Steen Puggaard describes himself as a veteran in the food and beverage industry, a bold claim backed up by no less than 20 years of experience.
He has held senior roles in marketing and management across Europe and Asia Pacific, including at McDonald’s and Burger King as well as Michelin-starred Les Amis. In his current role as CEO of Singapore-born franchise 4Fingers Crispy Chicken, he blends this knowledge to create a fast-casual dining experience that’s about just that: the experience. “I’ve been lucky to work in traditional fast food as well as in the fine-dining end of the category,” says Puggaard, “and I’ve tried to cherry-pick the best of both worlds.”
4Fingers is a fast food chain that sees itself in a different league to McDonald’s or Burger King – though the franchise’s website does allude to taking on a certain Colonel. For Puggaard, 4Fingers is “disruptive”: it focuses on unique branding and customer experience – from music to interior design – and a healthy, sustainable, freshly prepared product that’s a far cry from a deflated drive-thru burger and fries.
According to IBIS, the Australian fast food industry is worth $19bn and it grew by 3.9% from 2012-17. It currently employs 153,332 people across 24,893 businesses in the country. Though tapping into this well-established industry as a new brand may be daunting, Puggaard insists it is an opportunity rather than a challenge. “As a young and relatively new brand, we can shape ourselves to match current trends and consumer demands, staying relevant and competitive. This is especially true in a market so saturated with established food chain. People are not looking for another cookie-cutter fried chicken joint.” IBIS also stated revenue for the coming year would be driven by “rising prices as demand for premium products increases”. As such, Puggaard’s confidence in his quality, higher price brand is not unfounded for its Australian future.
Indeed, Wiley reported in a 2016 survey of Australian consumers that key food industry trends are focused on health and well-being along with sustainable consumption. It was also found that healthier options for convenience meals, as well as more choice, such as gluten-free options and a range of vegetables, are in increasing demand. Consumers were said to be increasingly spontaneous in their eating habits, ditching the weekly shop to buy fresh ingredients multiple times a week, and to experiment with flavours and recipes from across the globe. Wiley concluded that “the food industry in 2016 will revolve around trends of convenience, sustainability and consumer preference” with “a continued rise in easy meals, fresh products and healthier options”. 4Fingers is a clear extension of the needs and high expectations Australians have for the fast-casual dining industry.
Aside from a quality product and careful branding, the 4Fingers CEO has much more to offer. From 2013-2017 in Singapore alone, Puggaard has taken the chain from a turnover of US$1.4mn to US$30mn. He puts this down to thinking like a corporation but acting like a startup. “It’s about structuring the business strategically to meet long-term goals, with the added energy, passion, and fearlessness that you can often find in start-ups. I have an amazing team of professionals who have joined 4FINGERS because of our small size, not in spite of it.” Puggaard continues: “We’re always looking at new ways to meet our customers’ demands, and to capture and defend the market share, never staying comfortable for long.” He feels expansion into Australia has been a “calculated step” which will help the company align its brand and food to a western market, with hopes the franchise will spread further overseas to the US and UK markets.
Fresh, made-to order chicken is hand-brushed with the customer’s choice of sauce, and 4Fingers uses traditional recipes while borrowing ‘promiscuously’ from a mix of Asian cuisines. For example, the katsu Chicken sandwich combines mantou buns (a traditional steamed bun popular in Northern China) with kimslaw, 4Finger’s own take on Korean kimchi. Another USP for 4Fingers is its atmosphere: the vibrant, ‘underground’ setting of each store features graffiti from Singaporean street artist Samantha Lo.
Since opening as a single store in Singapore in 2009, the 4Fingers Crispy Chicken franchise has spread to Malaysia, Indonesia, and this year to Australia. There are now 21 outlets in total: 12 in Singapore, four in Malaysia, two in Indonesia, and three in Australia which opened over the course of a few weeks in June this year. Two stores have been opened in Melbourne and one in Brisbane, and Puggaard sees this as the beginning of overseas expansion into ‘mature western markets’.
Although Puggaard insists that “rather than seeing other brands as competitors, we see it as a movement with like-minded brands”. 4Fingers will still have to account for established chains, with the usual players topping Australia’s favourite franchise list: McDonald’s remains the most popular outlet, with one third of Australians patronising its 900+ stores, followed by KFC and Subway.
Though 4Fingers is a franchise and its menus remain similar across Asia Pacific, it is aware of the need to vary what it offers each nation. In Australia, it is doing this by embracing local brands such as Capi sodas. Chicken for the existing stores is sourced from Hazeldene’s farm, a family-owned business in Bendigo, Victoria, which produces free-range, RSPCA-approved poultry. An extra element is added to the Australian stores in the form of beer from Once Bitter Craft Ales for Melbourne and Fortitude Valley Ales for Brisbane, making this Singaporean brand something Australians can call their own. In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, this effect was achieved by obtaining Halal certification for the multitude of Muslim customers.
On top of this, the ‘farm-to-fork’ attitude is something that Puggaard hopes will set 4Fingers apart from your average fried chicken joint – and with good reason. 4Fingers firmly believes in the quality of its products as a key selling point, and as such it does not compete on low prices. Of the food he claims to eat once a week himself, as well as feeding it to his young children, Puggaard explains: “We ensure everything we serve is made of quality ingredients. Our signature soy sauces have no artificial flavours or MSG.” Chicken is delivered fresh every morning: “We stay true to our farm-to-fork concept by offering free-range chicken free from antibiotics, growth promotants, and added hormones or steroids.” In addition, Puggaard adds that the company works “closely with our vendors to reduce our carbon footprint” as well as serving meals in sustainable packaging.
Clearly, 4Fingers caters for a consumer who cares what they put into their body, as well as the impact it will have on the environment, and this stems from a CEO with solid awareness of the customer base. “These days, consumers don’t just want their food served quickly,” Puggaard explains. “They also want it to be tasty, healthy, sustainable, and served with a unique dining experience.”