There is a rich, multi-layered story behind the Coca hotpot chain of restaurants and it begins with Pitaya Phanphensophon’s Chinese parents Khun Srichai and Patama.
“My mum ended up in Thailand because of World War II, her family was starving and she was the eldest so they sent her out to find her cousins in Bangkok. My father was driven out of his hometown in China because of communism. He and his brothers swam across the river, and ended up in Hong Kong where they were picked up my uncle. One day, my other uncles decided they wanted to do business in Thailand, so my father was sent there. My mother says their lives were like a Chinese drama series,” says Pitaya, laughing.
Having come from such difficult circumstances, Pitaya’s parents were determined to have something to call their own. So they set up a tiny restaurant in Thailand with 16 seats, serving Cantonese fare. But the chefs working in the kitchen proved unreliable, and turnover rates were high.
“After a few years, my dad said, ‘Let’s do a concept that has less reliance on the chef. That’s how the suki steamboat concept came in,” says Pitaya.
And that’s also how the Coca legacy was born. The brand, which is now 61 years old, is globally renowned for its delicious suki (Thai hotpot) and signature homemade suki sauce and has since spread its wings, with over 30 outlets around the world.
Pitaya, who took over the family restaurant when his father passed away, wasn’t really groomed for the role, but says he’s always had a strong interest in the food business (although he isn’t a chef, a fact he repeats a few times).
“My mother had me when she was older, so she raised me like I was a fragile chicken egg. I wasn’t allowed to go to friends’ houses or do outdoor activities. But I always knew what I liked, because I grew up in a Chinese family with one golden rule in the house – we must have dinner together no matter how busy everyone is. That’s how I learnt my cooking skills – when my parents were talking and had discussions about food,” he says.
While Pitaya went on to start the renowned Mango Tree chain of Thai restaurants in 1994, Coca has always remained close to his heart.
“My mother realised that if you want to do steamboat with fresh ingredients, you can’t hide – it’s pure good meat or seafood, which is why at Coca, we are very particular about good ingredients. I developed further from that, and convinced everybody in my organisation that if it’s not good enough for your children, don’t serve it to other people’s children. Every customer is someone’s child,” he says.
In Malaysia, Coca first opened 27 years ago but has been noticeably absent for nearly a decade. Last month, Coca reappeared in Malaysia at Bangsar Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur with new partners in the form of young married couple Jannio Shun and Elizabeth Thea Lee and a revitalised plan to lure in younger diners.
“Our old partners would be about 65 now and our new partners are 30. So it’s a huge generation gap and will undeniably make a huge difference on how they present the restaurant. And Coca in Bangkok is now run by my daughter Nathalie, the third generation and she’s about 30 as well. So you see Coca changing substantially. Even the food, you will see the vast difference. Nathalie’s a nutritionist and she was the one who influenced me towards more healthy options – Coca is the very first to use rice bran oil, organic vegetables and free-range chicken,” Pitaya says.
In line with its more youthful image, Coca has plans to open more outlets in Malaysia in the next few years and will be diversifying its menu to include enhanced a la carte options, in a bid to cater to young urbanites who may not have the time to fully indulge in steamboat meals.
“Sometimes when people think of steamboat, it takes too long. So to attract the younger office crowd, we are adding more a la carte items to the menu, like fried patanko (dough) and Portuguese chicken – hearty meals. And we’ll plate it nicely, rather than slap everything around,” he says, laughing.
Although he has officially retired from the business now, Pitaya has taken on an ambassadorial role, assuming the mantle of mentor to younger chefs, whom he teaches the guiding principles that have led Coca to success.
“I’m not a trained chef, but I go to the kitchen because I want to train the youngsters in the proper way,” he says.
Retirement has also led Pitaya on a journey of discovery. He now actively thinks about where food comes from and whether the food served at the restaurant is sustainably grown or not. Part of this enhanced enlightenment has come from his daughter Robin, a law graduate turned sustainable farmer. Robin owns and runs a farm that supplies chillies to all the Coca restaurants in Thailand.
These are the chillies which are then blended into Coca’s signature suki sauce.
Ultimately, Pitaya believes quality produce is deeply intertwined with taste, two things his mother never compromised on, and which he continues to hold on to.
“My workforce is younger since I retired. When young people come in, they have different ideas, but one thing I say is ‘Be careful, because in order to survive the next 20 years, your core values on food have to be there.’ I think people still come to Coca, because they know the food here will be good and reliable,” he says.