Coca And Mango Tree's Natalie Phanpensophon Shares Her Recipe For Success
As the eldest daughter of Pitaya Phanphensophon, CEO of restaurant chains Mango Tree Worldwide and Coca Holdings International, Natalie Phanphensophon has much to live up to. The third generation of the family of restaurateurs, she officially joined the business in 2016, but not before earning her stripes overseas in the pressurised world of commercial kitchens.
Today Natalie serves as the chief operations officer of the family’s restaurant empire. Having always known that she would one day help to run Coca, her years as a student were very much dedicated to broadening and strengthening her knowledge of nutrition and the food industry. After attending boarding school in the United Kingdom, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from King’s College, London and then a graduate degree in food science at Reading University. Keen on acquiring as much professional experience as she could before returning home, she trained and worked at The Fat Duck, the famous UK restaurant owned and run by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. “Because of my background in food science I worked in the restaurant’s experimental kitchen,” she explains. “I had the chance to create dishes for the restaurant and for Heston’s TV shows as well. Back then the concept of food science was relatively new in the industry and Blumenthal was really one of the first to create molecular gastronomy. Working with him and the team for a year was quite intimidating, challenging and fun at the same time.”
A position at Unilever followed, which saw her hone her skills in product development for Lipton tea in the Russian market and in the creation of calorie-controlled meals for the Slim-Fast range. Only then did she feel qualified to return to Thailand and the family business. Coca was founded by her grandparents, Srichai and Patama Phanphensophon, and although she never got to meet her grandfather, her grandmother, who she refers to as her idol, was one of Natalie’s biggest influences. “I spent a lot of time with her growing up,” she says. “I remember tagging along with her to the market where I learned how to meticulously choose the freshest ingredients and later how to cook them. She’s a strong and hardworking lady from whom I learned a great deal.”
It has been three years since Natalie officially joined Coca. In her capacity as COO the 33-year-old is adamant about carrying on the family legacy in the face of the industry’s increasingly robust and competitive scene. Coca boasts outlets across 17 countries in addition to Thailand. “I am a very hands-on person,” she laughs. “Right now, I pretty much have a hand in everything and there is just so much to do. In Thailand I look after all our branches— 15 outlets at the moment and we hope to keep expanding.” She also looks after the family’s other restaurant brand Mango Tree. “Luckily, our overseas outlets are franchised, which means we have local partners.”
Natalie is kept busy but isn’t one to shy away from new challenges. Bringing a fresher take to the company and making her own mark, she is the brains behind Coca’s luxury catering unit, which is set to launch in 2020. “From weddings to corporate events, we want to make sure that the food stands out and creates the best experience for people,” she says.
Although some people might think joining a family business is a bit like having things handed to you on a silver platter, those in Natalie’s position will tell you otherwise. “There is an awful lot of pressure,” she sighs. Then she laughs and adds, “When I joined the business my father told me ‘no pressure but I want to see Coca live on for another 500 years.” The eldest of four children, that sense of expectation is multiplied when one learns that Natalie is the only one of her siblings to have joined the company so far. While her brother is now an architect, her sister is a lawyer-turned-farmer who occasionally helps to advise Natalie on food and agricultural sustainability and the youngest has yet to graduate from university.
Then again, she likens the business to an extended family. “One of the biggest challenges for me is not only to keep our customers happy but also our employees. We have multi-generational employees, young and old alike. Some of our people have been with us for decades,” she says. “It’s important to find a balance and to make sure everyone is on the same page and understands our core values and philosophy so that we move in the right direction together.”
As much as the company may evolve in the future, what will remain is an unwavering commitment to provide healthy, fresh and clean ingredients. “Food and the way it is grown is quite contentious today,” Natalie says. “The amount of chemicals that go into the growing of rice, for example, is scary. At Coca most of our food is organic and chemical free. We can trace ingredients back to all our suppliers and now we also grow our own vegetables. We also have our own rice paddy in Korat. My father always says that he wouldn’t serve anything to our customers that he wouldn’t serve to his children.” This emphasis on clean food and health is at the very heart of Coca. “Despite the increase in people’s awareness of healthy eating, I think too many restaurants still focus on gimmicks these days rather than paying attention to food sustainability and procuring safer and better ingredients.”
An avid foodie at heart, when the opportunity arises Natalie loves to be in the kitchen. “But I’m so busy with work nowadays that I just don’t get that much time to cook, although I still make the odd amazing cheesecake,” she laughs. “And I have always loved making a classic green curry from scratch.” So does she have any hobbies? Again, the engaging young entrepreneur laughs. “Sleep! I honestly don’t get enough of it. In fact I’ll admit I am embarrassingly bad at time management.” She does, however, try to combine a little R&R on her frequent business trips overseas and makes it a mission to fit in a stroll through any convenient local market. “I love to learn about different cultures and particularly their foods,” she smiles.
Looking ahead, the ambitious COO is ready to drive the company to the next level with more Mango Tree and Coca outlets to come. “When we expanded to London about 20 years ago, very few people in the UK knew about Thai food,” she says. “Now people go crazy for it and we want to keep contributing to representing Thai cuisine in major cities across the globe.”
Under her leadership, Coca and Mango Tree are in good hands. With many years in the industry ahead of her, Natalie is dedicated to effectively carrying on the legacy and core values built up by her parents and grandparents. Though she doesn’t have plans to have her own family just yet, she hopes the company will remain in the family for generations to come. “That said, whoever joins the company really needs to have passion for what they do and truly believe in what we stand for,” she says.
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