With this section on our website we are aiming to introduce the many possibilities and opportunities Mongolia can offer despite all the negative light shed lately through the international media.
The focus will be given on the businesses run both by Mongolians and foreigners in Mongolia, on their success stories, challenges and what are their aspirations.
We have invited one of the very few young female CEOs in Mongolia, who have established the business in one of the toughest sectors – food and service industry. Many UBiers are now familiar with cozy Rosewood restaurants that offer comfort food and great customer service, which they are known for the most. With the third location opened up recently we are delivering the inspiring and very informative interview with the mastermind behind the newly introduced excellence in customer service and catering in the UB food service scene.
ROSEWOOD WAS KIND OF A PERFECT ACCIDENT
When was the first idea of opening the restaurant in Mongolia initiated?
Rosewood was kind of a perfect accident. We weren’t meant to open up a restaurant. I worked and studied in the U.S. and to make ends meet worked as a server, busser, in the kitchen, then moved on to management in restaurants and in the end I realized I loved it.
My parents ran a coffee company, actually Mongolia’s first coffee roasting company Sachem. The first green coffee to come through the Mongolian borders was through our company. They were in business for two years and they found the quality of the coffee differed depending on the barista and how each individual coffee shop was using the coffee. So then they decided to open up a flagship coffee shop, that made coffee the right way, the way it was meant to be. So we came to help them open the coffee shop, which is now Rosewood Coffee House back in 2011.
What ended up happening was our food was really superior and our service was really good and we started getting known for the food and service not just our coffee. So in 2013 we opened the second branch Rosewood Kitchen+Enoteca across the street from the Russian Embassy, because people wanted us to expand. The first location was a little bit far for most of our guests’ work and we were too packed, we needed to make it more accessible to people.
With the second location we started to get packed all day every day starting from the second month. At first we were afraid we couldn't hold up the quality, but now we are at the third branch sitting here and talking. It was a very organic growth for us. First it wasn’t really planned from the beginning and it wasn’t forced. It was just recognizing an opportunity, seeing it for what it was and just going with the flow.
So it means initially you never have imagined sitting in the third location of the Rosewood restaurants back in 2011?
I didn’t. And it’s based on a few things. I didn’t think I could live here. I never worked in Mongolia, I moved abroad when I was twelve, which meant all my work experience and business experience was abroad. I didn’t know if that would translate to Mongolia. But I kept the same standard I learnt in the US and it worked.
What were the differences in setting up the service based business in Mongolia as you have been trained to western standards?
We ran into some issues at the beginning, because I would do it my way. My way meaning, it the way that service was taught to me by my mentors. I was taught to make every guest feel like they were at my house. You are serving them from the heart, even if they weren’t going to give a dime, you would still serve them always thinking about how to make them happy and happier. And that is the mentality you go forward with. We are not servants.
I think the problem when we came into the Mongolian market was exactly that our service staff was looked on as servants, not as service professionals. And that is the biggest challenge. Anytime a guest started to look down on our service staff and not treat them well, I would always step in and take over that table. It was very clear to the guest that I was the owner. The fact that I took over for the server meant that something was wrong and the guest eventually understood that they were mistreating the server. It was the combination of teaching and growing with our clientele. Our clientele that couldn’t eat al dente pasta, that would complain it was underdone, now demand it be al dente. Same person just two years later.
The tough thing was believing in ourselves enough, believing in our guests enough that they would change and learn. That was the biggest challenge, to believe that everything would work out. Because it is very tempting to follow the status quo and the norm.
OUR SERVICE STAFF WAS LOOKED ON AS SERVANTS, NOT AS SERVICE PROFESSIONALS
On your clientele, most of them are foreigners living in UB city and repats?
My personal view, it goes back to the style of service. Service is about creating a feeling. The feeling Rosewood creates is something that our guests feel comfortable with, something that they can relate to and it feels like home. Our guests recognize the feeling when they get it and it makes them come back again.
At the beginning we would get some negative comments, people said we were only there to serve expats. That is not the case. But I saw it as a compliment, because it meant we did our job so well and our food was so authentic that they felt comfortable coming back day in and day out. Many of our loyal guests are now our friends and they are a mix of foreigners and Mongolians. They say they kept coming back because there weren’t many places to go where they would understand the menu and get what they were used to eating, getting good service and having someone simply smile at them. That made them feel like we were friends and family. This is the connection they felt and this was one of the strong points.
One importtant service point is to chck back with a guest. Our servers used to get yelled at for asking if the food was okay. A lot of our Mongolian guests would say: “I’m not done eating, stop bothering me”. But the guests that did understand what we were trying to do appreciated it. They would thank the server for caring enough to ask. At the end of the day it goes back to the attitude of the guest as well.
