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VIDEO: Kent Chen of Uni Uni - How to Run a Successful Franchise

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

INFI: All right, so thanks, Kent. So Kent, you own or operate a few different bubble tea establishments and restaurants in Chicago's Chinatown, right?

Chen: Yes.

INFI: All right. So you do Elitea; you just opened up UNI UNI. What else do you own? And what got you into the restaurant industry?

Chen: Actually, just a brief introduction to my background. I majored in mechanical engineering, and my full-time job is in engineering. But my working time is 7:30, normally working time is 7:30 to 3:30, so that's a lot of time after work just thinking of what else I can do I mean in the United States as a foreigner, as a Chinese immigrant. I mean, the food industry is very easy to step into being Chinese, because Chinese food, it's a kind of a specialty in America.

Actually, I started a restaurant, we cooked Chinese food. We opened a small restaurant in Chinatown. Actually, it was in the food court in Chinatown. After like about eight to nine months of operation, I felt it's very hard to operate it without being on-site because it's highly reliant on the chef. So eventually, the chef said, oh, you guys are not here, so I'm operating in the restaurant. So you guys have to pay me more and more and more.

So you know it didn’t work at the end. We thought about it, we have to do something to standardize our price, standardized operation. So bubble tea is what brought to our vision back then because there was only a couple, only a few bubble tea stores in Chicago back then. It's not like now, it's very competitive. But it was a very good time to bring it in. And personally, I like drinking bubble tea, and I felt the market back then can go better. So that's why I said yes, I'll do it.

So we brought in a corporate trainer, he's from Taiwan. He worked in the bubble tea industry for a long time. So he came here, researched the market, and he set up the whole product line based on the market for us. That's how Uni Uni is established.

Creating Brand vs. Business

INFI: What are the differences between building a brand and running a business?

Chen: This year, I mean after creating the Uni Uni, our mission is not just the renting of bubble tea store, it’s to expand the brand, it's branding. So branding is totally different than running just one single bubble tea store. Because in the past, what we were thinking is to put all our effort into one store, on the Uni Uni store.

But right now, yes, I mean Uni Uni store in Chinatown is still important, but we have a dozen managers for it. So my effort will be on the branding, to expand it. To make everything standardized, prepare contracts, for the franchise and doing the advertisement in certain cities.

And also, collaborate with different technologies and parties to make it happen. INFI is one of the companies that collaborate with, they built the website for me, and we were thinking of building an app together for the future.

Product Research & Development

INFI: Yes. I've been to the Chinatown location, and I saw that you guys have the kiosks already. And yes, that's something that I've spoken with a few other similar bubble tea operators, franchise operators about, that technology can really help in creating a standard across locations. Making it easier on staffing and just overall customer experience.

And so before we started recording, you were saying how the product already existed in Minneapolis, and then you essentially are making it a brand. What was the process into meeting your suppliers or your providers? And then developing it into this full-fledged idea of a brand?

Chen: We tested all the products at Chinatown. So we were not opening; we didn't open the Chinatown first because it was under construction back then. But at the meantime, somebody came by, and he said he's got a space, and it's ready to open. So that's why we brought the products to them first.

They opened very quickly within a month. By the way, we tested everything at Chinatown, and we spent about three to four months on the suppliers and the products. So we have everything ready, it was just the construction of the store.

INFI: Sounds very interesting; what were you guys looking for? Do you know what sort of results came from your testing phase?

Chen: Okay, we call it R&D, research, and development. The testing product, the R&D of the bubble tea industry, is to test, for example, the black tea. So there are hundreds of black teas in the market, and especially they are all cut, I’ll give one simple example. They are called Salem black tea, they're all the same name. And they are the same standard. But the problem is if you try to taste all of them, they are different.

They are different in taste. It depends on how you bake it, where the tea is from, how you bake it. And what the level, which part of the tea leaves, is it the tea leaves or is it the tip of the leaves or in the middle of the leaves. Or is it just what it's called? I forgot that term.

But it depends on which part of the tea, so they give the different levels of the tea leaves. So you have to try all of those, and you have to balance between the price and the quality. For sure, the higher price, and you get a higher quality of the tea.

But you have to balance it. I mean, if it costs too much, you can't sell expensive too expensive. So we based it on the market price of the bubble teas, we picked the red tea. And we have to, the same token, we have to test out the different powders.

