Steven Yang had a dream of opening Cinnabon in Hong Kong ever since he first tried one of their cinnamon buns and realised there was nothing quite like it in the city. Together with his wife, Alle Siu, they wooed the international owners to setting up under their business Reach Out Philosophy and finally set up shop in Kowloon’s Olympic earlier this year.
Steven tells us the road to getting Cinnabon to Hong Kongers’ taste buds.
Can you tell us a little bit about about the Cinnabon legacy and why you wanted to bring it to Hong Kong?
So, globally, Cinnabon have about 1,600 outlets, and in Asia, there are a few markets – Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Australia opened recently. Two years ago, I was on a business trip in the Philippines. I walked inside a mall and smelled something so good, and there were a lot of people queuing up. When I went back to Hong Kong and spoke to my wife, I told her that I had something really, really good in Manila. And she remembered eating the same thing back when we were studying in the US – and that was Cinnabon. Then I was thinking how come we don’t have something that’s so good in Hong Kong? So I approached them to say we are interested in exploring a potential collaboration in Hong Kong. And that’s how we started.
Cinnabon is on the sweet end of the dessert spectrum. Did you have any concerns about the lack of success of other companies like Krispy Kreme in Hong Kong? Perhaps Hong Kongers don’t have quite as sweet a tooth as others?
I had so many friends and people basically telling me that it’s too sweet. They also said that Chinese people don’t like cinnamon as it’s considered medicinal and that the Cinnabon menu is too restricted. But they’re missing the concept of the authentic speciality store. And when I look back, the reason why I was so interested to set Cinnabon up here is that this is actually a completely new product in Hong Kong. Also, the international recipe is 30 per cent less sweet than in North America. So we’ve reduced the sweetness; there’s less sugar and more cinnamon. Also, you walk around the malls and there are things like macaron shops everywhere, and they’re super sweet.
What do you think it is about the Cinnabon experience that has so taken hold of Hong Kong?
I think what it is, people are just tired of having the same thing over and over again and being replicated in different ways. So cheesecake was big for like 10 years and Japanese desserts are everywhere, and I think people are just bored. In locations like Japan and the Philippines, there are opportunities for multiple flavours – like mango in Manila and sakura in Japan – so for Hong Kong, once the time is correct, we can leverage on that and create something for Hong Kong too.
When things settle down, do you have any expansion plans?
We do want to expand; we will. At this moment in time, we want to play it very cautious, but I also think it is the best time to negotiate. At the end of the day, we’re not selling something that’s really expensive. I’m selling something for $20 or $30. I need volume and people to get used to frequently buying it to make up the rent. I’m talking to customers about where they live in Hong Kong, and they’ll say they are from SoHo and Sai Ying Pun and basically places on the other side of the city. When I ask why are you over here in Olympic, they say, I’ve come here just for Cinnabon. When they ask why don’t you come over to the other side, it may be where the population is, but the cost is really high. So now is a better time to negotiate locations that I could not previously afford.
Has InvestHK added value to Cinnabon’s opening in Hong Kong? What resources have you been able to capitalise on?
I had no idea, initially, what they can do as a government body, but later on, I found out, wow, actually they can do a lot. For example, they help me with connecting to people I don’t know about, like the industry licensing folks. Also, the import regulations, because 90 per cent of our ingredients come from the US. They referred us to lawyers who are specialised, and basically, it’s been great to have somebody who knows this whole game. They give me an insight in terms of ways they can help me do my job. They will point me to the right direction.
How much has Cinnabon been affected by all the issues happening in the city?
I guess this is where the brand is interesting. The brand itself, Cinnabon, is really about happiness; it’s all about feeling good. The first time you see somebody try it, you can see the smile coming on their face. That’s the brand magic of Cinnabon – it brings happiness to people. And I think that’s what we need right now for Hong Kong – and for the world.
Is there a delivery option with Cinnabon?
Well, we’re looking into it, but we’re still in discussions with the, you know, big boys. So one of the things that I really wanted to think about is how can I get to the Island side without having a shop there. I’m not sure, even if we opened up delivery, we would be able to satisfy the majority of people who want delivery, because at the moment we’re serving the community in the area of northern Kowloon. So we’re still in discussions with them and hopefully can get something on delivery soon. We are also doing top-of-the-range coffee as well as a caffeine-free rooiboos iced lemon tea alongside our menu of Cinnabons and Minibons.
Cinnabon, Shop G06, G/F, Olympian City 2, 18 Hoi Ting Road, West Kowloon (open daily, 11am–9pm)
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