By the time Jessica Zhang developed a taste for tea culture, sweet bubble tea with its chewy tapioca pearls had already become one of Taiwan’s most beloved exports. But with years of experience working for one of the world’s biggest brands, she knew she could play an important role in sharing it with the world.
Jessica took on the position of CEO at Yummy Town, the parent company of worldwide bubble tea brand Happy Lemon, in 2016. Just like Group President Susan Lu, Jessica came to Yummy Town from McDonald’s Taiwan where she worked for 27 years, most recently as Head of Operations.
“After I retired from McDonald’s Taiwan, I started thinking about what I was going to do with the next chapter of my life,” Jessica says. It was around this time that she met the Yummy Town founders and became interested in tea culture.
“I followed the founders to start my new chapter in China with the aim of promoting tea culture globally.” Making the move from a giant multinational brand to a smaller but fast-growing company was a big shift for Jessica.
“McDonald’s is very well structured and very mature. The employees, both executives and frontline people, have been trained to follow the rules and the structure in order to do things well,” she explains.
“But Yummy Town is still very junior, so everything is flexible. “It’s given me more space to learn new things and evolve further, which is good for me. It’s also a chance for me to use my past experience to contribute to this growing company.”
When the pandemic started picking up pace in China in February 2020, Jessica was in Taiwan, spending time with her family for Chinese New Year. But as the situation unfolded, she decided to fly back to China immediately to help the company navigate the immense challenges.
That’s my main learning – to give love to people, to give love to our employees.
“During that time, around 95% of our stores were forced to shut down – it was a huge shock,” Jessica recalls. “But very quickly, we modified our customer service model in order to adhere to social distancing and other lockdown guidelines that were emerging.”
By March, Yummy Town had reopened 60% of its stores, and Jessica had a clear plan in mind. “We needed to keep our employees safe. We were not prepared to lose a single one of them or to lose any of our stores or franchisees,” she says.
“We also needed to reduce our franchisees’ financial burden because we didn’t know how long the lockdown would be. So we actually waived royalty fees to our franchisees and extended credit terms to try to keep their cash flow healthy.”
The business model also had to change, swiftly transitioning to a predominantly online operation. The company switched 600 of its 1,000 stores to a “pick up and go” model with no dine-in option. It also made changes to its supply chain to focus on ready-to-eat and ready-to-drink products that could be sold easily online via the Tmall online store.
This online business will be part of the “new normal” for Yummy Town, Jessica confirms. “Before the pandemic, we mostly focused on traditional venues and traditional stores,” she says.
“But now it is post pandemic, and we need to prioritise both – the online and physical stores – so that is our new model.” The company is sticking to its ambitious expansion plan, as set out in 2017 by Susan. At that time, Yummy Town had more than 700 stores.
“Now, globally, we have 1,400 stores in total,” Jessica says. “And last year, during the pandemic, we opened 300 of them.” New markets for Yummy Town last year included Malaysia and Indonesia, with the company also growing its presence in Japan and the US.
“Outside Asia, the US is still the most important market for us, so we actually opened quite a lot of stores there last year,” Jessica says. Yummy Town is also eyeing potential acquisitions to grow its portfolio, which currently includes Happy Lemon, RB Tea, Curry Café, Tea Opal and Alma tapas restaurants.
“The pandemic brought a lot of uncertainty and fear,” Jessica reflects. “Only love can calm that fear. That’s my main learning – to give love to people, to give love to our employees. Only love can hold people together, and then we can evolve and learn to become stronger.”