We have to admit it, there's powder in the drink. The reason to use the powder is to stabilize the taste. And at the same time, it is the same for the fruit. The fruit quality can be different from different vendors than from different vendors.

For example, oranges are from Florida, from Texas, from anywhere else. So we combine those together, and they can come up with different products with the same name. For example, the orange, green tea, it can be an orange from Florida with a jasmine green tea with the lower level or mid-level or high level.

INFI: And so you said that took about three or four months, right?

Chen: Yes. That process took about two months.

How To Work With Franchisees

INFI: How do you work with a franchisee?

Chen: Okay. For the products, we have the SOPs, so every product is standardized. And also, we have a book for the franchisees to follow to make sure the product is stable and meets our quality standards. And also we provide training, we provide unlimited on-site training to our store. And we provide two-week free training at their store based on their fruit and milk.

Also if they require, we can provide further training on-site in the future. We will do surveys in the area. We will do random surveys in the area. For example, the location in Minneapolis is at a college.

We collaborate with the student associations, and we created surveys for them too. It's not specific to our store, it's a survey for the bubble teas around it. But they gave us some ideas of where we are at in the market.

INFI: Right on. So that's really interesting that you guys do a lot of on-site training and assistance and sourcing of ingredients. Sounds like the supply chain is going to be very important for Uni Uni. How is that affecting your growth plans for the future?

Chen: Yes. I mean, supply chain, I would say, is the most important for this business, especially with the situation of COVID-19. If the shipment is not very stable and takes more money, and it's more expensive, it takes longer.

But in the past, it's normally 40 days. We have to prepare ourselves, and we have a better warehouse now, it's bigger, it's right by O’Hare airport. And we have designated people working there to account for our inventory, to make sure our inventory is good. For the franchisees, we recommend them to give us the order, like two months before their opening. So we can directly ship the first round of orders from China directly to them. It cost less for them, and also because they can transport domestically from our warehouse to their location. It's cheaper to ship directly from China.

Normally, two months is not too much for the franchisees because typically their remodeling takes longer than that. So I don't see any problem for the franchisees right now so far. We have another franchisee in Texas, in the Houston area. Their opening date will be in January, mid-January. Their first round of ingredients will arrive in mid-December. There is still one month of cushion there.

The Importance of Standardization

INFI: What are lessons learned in owning a boba shop, wanting to spread the boba tea culture.

Chen: Actually, beyond Elitea, I have another small restaurant here called Memoir, it's a spicy hot pot. That one is serving food, but that one is also standardized. So everyone can cook it based on our recipe. The chef can do the same thing as before. If he does something, not to our standards or whatever, we can easily replace him.

The lesson to learn is we can, as a team, we all have our full-time job, we can't be in the restaurant all the time. So we have to do something that has standardized operations. Bubble tea, and the spicy hot pot, those spicy pots, are the other ones I probably will choose in the future. Or maybe like poke, those ones can be standardized. Like specialty dishes, I don't know; they can be very good in the market. But at the same time, it's very hard to manage from our perspective.

INFI: Okay, right on. And so to wrap it up, tell us what the plans for Uni Uni are, what can we expect? Why come to Uni Uni over all the other bubble tea places that we can go?

Chen: Yes. Uni Uni, we're a group of young owners where we're all in our 20s and early 30s. We know what the young customers want, what they need. And at the same time, we all came here for college. And so we know those foreign students what they really like in Asia or all over the world. And we'll keep looking for new ideas or products for making bubble teas.

There's a lot of old brands; I don't want to name them. But once they set up a set of series of products, they use it forever. And a lot of the products, or the brands on the market, were established like ten years ago and still use the same recipe. So that's not the way we are going.

We'll keep looking for new ideas, the new, maybe packaging, new ingredients, and a new way of making the bubble teas, I would say that we're in the process of creating a space called the Uni lab, so we'll set up a set of equipment by the counter.

So that we can teach the customers, or we can let the customers use our ingredients to make their own bubble teas. It's kind of not just like the products or the bubble tea, the drink itself is what we call the experience. We want to spread the culture.

It's happening all over the United States as well. I mean, like there's still a lot of space to grow. It's very competitive in China now; I mean, there are so many bubble tea stores and brands.

But in the United States, there are definitely a lot of cities and college towns; there are opportunities right there, I would say. So that's why I want to share our experience, and I want to share our products. We want to collaborate with more people and to bring the UNI UNI products to the States.

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