Food & Drink: Word of mouth - Another happy Chinese New Year for Wing Yip.
Saturday 13 February 1999
Though the year of the rabbit begins on Tuesday, Mr Yip dismisses the Chinese New Year as a gimmick. But, no doubt, it shifts sackloads of fortune cookies to the restaurateurs for whom his stores are a supply line. "When you think Chinese, most people think food," says Mr Yip, who has a nice line in humour. "Ah, all the tea in China," he says posing rather impatiently for our photograph in an aisle devoted to the national drink.
One of the wealthiest and most successful Chinese entrepreneurs in Britain, Mr Yip arrived on a boat from Hong Kong 40 years ago, started washing up in a Chinese restaurant in Hull and 18 months later opened his own in Clacton-on-Sea. Several other restaurants followed, until in 1970 he opened a grocery in Birmingham, that today occupies a 7.2-acre site. Now he's planning to double the size of Croydon's store. Having been a restaurateur, he knows what his customers want. And he can give it to them on a scale which no one else comes near.
Though most of Wing Yip's customers are Chinese and are involved in catering, he didn't get where he is today by limiting his stock. Curry spices are one of the biggest sellers, and, Mr Yip says, almost as an afterthought, "we have frozen chips, fish, flour, salt and vinegar". Although they sell in bulk, the stores are accessible to anyone. It helps if you know what you're looking for when there are up to 15 brands of soy sauce, but there's enough space to allow dithering over decisions some of us aren't used to making. Choy sum, pak choi, pea tips, Chinese celery or kai choi? They're all here. Taro, eddoes, green radishes and kohlrabi, too. You want wonton pastry, banana leaves, live lobsters? Wing Yip's got it. Something new? Goose intestine/gizzard/tongue exclaims a poster. Dried sweet potato can, the label informs, be used for banqueting. There are liquorice-flavoured olives and melon-flavoured wafers. More essentially, there are sacks of staples like rice and bean sprouts, cases and crates of drink so large that a forklift truck manoeuvres them round the store.
The 25 to 30 per cent of European customers "only spend 10 per cent of my turnover". To prove that people come from far and wide, Mr Yip goes walkabout in the Croydon store, conducting a vox pop of customers on a wet afternoon. "Excuse me, I work here," he says, somewhat underplaying his role in the company, the largest Chinese business outside any Chinatown in Europe. "Can you tell me where you come from to shop here?" Thailand, replies his first respondent, albeit via Lewisham. Another couple turn out to be Asians from Guyana, living up the road in Norwood. At weekends people come from Brighton, Southampton and London. Mr Yip reckons Westminster Council should be grateful to him for easing traffic congestion in Chinatown. "In the old days if you wanted to do business that's where you had to be." Chinatown isn't big enough for the amount of food Mr Yip wants to sell.
375 Nechells Park Road, Nechells, Birmingham (0121 327 6618); 544 Purley Way, Croydon (0181-688 4880); 395 Edgware Road, London NW2 (0181-450 0422); Oldham Road, Ancoats, Manchester (0161 832 3215)
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