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MTY Food Group founder Stanley Ma. (Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
MTY Food Group founder Stanley Ma. (Anthony Jenkins/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Stanley Ma: An empire on a plastic tray Add to ...

Stanley Ma surveys the food-court lunch choices at the Place Vertu shopping mall in suburban Montreal, noting that seven of the 20 or so fast-food outlets are brands owned by his company, MTY Food Group Inc. But he refuses to say which one of them he likes best.

“My brands are my children,” he says. And like a good parent, he doesn’t play favourites.

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Instead, I have to make the decision where we’ll eat, opting for Kim Chi, MTY’s Korean food chain where meals are cooked on the spot on a sizzling wok. Mr. Ma has a spicy noodle dish, mixed with strips of beef and vegetables, and a bottle of water.

As we settle into the plastic food-court chairs and tuck into our meals amidst the din of a weekday lunch hour, Mr. Ma muses on what makes a successful fast-food concept in an age where choice, value, health and marketing are all factors in attracting fickle customers. While we talk, he discreetly eyes other patrons seated nearby, checking to see what people are eating, whether they finish their meals, and if they seem pleased with the experience.

He should know what works. The soft-spoken entrepreneur has quietly built a vast cross-country stable of fast-food restaurants, including well-known brands such as Cultures, Thai Express, Yogen Fruz, and Country Style. A serial acquisitor, he has just bought smoothie purveyor Jugo Juice, is completing a deal to buy the Koryo Korean Barbeque chain, and will soon close his biggest acquisition ever – the iconic but dated Mr. Sub sandwich chain, which has deep roots in Ontario.

With more than two dozen brands and operations across Canada and the Middle East, the MTY restaurants sold food and drink worth $462-million in 2010. Most are franchised, and the royalties and fees contributed to MTY’s revenue of $67-million in 2010 – still small compared with huge rivals such as Tim Hortons or McDonald’s.

While MTY’s revenue and profit have been growing very steadily, Mr. Ma acknowledges that the company had a tough time in 2009 and early 2010 because of the economy, and could again if there’s another dip. “We are not recession-proof,” he says.

Despite his growing empire, Mr. Ma remains modest, even self-effacing. “I’m a low-key person, he says. “I don’t really look for a high profile. “I’m a simple person who is passionate about what I do.”

From his offices in a low-slung industrial building in a non-descript industrial area of St. Laurent, he quietly controls almost 1,900 restaurants, giving him a strong sense for changing public tastes – at least when it comes to fast food.

There is no question customers are increasingly demanding, Mr. Ma says, as he deftly lifts his noodles with disposable chop sticks. Patrons are looking for healthier fare, high quality and – particularly in a food-court setting – a multitude of specialized choices.

Indeed, when we had queued up for our meals, the next person in line had asked that the cook use less oil in the wok to make his stir-fry, and another customer returned his plate, unsatisfied with the way it was cooked.

“The bar is definitely higher,” Mr. Ma said. “People are now very knowledgeable and [want]healthy food.”

A couple of decades ago, a food-court customer was most often a shopper taking a break, and they would have had to make do with a hamburger, pizza slice, or single Chinese food offering. Now, food courts are destinations for office workers, and they want coffee from a specialty outlet, a salad from a salad place, and choices that include Korean, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Italian.

But competing in today’s bustling food court means more than just providing a wide range of appetizing food, Mr. Ma says. The signage, overall look, and brand recognition of each outlet are crucial in drawing in customers and keeping them away from competitors. In a mall setting, eating decisions are made in a few seconds, so location and visual appeal are key, as is price. On-street locations are somewhat different, he says, because atmosphere and comfort play a bigger role.

Mr. Ma came to Canada from Hong Kong as a teenager in 1968, and while he initially worked at odd jobs, his goal was to open a restaurant. In 1979 that dream came true when he started Le Paradis du Pacifique, a Chinese-Polynesian full-service eatery in Laval, just north of Montreal.

Why Polynesian? On a visit to Calgary he had visited the Beachcomber, in iconic Calgary landmark that served Polynesian food. “I loved that concept,” Mr. Ma said. “[I wanted to create]a small version of that restaurant.”

It was a successful money-spinner, but after a few years, he figured that franchised fast-food restaurants might provide an even better return. In 1983 he launched his first mall-based Chinese food outlet – Tiki-Ming, a chain that now has four dozen locations.

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