in Jamaica’s economic performance, swings in disposable income and the taste buds of Chung’s client base. Accordingly, Chung’s Catering responded to the changes with new and improved dishes, but the owners also saw the potential for increased revenue from catering and other services.
Thirteen years after its founding, the business was renamed Chung’s Catering Services in 1993.
Two more decades brought even more changes. By 2014, Chung’s Catering was slowing pulling out of the meal concessionaire market and sought instead to target a new segment when it rolled out pop-up restaurants.
“We had about eight wagons and we would pull them all over Kingston. Morning and evening we went back for them; but other things came up. We started thinking of the companies we wanted to get into,” Jerome said.
After growing customer requests, and research to better understand the market, the Chung family turned its focus to catering for weddings, parties, funerals and corporate functions. The switch in the target market resulted in the company receiving, on average, 12 calls per day to cater for up to 3,000 people per event.
Aside from its catering service, the Chungs also refurbished and expanded the building bought in the 1970s to include a cold room, corporate office, bar and dining area for walk-in guests.
“So the staff, especially the kitchen staff, increased from about five to 13 individuals,” the founder said.
Father and son also expanded the Chung’s Catering outlets to Harbour Street in the 1990s, and Tangerine Place in 2011, both in Kingston.
Today, Chung’s Catering employs about 80 workers and has laid claim to being one of the top five food service companies in the catering business. The investment over the four decades has been substantial, at around $80 million.
But the family has even bigger ambitions to secure a greater market share over the next two years through Jerome’s vision of franchising the operation and a further expansion of the Chung’s Catering outlets to six.
“We need to acquire at least three for ourselves, so the first step is to find suitable locations. Outside of that, people as far as Mandeville have asked for us to come and look at their building because they want a Chung’s on that side of the island,” Jerome said.
“That is the first place we are going to look and, if all goes well, we’ll start with that one. We also have to [standardise] the ingredients so that no matter where a customer eats, the taste is consistent,” he said.
Part of the expansion is expected to be financed through bank loans, but the Chung family is also contemplating equity financing via a possible listing of the business on the Jamaica Stock Exchange.
Into meat delivery
Aside from the expansion of Chung’s Catering, Dominic Chung, 23, son of Jerome, has also pitched in and developed a subsidiary of the business that leverages Chung’s Catering’s network of supplier relationships and delivery infrastructure.
The year-old meat delivery company, Meat Box Limited, is managed by both Jerome and Dominic and pushes convenience for both residential and commercial clients sourcing fresh meat cuts.
Meat Box began as an experiment in the summer of 2018. The business became operational after six months of testing the market.
Like his father, Dominic also spent his days after school in the kitchen of Chung’s Catering, where he is being groomed to one day take over the management of the family business.
In line with Chung’s dishes, Meat Box offers seafood, beef, pork, and chicken cuts. In setting itself apart from the competition with doorstep delivery, the company also offers a ‘meat box’, which is packaged to feed a small family.
“It comes in two sizes. The idea is that each box can feed a family of four for three or five dinners. You can also customise the exact meat you want inside your box,” Dominic said.
Currently, Meat Box only caters to cookshops, schools, catering companies and households across Kingston, but Dominic dreams of one day supplying the hospitality sector and more households across Jamaica.
“Currently, most of the products are locally supplied, but my father and I are looking at importing some meats so we can eventually supply the hotels,” he said.