The restaurateur couple that overcame fire threats

Suzanne Bearne

When a group of friends, with pride, he opened a restaurant, do not expect someone to threaten to burn.

But that is what happened when Htet Myet Oo and its three co-founders launched the Rangoon Tea House in Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar, new in 2014.

Now 28, Htet Myet Oo was the idea of modernization of the Burmese food, and taking luxury.

So when the Rangoon Tea House opened its doors, it was an elegant inspired restaurant that would not look out of place in London or New York.

And its modern take on Burmese cuisine had prices four or five times higher than normal in Yangon.

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“Everyone thought we were crazy for selling Burmese food at a higher price,” says Htet Myet Oo.

However, while some thought the founders were crazy, others were angry about the high prices and the perception of gentrification. The hostility, including threats of fire, came in generally in line.

“It was mostly Burmese who are living abroad”, says Isabel Oscillation of Tin, his girlfriend, who joined the company in its second year.

“They’re going to write really nasty reviews online, and it would be shared a lot.”

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Fortunately, for the Rangoon Tea House, the storm passed. And to serve 60 customers per day in its first year, now have an average of around 600 and 700.

Today the couple run the business together, after the other co-founders of the left in 2015 to pursue other interests, and now they are building a restaurant empire in Yangon.

While plans are underway for a second branch in Yangon, Tea House, 18 months ago they launched Mr Wok, an Asian street food restaurant chain that now has four outlets across the city.

Yangon, the Tree House also runs a catering business creating canapés for parties or, more recently, of 2,700 people on a religious occasion. A curry restaurant called Buthee, is also due to open its doors in Yangon.

“All I think about now is scalability,” says Htet Myet Oo. “We want to be able to open something where we can see at least 10 or 20 of them.”

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Born in Myanmar, Htet Myet Oo left the country when I was four years old after her parents decided to move to the uk.

He was brought up in Sunderland in the north east of England, where he still has a strong accent. After studying economics at the university of London, the self-confessed foodie she decided to return to Myanmar, where he was willing to work in the food and beverage industry.

First job for the Yangon Heritage Trust, a non-governmental organization that aims to protect the historic buildings of the city, he and three friends invested $ 80,000 (£59,000) to open Rangoon Tea House in the centre of Yangon.

Is the price range goes from 1,500 kyat ($1.10; 82p) for a chicken and lentil broth, to 9,500 kyat for a chicken curry. The clients are a mix of residents, expats and travellers from all over the world.

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“I wanted to open something that if you were in the uk feel as authentic Burmese, but if you were here I could feel it in any part of the world, such as London or New York,” says Htet Myet Oo.

While the couple to retain a majority stake in the company, have been taken in the risk capital investors in recent years, which has helped to expand.

Htet Myet Oo not disclose accurate financial information, but says that the company’s revenues have doubled for each of the last three years.

“We want to continue growing at that rate during the next four or five years… or until my hair falls out”, he jokes.

“What we are trying to do now is to find a balance between being an important food group, and a store… everything we do must represent something better than what is currently available in the market, but, of course, that takes more time and effort.”

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While going to the cafes and restaurants is a popular pastime in Myanmar – the so-called tea-shops are part of the culture of the country of the identity of some of the commentators are cautious about the prospects for the sector.

They say that the continuation of international condemnation of the government’s treatment of Myanmar’s ethnic minority Rohingya has led to a fall in the number of international visitors to the country.

“There are challenges to the growth related to the number of resident expatriates is decreasing, as well as the decrease in foreign tourists visitors,” said Jason Copland, general manager of the Myanmar office of the market research group TNS.

He adds that Yangon is also “difficult” for restaurants such as Rangoon, House of Tea, because “diners need to get in a car to travel anywhere”.

“And there are few options for eating and drinking venues in comparison with cities such as ho chi minh [Ho Chi Minh City], Vietnam, Singapore, and Bangkok.”

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Now, with 180 employees across the whole business, is the staffing of the themes that keep Htet Myet Oo and Isabel of Oscillation of Tin on their toes.

Much of Yangon’s young workforce has migrated to the city from the countryside, and his struggle to be able to afford to rent accommodation.

As a result, the Rangoon Tea House houses about 60 of its workers through the five hostels.

“We have to provide accommodation, meals and transport”, says Isabel Oscillation of Tin.

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The couple also offer performance-related bonuses for staff are encouraged to continue with the business in a city where the staff often change jobs.

Despite the busy nature of their jobs, Htet Myet Oo and Isabella Sway-Tin say that they are very happy to be able to work together.

“If we did the different things that will likely never see anyway, since the restaurant industry does not stop”, says Isabel Oscillation of Tin. “We bought it together, and I couldn’t see any other way.”