Hospitality and Retail Brands Channel the Good Life in Taiwan

Taiwan’s rising emphasis on high-quality lifestyle has spurred a wave of new homegrown brands offering everything from premium accommodations to inventive cuisine.

Taiwan ranked as Asia’s third-happiest country behind Singapore and Thailand in a report released in March by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Overall, Taiwan came in 35th in the world, well ahead of arch-rival South Korea (58th), and up from 46th when the survey was first launched in 2012.

The report uses Gallup World Poll data to evaluate 156 countries and territories. Factors analyzed include GDP per capita, life expectancy, personal freedom, social support, and perceptions of corruption.

The results of the survey are indicative of a paradigm shift in Taiwanese culture. Put simply, lifestyle has become king. The island that was once the source of laments about pollution, gridlocked traffic, and marathon working hours is embracing a more enlightened way. Work-life balance, environmentalism, and craft beer are in. The six-day workweek (obligatory in most companies as recently as a decade ago), nuclear power, and all-you-can drink buffets stacked with fake alcohol – once a fixture of Taiwanese nightlife – are out.

Above, the VVG bookstore. On the opposite page, the interior of VVG Bistro. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)
Above, the VVG bookstore. On the opposite page, the interior of VVG Bistro. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

As consumers grow more discerning, they naturally gravitate towards higher quality and more distinctive products that they believe reflect their improved lifestyle. In years past, foreign brands dominated that market in Taiwan. And Starbucks still towers over its competitors as the coffee shop of choice for the ascendant young professional.

But in the past decade, a new wave of cosmopolitan Taiwanese entrepreneurs has emerged that is transforming the face of the island’s hospitality and retail sectors. The change is felt most acutely in Taipei, the nation’s largest and most dynamic city. The most successful of these businesses have developed entire lifestyle brands spanning multiple outlets.

While big developers plow eastward, pouring investment into the sterile planned Xinyi district that has become the playground of mainland Chinese tour groups, these savvy entrepreneurs are setting up shop in hipper locales: the luxuriant Minsheng Community, the winding lanes north of Zhongxiao-Dunhua, and even the city’s gritty and long-neglected west side.

We want to bring an appreciation for good quality living into Taipei’s everyday life

Former architect Jimmy Yang, the Australian-Taiwanese founder of Taipei’s wildly popular Woolloomooloo café, notes that he had an opportunity to open a branch of the restaurant in a major Taipei shopping center, but declined. “Sure, it could have been high visibility, but being located in a shopping center would have robbed us of our character,” he says. “We need the flexibility that standalone spaces offer and make sure Woolloomooloo is the destination for our customers, not a shopping mall.”

Starting with food

 Given the importance of food in Taiwanese culture, it is unsurprising that several of Taiwan’s ascendant lifestyle brands began as restaurants. Among the most successful of them is VVG (Very Very Good) Thinking, which began as a bistro in 1999 and developed over the past 15 years into a virtual empire that includes catering, an upscale French restaurant, a pastry shop, a boutique hotel, and two bookstores.

View out of VVG (Very Very Good) Thinking, which began as a bistro but developed into a lifestyle brand. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)
View out of VVG (Very Very Good) Thinking, which began as a bistro but developed into a lifestyle brand. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

“We want to bring an appreciation for good quality living into Taipei’s everyday life,” says Grace Wang, who previously had a long career in retail merchandising and interior decoration.

An artisanal approach has defined VVG from the beginning, with breads and desserts all cooked in-house. The emphasis has been on serving high-quality, authentic European cuisine in an intimate setting. “When we started, there weren’t a lot of restaurants doing this in Taipei,” Wang says. “We wanted to share this experience with people and be successful as a business.” As the restaurant’s reputation grew, VVG began to develop an outside catering operation. The first client was Louis Vuitton. Since then, the company has worked with more than 300 brands.

How has VVG grown so fast? “Taipei is becoming more cosmopolitan and Taiwanese people are focusing more on quality of life,” Wang says. At the same time, “Taiwan’s history, which has put its people into contact with many different cultures, has made Taiwanese open-minded about new things. So we’ve been able to add a number of different elements to our brand as we expand – European, American, Japanese – and they have all been well received.”

One of the more eclectic parts of the VVG family is the bookstore VVG Something, which was originally a storage facility for VVG restaurants that Wang refitted as a bookshop. She decorated it with a hodgepodge collection of furniture (she says her decoration style is “mix and match”) and a selection of books she happened upon during her travels: art books, cookbooks, design books, and more. “The books represent the lifestyle I want to share with people,” she says.

Jimmy Yang’s Woolloomooloo also began as an unassuming restaurant on a quiet Taipei block. But while Wang anchored her maiden establishment firmly within the city’s downtown, Yang chose a more far-flung address on Fujin Street in the tree-lined Minsheng Community southeast of Songshan Airport. Before the MRT was extended to the airport in 2011, the nearest subway station was more than a kilometer away.

That location made Woolloomooloo a place customers sought out from the beginning. And it quickly gained a reputation for serving authentic Western food and desserts in a sleek industrial-chic setting. Yang took a big chance by insisting on communal wooden tables in the café, putting strangers elbow to elbow. That import from his native Australia could have been a turnoff for customers in a culture that doesn’t encourage chatting with strangers.

