Determined to set himself up in the food industry, Larkin Cen drew up his first business plan at 16, observing a Chinese food sector that had been serving unhealthy and outdated dishes for far too long.
However, education had to come first. Larkin studied law, but after four years practicing he could no longer ignore his entrepreneurial dream.
Seeking to bolster his skill-set and profile as a chef, he entered MasterChef in 2013 and reached the final. His success in the kitchen under the glare of Britain's leading chefs won accolades that would justify his leap of faith and leave the nation in no doubt as to his prowess in the kitchen.
Earlier this year, Larkin was the star of a BBC Wales documentary that followed his journey towards opening Hokkei, the Chinese takeaway he now runs in Cardiff, with business partner and fellow MasterChef finalist, Dale Williams.
Recently announced as a finalist for the Entrepreneur Wales Awards in three categories including Accelerated Growth, sponsored by Business Wales, I caught up with the 31-year-old to find out more about his life-changing story.
Tell us about the business
"Hokkei is an Asian takeaway based in Cardiff on Cwrys Road. We have two pillars which hold up our business: We source our products responsibly and we create our dishes naturally. We also have fun with what we do; our menu is quite playful and we like to experiment with flavours and methods, which is also important.
"I grew up in a Chinese takeaway and I’m always surprised at where Chinese food was in the UK when I was younger. Today you see all-you-can-eat buffets, quick food turnaround times and some poor ingredients being used - it just gives me the sense that Chinese food has become a bit devalued. I wanted to do something different, to focus on good ingredients and have fun with the whole process to try to recapture people’s imaginations."
When and how did the company start?
"As a concept, it started when I was about 16. I remember telling my parents that I wanted to go into the food trade, but they spent their whole career trying to keep me away from it, hence their investing in my education. I went to law school and eventually qualified as a solicitor but I kept getting drawn back to my idea. I wanted to launch it when I was a trainee solicitor but that was in the middle of a recession and the banks simply weren’t lending any money.
"Three years later I was a qualified solicitor and I just thought, “What am I doing here?” I knew what I had always wanted to do and wondered why I was still there sat at my desk reading through documents. I hatched a plan to tackle how I could compete in the brutally competitive food industry and decided to apply to MasterChef to gain publicity for the launch of Hokkei. It was a punt but it paid off because I reached the final.
"On MasterChef I met [fellow finalist] Dale Williams. He was and still is in business and we got on really well. I approached him with my idea and said that I believed there was a gap in the market for something a bit different and he said he’d be interested in the project. We went through the whole process of setting it up and that was it really, we launched in November of last year.
"I quit my job in January 2014 on the basis that we would launch by March, whereas we didn’t end up launching until November. It was a huge strain on me financially. There were many obstacles to overcome in setting the business up, then when we eventually launched we suffered a massive power shortage after spending a fortune on getting our cooking unit to operational standard. We had to close for three weeks which was horrible, a really stressful time."
Did you always want to run your own business?
"Absolutely. I always knew I wanted to launch this business. I knew what I wanted to do and doing anything else was a waste of my time."
Who or what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
I love food, everything about it. Obviously, everyone eats and it’s such a great thing to have something that you can share with people and food delivers that. I’m also a massive fan of Chinese cuisine and I feel the common perception of Chinese food is quite far removed from what I grew up with. The first Chinese takeaways opened in the 40s and 50s in Britain and over the years the menu has basically stayed the same. I wanted to seize the opportunity to do something different. Hokkei is not supposed to be fine dining, we source our food responsibly and it’s cooked in a natural way. It’s important that it is fun too. Food is definitely what has inspired me."
As a business person, what are your best and worst qualities?
"I think my worst quality is impatience. I’ve learned over the years to be aware of that side of me, but I know I’m quite impatient. My best qualities are probably persistence and ability to listen to people; you don’t know everything and ultimately we all need help along the way."
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs in Wales?
"Do your homework. The stereotypical view of an entrepreneur is that they’re all these risk takers, but I think that’s rubbish - business is risky enough as it is. You should do your homework, make measured, well thought-out decisions and but go for it. If you fail, so be it, but you can mitigate a lot of those risks by asking for advice and researching. Don’t just dive straight in - that’s something I learnt from my own experience."
Why did you enter the Entrepreneur Wales Awards?
"Personally, I’ve been in business for less than a year and it’s a constant struggle to get good credit terms with businesses and banks, especially when you’re starting out. I hope that with the EWA, I can develop my profile and that of the business, because my goal is to expand Hokkei. I hope people will get excited about Hokkei and about doing business in Wales."
Why is Wales a great place to do business?
"Wales and in particular, Cardiff, are great places to do business. Many food sector brands will open 10 or 15 stores in London and then they’ll go to Wales. That’s because there’s an amazing demographic here, especially if you’re looking at the younger end of the market, say, 18 to 45 years-of-age. If your business works in Cardiff, it will probably work in other regions too.
"Also, I’ve found that there’s great business support in Wales. It’s easy to speak to key people and that’s essential when you’re looking for help starting up. I read an article recently on the Welsh Government website saying that Welsh businesses have a lower failure rate than those in England. Maybe that’s because of the support and access to it, I’m not sure. I do know that my experience has been very positive."
What’s higher pressure, cooking on MasterChef or running your own business?
"Without a shadow of a doubt, running your own business - I’ve never experienced stress like that. Your life depends on it really. I’m mortgaged up to my eyeballs and if things don’t work out, you lose everything. If things don’t work out on MasterChef, you look like an idiot, which I can kind of accept because you put yourself in that situation. The damage to you personally isn’t as catastrophic as if your business fails!"
You can find out more about the Entrepreneur Wales Awards here.