Similar people are drawn to similar people. We didn’t do special marketing especially for expats and foreigners, that wasn’t our goal. It is simply word of mouth. A guest would post on their Facebook saying I had a sandwich that reminded me of New York or Boston and then 10 of their friends would come.
WE AIMED TO UPHOLD THE QUALITY OF OUR INGREDIENTS, FOOD, SERVICE AND BEING LOYAL TO OUR GUESTS
Working in food industry is tough especially with choosing what to include on the menu?
Again it goes back to the thought that one should not push the business. You know it is ready when it is ready. To me putting a plan out and saying that I will reach this goal in two or three years is great, but a lot of times it is unrealistic because Mongolia is so rapidly and unpredictably growing. A lot of the times businesses create a business plan, but it is usually irrelevant 5 years down the line. It is nice to have a plan, but most business don't follow it. The ones that do, treat it as a living document, that can be changed whenever. What I am trying to say is we don't plan the menu or anything else for that matter for Rosewood, we only aim to uphold the quality of our ingredients, food, service, and the loyalty to our guests. Those are the only rules we follow.
As we started with the coffee shop we started with easy and simple choices that people could grab and go like cookies and muffins. Next we baked our own bread and the idea for sandwiches and paninis was born. Chef Cliffe is half Italian and half English, he introduced the Panini (a grilled Italian sandwich) to Mongolia. At that time in 2011 nobody was doing a proper Panini, so we put in on the menu and people loved it. Then people started to ask for more filling food. So we added pastas. Mongolian restaurants made Spaghetti and Bolognese, but we were the only place that did it the proper way.
According to what you say the menu was built as you went through the business and it came what we have today?
The current menu was a result of us feeling and reading our guests. The menu evolves constantly. If there is something that guests don’t like we just take it off and if they love something we keep it on. Our Cobb Salad has been on the menu since day one because people love it. The decision of the menu isn’t mine or the Chef’s. It is the choice of the guests.
I see it as the great responsive approach to the business. The next question will be connected to our conversation earlier. How was it difficult to train the servers?
In all honesty it wasn’t very difficult. What we did was we looked at the person. We hired people with no experience, because we knew if the person came through the doors with a smile and kept smiling and radiated positivity throughout the interview we should hire them. We could always teach them the techniques; that is not the issue. I can teach them how to carry a tray and how to take an order, but I can’t teach someone how to genuinely smile.
As an employer I really do not care how much experience an employee has and I say that to a lot of people. Some very qualified people would send an application and ask why I didn’t hire them. I tell them it is because we are looking for a special something that can't really be explained or put into words, it's a persons soul. What I am looking for is a smile, friendliness in the eye, warmth, it's hard to describe. The applicant should give me the feeling that I can trust this person. Those are the people I hire and train. The training wasn’t hard, because we hired people that weren’t trained and they were like a clean sheet of paper. I think it would have been really hard, if we started with people with experience in this field.
How many people are employed at Rosewood as of now?
The office and three branches included total 50 employees. The number will increase as Rosewood 3 starts serving dinner. We have about 16 employees per branch. We like to make sure that we are fully staffed. We can’t always do it, but we try. It means that we don’t make as much money as we pay out more in salary to have more people on board. But it means we are providing good service and providing good food, as we are not tiring our staff, they can take time off to recharge and there are always enough people on the floor to take care of the guests.
For a quite new entrant to the market you have gone far with providing opportunities for others to have constant income. So my next question will be whether customers are going to be introduced to new business ventures from you? Maybe service training or any side business related with food industry?
I would love to open a school under Rosewood, not for profit where we can teach people how to cook and how to serve. Government of Mongolia has very strict rules and regulations about vocational schools and schools of any kind really, so it is tough to start one as much as we want to and until these regulations ease up a little bit, I don’t think we can open a school.
But we do train our staff and anyone who comes through our door. We do not sign them to a strict training contract; if they learn and leave so be it. It means they can work somewhere else and carry the training there and maybe better than restaurant. That is all we can do right now.
I think the same goes with the people working in the kitchen as well, because Chef Cliffe mentioned that he is willing to teach anyone interested of what he knows.
We’ve got a kid who is working in the kitchen now. He went to U.S. as an exchange student and worked there at McDonalds and he actually liked it. After he came here, he contacted Chef Cliffe and said if he could work for us and wanted to learn. So he is teaching him now. It is not all about the money. As long as you are a good person and doing the right thing the money and success will follow. I don’t mind helping people, as at the end of the day the rest will come. Money is not the goal.
What we want to do is to focus on our staff, focus on our guests and the quality of what we are doing.
Coming here feels very comfortable. How did you conceptualize the three branches, because they have very different feel?