But the hipster clientele didn’t mind, and Yang used the same concept when he opened a second, larger location in 2011 on a barren stretch of Xinyi Road a few blocks west of Taipei 101. The new location became an even bigger hit than the first, drawing in an eclectic crowd of businesspeople working in the area, well-heeled families, creative types, and a smattering of the local glitterati.

In 2014, Yang and his partners added a gallery space, bed and breakfast, and a small grocery store called Yakka, which means “strenuous work” in an Australian Aboriginal language. “The grocery store naturally grew from the café,” Yang says. “Guests were asking us frequently for our ingredients. The name ‘Yakka’ expresses the hard work behind the food and drink at Woolloomooloo.”

Why has Woolloomooloo been so successful? Probably because its representation of a fashionably laid-back Australian urban lifestyle has fit well into Taipei’s own relaxed rhythm. But the consistent high quality and authenticity of its menu items cannot be discounted: dishes like spaghetti bolognese, stone prosciutto pies, Australian meat pies, and Greek moussaka. They have been an anomaly in a city where “Western-style” cafes typically serve menu items like spaghetti in marinara sauce with a sunny-side egg on top or undercooked pizza dressed with corn and mayonnaise.

Going global  

 With the growing success of Taiwanese lifestyle brands at home, the next step for some has been to expand internationally. One of the most prominent in recent years has been the premium pineapple cake maker SunnyHills, which was mentioned in the January 2016 Wine & Dine issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS. In addition to its three Taiwan stores, SunnyHills has outlets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo.

SunnyHills stands out among Taiwanese food brands for its emphasis on brand building. While a maker of pineapple pastries may not seem like a likely lifestyle brand, SunnyHills has taken an unconventional approach by selling an experience rather than a pastry.

The company’s stores are destinations unto themselves, with wait staff serving complimentary pineapple pastries and tea to patrons. On a recent visit to the Taipei store, which feels like a chic Japanese-inspired contemporary teahouse, this writer observed both local and foreign patrons casually sipping oolong tea and munching on pastries. There were no special promotions or pressure by the wait staff to make purchases, and yet the shop was doing a brisk business.

From its founding in 2009, SunnyHills has placed a strong emphasis on branding, explains K.J. Chen, who works in the SunnyHills Brand Center. The company sought out a niche as a premium pineapple pastry maker, betting that its international target market would be willing to pay a premium for a superior product. In fact, it is up to twice as expensive as the traditional variety.

The Japanese market, with its high spending power and interest in refined products, was of particular interest to SunnyHills, says Chen. “They like our packaging, which looks high-end, not like a typical pineapple cake. That makes the pastries suitable as gifts for relatives, friends, or co-workers,” he says, noting the importance of presentation in Japanese culture.

Woolloomooloo features a laid-back Australian urban lifestyle. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)
Woolloomooloo features a laid-back Australian urban lifestyle. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

SunnyHills also trained its retail staff rigorously to ensure they would be gracious and responsive to customers. Given the high service standards in Japan, this approach has added to the brand’s popularity with Japanese consumers, he explains.

Meanwhile, in the hospitality sector, LDC Hotels (known as Chinatrust Hotels before a 2008 rebranding) is expanding aggressively internationally. Based in Taipei, the group operates five hotel brands – Palais de Chine, Fleur de Chine, Chateau de Chine, Maison de Chine, and Chinatrust Hotels – that comprise 12 properties with more than 2,000 guestrooms in Greater China.

With its proximity and huge population, China is a popular choice for Taiwanese hoteliers seeking to expand beyond Taiwan’s limited market. While LDC does have a presence in China, that market is not currently the focus of its expansion, explains group general manager Emile Sheng, who formerly served as a Council for Cultural Affairs minister. “The China market is large and important, but we are focused currently on building our brand in Europe,” he says, noting the five hotels LDC operates in Italy.

LDC zeroed in on Europe several years ago as the focus of its international expansion efforts. To facilitate its global expansion, the company founded a hospitality management and consulting firm and hired seasoned industry executives to oversee international operations, marketing, sales, and business development.

The company’s strategy has been to renovate existing properties that show strong potential as resort hotels. For instance, in 2013 LDC bought two mansions in Italy and refitted them as resorts. One of the properties has a vineyard and winery, while the other boasts an olive orchard and olive oil manufacturing facilities. The company also purchased a property in Venice in 2013 and renamed it the Grand Canal Palace Hotel.

LDC is not the first Taiwanese brand to tap the European hotel market. Both Evergreen International Corp. and the Formosa International Hotels (FIH) Regent Group have properties in Europe. But LDC is the first with multiple properties in Italy, and compared to Evergreen and FIH, it is targeting Europe more aggressively. Besides Italy, the company is also looking for acquisition targets in France and Spain.

“Having a portfolio of high-end properties in Europe is extremely important for our brand,” Sheng says. “This not only allows us to access European markets, but it also serves as a way of raising our global profile. We want to be recognized as a Taiwanese brand with global capabilities.”