When Nahji Chu faced losing her company, MissChu, earlier this year, she was asked by prospective buyers if she planned go into competition with the MissChu brand should she lose a place in the company. Her answer was clear.
“Unequivocally yes,” says Chu with passion. “I will take the face away from the MissChu branding because no one else owns the refugee visa and no one owns my politics. The brand doesn’t come with any of that, or my tone of voice or my recipes.”
Chu boldly declared that she would create a MsChu to compete with MissChu. It was an audaciously honest response.
Chu has just shared the news that despite the Sydney stores going into voluntary administration, MissChu Holdings Pty Ltd (a company controlled by Mawson Group and Chu) has been able to buy the company back, with Chu retaining a leading role in the brand as its creative director. Today she’s sitting surrounded by paperwork and telephones, with a pot of green tea brewing. She’s come through a shit-storm and she’s finally ready to talk about it.
Going into voluntary administration in 2014 was the climax of a stressful time for Chu, thick with mismanagement and misadventure that included everything from unexpected payroll tax to the collapse of the Opera Kitchen contract at Sydney Opera House.
It’s no secret Chu expanded her rice-paper empire rapidly, growing from a catering company in 2007 to a fold of nine stores across Sydney, Melbourne and London by 2014, with two more Sydney stores planned. But as the business grew, Chu handed over various aspects of management, and she believes that without her keen attention things began to unravel. She parted ways with control of the Melbourne stores last year, while a fall-out with her London business partner saw the store sold out from under her and closed in January.
But it was the financial strain of building delays, expanded labour costs and the related loss of potential income in Sydney that Chu says caused things to quickly spiral out of her control. By the time serious mismanagement within the Sydney company came to her attention, voluntary administration was inevitable.
“As company director it falls on me. Regardless of who I employed and who I trusted, the simple fact is I just didn’t have the proper checks and balances in place,” she concedes. She says internal mismanagement was to blame, not the business model of the tuckshops.
Despite a huge cut to the MissChu staff and the closure of the Elizabeth Bay store, there is still good news in this hospitality story. The administration process has seen Chu come out on top, saving the company and retaining a defining role for the tuckshops and catering in Sydney.
Chu has been overwhelmed by the support she received from the industry in her darkest days. Now there’s nothing left to do but move MissChu forward, and as always, Chu already has plans. From gluten- and calorie-free noodles and dumpling skins made from konjac shirataki, to a dining partnership with chef and restauranteur Luke Mangan, Chu is ready to do what she does best.
“It’s never been about money for me,” says the vocal advocate for refugees and the Vietnamese community in Australia. “My voice is more powerful through a noodle box than it would be as a politician.” And through it all, the little tuckshop lady has retained her sense of humour.
“The chopstick is more powerful than the pen!”