We are still in our start-up phase, meaning we are still trying different things out, we haven't plateud. Rosewood 1 is as I said before was an accident. The design wasn’t by me or Cliffe. It was already done by my parents when we got here. So we didn’t feel it was what we fully wanted. I love it, but I didn’t do it myself. So I don’t feel 100 percent like it is mine. Rosewood one has its own character and even it has own clientele, meaning they wouldn’t go to any other Rosewood branches. They love it how it is. It caters to young people, who live by themselves they come in for dinner, groups of office people come in to dine together. It has more of a casual feel to it.
Rosewood 2, we on purpose opened under Rosewood Kitchen+Enoteca, because we wanted it to be more of a business meeting and dinner with friends drinking wine and sharing small plates of food kind of a place. We wanted it to be more of a restaurant.
For Rosewood 3 we wanted to try out the café idea. All the cafes in Mongolia are all about coffee. Person cannot always survive on coffee alone and one cannot always be eating cakes. We wanted to bring the traditional idea of a café, a comfortable neighborhood place with great coffee and food that is unfussy and fast. One can eat and go or eat and stay for hours. That is the idea of a café. If this branch is successful as I think it is going to be, we will be able to duplicate it in different areas throughout the city in the coming years.
The café concept?
The café. You cannot copy too many restaurant concepts. Moreover, I think there are too many restaurants in the city at this point and there are too many coffee shops. We are missing the cafes.
Who do you see as the biggest competitor?
May be I am foolish, but I don’t see anyone as the competitor. Other businesses may see us as their competitor, maybe that is flattering, may be not. If I start looking at someone as my competitor, then it goes against everything I believe. I believe in helping others. Other chefs will message Chef Cliffe with questions such as “I don’t have a certain ingredient for an event tonight, can you help me?” And he would help by either letting them borrow the ingredient or put them in contact with a person who might sell it. It’s all about helping. Nobody does it here, not that I know of anyway. So I don’t like to look at anyone as a competitor, which creates a feeling of a competition. We are not competing, we want to grow together as an industry.
I DON'T SEE ANYONE AS COMPETITOR
Rosewood always tries to serve quality food. Was it difficult to find vendors to supply the ingredients that go with the menu? How did you solve the ingredient problem or may be still solving?
Ingredients are hard. It took a lot of work. I used to go find ingredients myself, driving around to find the best ingredients possible.
When picking the ingredients for Rosewood we go to the best. Beef for instance, we do not go to Mercury or any other meat market like other restaurants. We sought out an individual farmer with the best quality, organic, and humane meat.
That means paying the price, the meat we buy costs 28000 tugrugs a kilogram or up, while most restaurants are using 8000 tugrug per kilogram meat. Our food is usually a lot less expensive than the places using sub par cheap ingredients, it makes you wonder. So when we look at our business we look for sourcing the best ingredient. Our price isn’t based on what the guest is willing to pay, because that could always be higher. It is based on the cost of the ingredient plus a tiny bit for profit to cover our costs and that is it. We are trying to get as much to the guest, because we want them to keep coming back.
Sometimes sourcing of the ingredient is hard and we end up having no stock, so in that case we just take the food off the menu. If we can’t get best of something we just take it off.
So you would take something off the menu rather than having bigger issues related with the food quality?
If I serve something that I don’t feel is up to par, or the Chef doesn’t think is good enough, it is not worth serving it to someone. I’d rather say we weren’t able to source a good ingredient. Our menu changes quite often and it is directly correlated to availability of ingredients. We don’t have a hard copy menu, because currently suppliers in Mongolia can’t keep up with the demand and can’t be consistent. So I would not rather say “Baikhgui” to a guest, I would just take it off the menu completely. That’s why we don’t have a steak on our menu right now, because the provider of the best steaks doesn't have supply.
It means you monitor the menu on a daily basis, so that you ensure the quality as to what you want to serve?
Our people are always in contact with the vendors, talking to them about quality and quantity and then our chefs are always talking to each other and saying I’m low on this and that and they will talk to office where they would print the menu and they will come up with something new. That’s how we make sure that we provide the best quality.
A lot of the ingredients that you see in UB were actually first introduced to the mass market by our Chef. Chef Cliffe would request unique vegetables from Mercury vendors and teach them about the ingredient so that they could sell to other restaurants as well.
For example the Brussels sprouts, we were the first once to go to the produce vendor and say we want Brussels sprout, what they look like and we would give them the picture. They brought in, and then they brought in more and more. Now it's almost on every menu. This is how it's supposed to be.
You said that first Rosewood was an accident. Was your family supportive of that accident?
