Video: Aaron Ho
The next time you’re looking for a lunch spot in ICON Village, you might just see a familiar face there – after all, Zhang Yao Dong’s new baby, fusion restaurant Maru, is located there.
The actor (and sometimes Disney prince) spoke to Toggle at the grand opening of his restaurant on October 5, telling us more about his business venture that has been in the works for almost a year, and the teething problems they’ve faced during the two weeks since their soft launch.
Maru, described by Yao Dong as a contemporary Asian fusion restaurant (in particular, Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine feature heavily in their creations), is a partnership between him and three other friends, two of whom are Vietnamese themselves.
WATCH: Zhang Yao Dong shares his excitement at the grand opening of his new restaurant!
The leap of faith: Sinking in close to a million dollars into Maru
The quartet sunk in close to a million dollars in the business, and rental for the ground-floor unit costs a cool five-figure sum every month. What then, gave Yao Dong such confidence to say yes to this venture?
“I personally enjoy eating Japanese and Vietnamese food – it’s not too heavy on your palate, but at the same time, it’s also flavourful and healthy,” he explained. “Our restaurant is priced somewhere in the mid-range, but we ensure that the quality of the ingredients is not compromised.”
He continued, “Location wise, we’re near to the financial district and our main clientele are the white-collar workers (…) Vietnamese and Japanese eateries are pretty common in Singapore, but you don’t really see fusion restaurants like ours around, so for us, there’s a lot more potential in the market.”
Their original plan was to have a soft launch for the restaurant to sort out teething problems for at least a month. Yao Dong chuckled, “Time waits for no man. In the end, we decided to push the grand opening to an earlier date, so we’ve only been in business for two weeks. I see this restaurant as one that will be around for a long time, and I have a lot of confidence in our team.”
Yao Dong shared that he is very involved in Maru's day to day operations, going for rounds of food tasting with the rest of his team in order to present the best selection of dishes on the menu. (Photos: Zhang Yao Dong/Instagram, Maru Singapore/Instagram)
Yao Dong on taking customer complaints in stride
The first two weeks since they were in business hasn’t been all smooth sailing, confessed Yao Dong. “We wanted to let the chefs and other staff get a feel of running the restaurant during our soft launch. Unexpectedly, we had a full house of guests on the first or second day. At the time, we only had one or two chefs in the kitchen, and we couldn’t cope with the massive number of orders.”
“We received complaints about the extended waiting time for the food, and we were also unable to maintain the quality of the dishes served to our guests,” the 39-year-old shared. “We accepted these criticisms because it was our fault for not being able to serve food that was up to standard.”
Thankfully, the manpower crunch has now been sorted out and Maru now boasts a full kitchen of three to four chefs who are more than able to cope with guests’ orders at any time.
“Over 80 per cent of the feedback that we’re received so far has been positive, and the negative ones include comments that our food is too bland. This is acceptable to me, and we’re still working on perfecting some of our recipes. We’ve also been seeing a lot of returning customers, which has given us a lot of confidence.”
Celebrity friends, including Meixin, Zheng Ge Ping, Hong Hui Fang, Bryan Wong, Michelle Chia, Chen Xiuhuan and Fiona Xie graced Maru's grand opening (Photo: Junkie Showbiz & HuiZax)
What’s next for Yao Dong?
Maru isn’t the only business that Yao Dong has his fingers in – among his other businesses are Bliss Bridal, a bridal boutique that is a stone’s throw away from Maru, along with Asia Car Rental, a transport company that he has in Malaysia that caters mostly to Singaporean customers.
He’s also owned food businesses, among which Niu Taste, a restaurant specialising in beef dishes, and Restoran Selayang, a joint venture with fellow actor Terence Cao specialising in roast meats. Both restaurants have since closed down, but Yao Dong shared that he’s learned valuable lessons from both times on how to manage his businesses better.
For now, he remains a sleeping partner in most of his businesses as he focuses his time on his acting career. After he wraps filming upcoming Channel 8 drama Gifted in Malaysia, he might be heading to China at the end of the year to start work on a China-Hong Kong movie.
He also has one or two movie scripts on hand that he is considering, and might also be part of an upcoming Channel 8 drama next year. “We’re still in discussions for all of this and nothing is confirmed yet – it all depends on my schedule as well,” he grinned. “You can only convincingly portray a role through your real-life experiences.”
Yao Dong continued, “I believe in lifelong learning, and I don’t see anything wrong in asking industry juniors, some who can be even 20 years younger than I am, for advice if the situation calls for it. To me, being able to learn new things is a blessing.”