Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Cooking up success

A high-school dropout is now the head of a popular pastry chain with visions of expanding overseas

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

Behind the boyish look, Yannick Wu is actually a deft businessman, as well as a master pastry chef.

PHOTO: MAX WOODWORTH, TAIPEI TIMES

Master pastry chef Yannick Wu (吳宗恩) is the first to admit that the success of his pastry and confectionery chain is a mystery to him.

Sure, he'd like to attribute his company's NT$200 million annual revenue to his higher-quality desserts, deft management skills and hawk-like gaze on the local pastry market, but he readily concedes that other major pastry chains are equally competitive in these areas.

"I think it might have something to do with the culture of joining a line when people see one," he said. "And why people do that is beyond me."

The lines he's referring to are the queues of customers that even on rainy days snake out the door and down the street at his stores in Neihu and Wanli, Taipei County. Wu, a boyish-looking 34, looked at the line of people in his Neihu store on Friday with a satisfied grin and said, "I think not having a marketing plan has helped actually. We've let the buzz build naturally and now look."

But there was little indication when he was 16 that in less than two decades Wu would be the head of a 120-person company with serious aspirations of going international. He had dropped out of school, not for disciplinary infractions but at the polite suggestion of school officials because he was "a lousy student."

He then drifted for several years, learning to cut hair, working in a cast-molding factory, which he described as "scary," and picking up other odd jobs to make ends meet. By the time he became bored of dabbling in dead-end jobs he was in a pastry kitchen and decided he may as well stay where he was.

"I'm not a very contemplative person. If I want to do something I won't pore over the details in my mind, I'll just do it. But when I do something I'm fairly meticulous about it," he said, while adjusting his stylish thick-rimmed glasses that, perhaps ironically, make him look bookish.

Over the course of four years Wu eventually worked his way into the pastry kitchen of the Taipei Hyatt Hotel in 1994 where two mentors opened his eyes to the myriad possibilities of pastry cooking and confectionery.

"Before then, what I had been doing was mass-produced standard breads and pastries. But these pastry chefs, they made an art of it. That's when I really became interested in making pastries for a career," Wu said.

The major turning point in Wu's life, though, was a repeat of the oft-told story involving a disintegrating personal relationship, followed by a two-month voyage of recovery and self-discovery to Paris and then personal catharsis -- in his case in a patisserie.

"Wow. The pastries in France are so good," Wu said, rolling his eyes in mock ecstasy. That was in 1998 and when he returned to Taiwan it was with a new determination to set up his own business.

The ball got rolling in 2000 when Wu invested NT$200,000 in equipment installed at his home in Wanli and then began pounding the Taipei pavement looking for cafes and pastry shops willing to sell his cakes. His first customer was a small cafe in the Xinyi District to whom he delivered his goods on scooter and by city bus.

"That cafe's closed now, but I owe the boss a major debt of gratitude. I only made NT$20,000 that first month but it led to a steady stream of orders from other places," Wu said.

And then the mysterious meteoric rise of Yannick the pastry chain followed, almost overwhelming Wu as he tried to keep pace with the new orders. Almost, that is.

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