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Flashback to 2006: Catching up with Sweet Mandarin

Wed, 16 January 2013

In 2006 Lisa Tse was in the Northern Regional Shell LiveWIRE final with her business, Sweet Mandarin.
​Six years on, business is thriving, co-founder Helen Tse was The Independent’s Small Business-Woman of the Week and has released a book on Sweet Mandarin and they even have a cookery school! We caught up with Lisa to find out the secrets of their success.

What can you remember about your involvement with Shell LiveWIRE?
I started Sweet Mandarin in 2004 with my two sisters. In 2006 I was nominated for Young Entrepreneur of the Year and was the regional finalist for Shell LiveWIRE. Being acknowledged for what I love to do was a real boost of confidence and also great to network with peers and Shell colleagues. To be able to convey a business to a panel of judges and then be asked questions was very intimidating but also made me realize that I am very capable of achieving the goal I set out to achieve, which was to make Sweet Mandarin a global brand.

How have things changed for you since you won your Shell LiveWIRE award?
Sweet Mandarin restaurant has been going from strength to strength. It was nominated for Gordon Ramsay’s F Word on Channel 4 in 2009 and we beat 10,000 restaurants to be crowned the Best Local Chinese Restaurant. It was one of my proudest moments and most memorable. We scored 82/100 serving 3 courses to 50 diners whom we didn’t know and we were top of the leader board. It was also great to be praised by Gordon Ramsay!
Lisa and Helen Tse with Gordon Ramsay

In 2012 we appeared on Dragon’s Den where we pitched our gluten free oriental dipping sauces on BBC2 and were backed by two dragons, Hilary Devey and Duncan Bannatyne. Our sauce range had three flavours; Barbecue, Sweet Chilli and Sweet and Sour. The sauces are now listed in 500 Sainsbury’s in the ‘free from’ aisle, Selfridges, Booths, Wing Yip and Azbuka Vkusa. Sweet Mandarin Sauces is growing into a leading brand which caters for Coeliacs, vegans and vegetarians alike.

How have you had to adapt as an entrepreneur over the years?
Since starting Sweet Mandarin restaurant I have created new opportunities that are customer driven. Below are some examples of how I've adapted as an entrepreneur.

1.  Sweet Mandarin Restaurant – we really love all our customers and listen to them and we try to make sure everyone is catered for. We had a lot of Coeliac customers visit us and because of them we created a bespoke menu just for them. We also like to be innovative and created a cocktail menu based on the Chinese Zodiac so there are 12 cocktails based on the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. We still serve my grandmother's and mother's recipes at Sweet Mandarin. 

2.  Sweet Mandarin Cookery School – we originally set out to inspire kids and students about Chinese cooking and it was the teachers that encouraged us to teach them various dishes. Due to demand, we created three programmes on the cookery school and taught students from all over the UK including footballers’ chefs. The school highlighted Sweet Mandarin’s ethos of cooking fresh, healthy and simple real food. We have been invited to many demos and conduct team building events to showcase innovative Chinese cuisine.

3.  Sweet Mandarin Book – we originally pitched for a cookbook and a friend introduced us to Random House. They wanted to buy the story of the people behind the dishes. My sister wrote the book Sweet Mandarin and it was published in 33 countries. It was also turned into an audio book and now available on Kindle. Watch out for the movie!

4.  Sweet Mandarin Sauces – this has been driven from our customers who insisted we bottled the sauces so they can give them as gifts. We had a customer who helped design the label and then another customer said why don’t you go on Dragon’s Den? We appeared on Dragon’s Den in September 2012 and our success, mentioned above, means that Sweet Mandarin sauces are now being requested around the world.
Lisa and Helen with Duncan Bannatyne

What has been the biggest obstacle you have overcome in business?
The biggest obstacle in running Sweet Mandarin’s business is time. There are so many things to do in a growing business so time is always very limited. Learning to prioritise and be focused is key. Nevertheless I do remind myself to enjoy the journey and always try to give back to the community by talking to students at universities or other entrepreneur events. We also support various charities each year.

What are your top 3 tips for a young entrepreneur about to set up in business?
1. Keep It Simple. This is the idea of the business so you can stay focused. It's key that you can explain your business in one sentence, especially when you are networking.
2. Do Your Homework. Learn about the market you are entering, your consumer profile and what your USP is. Learn everyday and ask for help when needed.
3. Don’t Give Up. There will always be highs and lows in business and lots of obstacles. It can sometimes seem an uphill battle but keep persisting and always remember the end vision. Passion will help you keep motivated and steer clear of negative people.

You can follow Sweet Mandarin on Twitter @sweetmandarins, or on Facebook: Sweet Mandarin Sauces.

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