They were definitely supportive. My parents said: “You guys know the business and you take it over,“ and they don’t get involved. They are on the board, meaning when we make big investment decisions they come in and weigh in on the issue. We talk about the expansions, if we should do it or not. Lots of the time it is just me telling them we are going to open a new branch and they say okay. I am happy that they trust me and let me do it my way. For this branch I signed the contract and told them the opening date. At the end of the day this is the business and the businesses are based on trust. We hope that our guests trust us, our staff trusts us fully and our vendors trust that we will pay them on time. Everything is based on trust. So we really hope that by being a good example in this field we can make a difference.
When we first started most vendors wouldn’t give us terms, meaning they would want on delivery, which is really hard for a restaurant. We cannot pay before we have even sold the item; it is a hard hit on the cash flow. The restaurant business is a really hard business, financially the margins are slim. A lot of the vendors now do consignment, for instance we will pay them if the liquor sells, other vendors will give 30 days to pay for the items. Every one is starting to get on board. We are starting to trust each other. I believe that through that we can support each other and grow together.
I'M PROUD OF THE FACT THE WE DIDN'T TAKE SOMEONE ELSE'S MONEY
Who came up with the initial investment on the Rosewood?
It was based on a bank loan, which is tough on a new business, as you don’t know how much money you will make and you don’t know if you will be busy one month and then empty the other month. Having to pay steady bank loan is hard, especially if it is high loan. We got through it and we are okay. I’m proud of the fact that we didn’t take someone else’s money to start a business. We did it ourselves and this is what we should be proud of. We started as family business and it was especially important to start through our own resources.
At the opening ceremony of Rosewood 3 you mentioned that more is coming. How many should we expect?
We have a certain tactic of expansion and we will go with as many as we can handle. We will feel it out. We don’t want to limit ourselves. We will add one by one and if one is busy in six months we will be adding a new one.
What are your visions on your business? Popping up new locations or going the different route?
I want to diversify in the food sector. I really want to create a line of Rosewood items, such as sauces and other raw ingredients our guests can take home and cook dinner with. I never thought of going into food production, but there is a definite demand here. There really is nothing in the way of high quality packaged foods. I do not feel that currently there is any half processed foods I feel comfortable feeding my brothers in stores.
So if we can create a small production where we can do sauces and maybe top quality meat products, it would be beneficial for our guests and convenient for them. I would love that. My end goal is to create a healthy option for our guests. I would love to start a healthy restaurant that doesn't taste healthy, if you know what I mean. We do serve healthy food made with quality ingredients now, but I mean a place where a diabetic person, a celiac person, or someone who has strong allergies can eat at with no worries and with plenty of choices. I feel like it is my duty to give options for people with health issues to have the choice and eat food that doesn’t taste like diet food, but tastes like good food.
Also I have seen the post of Cliffe pictures with the bottled drinks. Was it your idea or Cliffe’s?
Actually it was Cliffe’s and his friends ideas and the name is funny. We were marketing our Mexican day and Cliffe’s friend loves making carbonated drinks. We were working on the flavours and we were preparing for the La Rosa Mexican day for authentic Mexican food experience and we thought why not add soda to go with it.
The name came up unexpectedly. A friend was complaining about something and Cliffe said Hater, and the name was born Haterritos. That is how we came up with the name for the drinks. We did the bottled drinks twice for the La Rosa and people loved it. We will keep doing it if people are interested in buying it.
Where do you sell those?
Now we do it by special order only. We are experimenting with flavors and doing it for fun.
Last summer you did the pop up at the Central Tower. Will that come back this summer?
No, because it was too difficult due to weather. We would love to as people love it and we had fun. But being held a prisoner to Mongolian weather is quite hard, because you never know if you are going to make money or lose money and you have to pay rent and the staff regardless of the weather. We have people coming in and saying they want to have a brick and mortar beer and burger restaurant. So we will see.
With more options will there be something for the fitness lovers? As many young people are changing their behavior and attending gyms, working out and are seeking for healthy food options that keep up with their fitness routine.
We have considered the idea, but as of now we are very busy as I am still figuring out the whole expansion. We are doing fine, but it takes a lot of my involvement. I am trying to pull myself out and focus on other things other than the restaurants.
We have grown organically this far and for our next stages we are considering investors. We have come to the point where we are attracting investors and we have something they want, a strong brand equity and a steady business. After finding the right partner we hope to expand at faster rates.
What will be the rationale behind the future expansions as the market here in Mongolia is quite small and there are already a number of options to eat out?
Right now we have loyal guests and a product that everybody wants, The expansion will be based on what is convenient for our guests. The locations that make it easier for our guests to have their Rosewood fix. That is the idea behind the expansion.
Thank you for the very insightful interview.
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