RANGOON TEA HOUSE
Named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, Rangoon Tea House has certainly built a strong reputation amongst both tourists and locals here in the heart of Yangon.
After graduating from City University in London, Htet returned to Myanmar, the country in which he was born, where he became a restauranteur at the age of 25. Inspired by traditional tea shops, Htet co-founded the Rangoon Tea House in Yangon, with the aim to “excite, inspire and challenge perceptions of Burmese food.” We talk about why he decided to return back to his mother land after growing up in the UK.
Introduce yourself and tell us your role at Rangoon Tea House.
Hello! My name is Htet Myet Oo. I am the founder of Rangoon Tea House and the current Managing Director of RTH Group, which is a restaurant group that we created with Rangoon Tea House as its’ flagship.
Where are you from and where are you based now?
I was born in Yangon but I grew up in the UK. Back in the late 80s, early 90s - it was very common for professionals to look for jobs abroad. (Immigration was less of a problem back then!) My parents were both doctors and ended up deciding on the UK.
We moved in 1994 when I was four years old with my brother. I grew up in a small city in the north of the UK called Sunderland and I spent most of my life there until I moved to London for University.
Once I finished my studies, or rather - as soon as I finished - I moved back to Yangon. I think literally the day after! I’ve now been based in Yangon since 2012.
Did you go to university? If so, where and what did you study?
I went to City University London and studied Economics.
What inspired you to open a restaurant here in the heart of Yangon?
I think two things.
Firstly, I’ve always been attracted to the idea of expressing yourself. I was always a bad student and I didn’t see myself much better as an employee. Rather than not being interested, I think my curiosity leads me to different ideas and wanting to constantly do different things.
I moved back to Yangon with the idea that I could express myself in a place that was familiar yet so new. And in deciding what business to start - I’ve always been extremely curious about the relationship between people and food. It has the ability to create relationships, to bring people together and it is one of the foremost ways that people express their personality.
Secondly, my childhood was filled with memories of Burma. But memories that were created in the kitchen of our home in the UK. Burmese food was something that my mother used as a tool for our family to talk, to remain close. Until the age of 16, I’d never been anywhere except the UK or Burma.
My only holidays were back to Yangon, so I think as a child growing up, the idea that one day living somewhere where I had so many good memories of growing up was extremely appealing.
Why do you think Rangoon stands out and what challenges do you think the F&B industry have faced here in Yangon?
I think that RTH stands out because it appeals to such a broad demographic of people. We are in the extremely unique position of selling local food traditional recipes, great ingredients in a heritage building with a comfortable yet modern feel. Almost exactly half of our customers are local, and half are either expats or tourists.
The challenge in maintaining this is really difficult. When we’re coming up with new menus and new recipes - it’s important to remain true to who we are and what inspired us - the local tea houses.
“We also never let tradition or history hinder us. If its fun, affordable and we think customers will appreciate it, we put it on! It doesn’t always work - but when it does - it’s a validation of all the hard work the team have put in over the years"
-Htet Myet Oo
How did you incorporate Yangon’s history and retain the heritage within Rangoon Tea House whilst maintaining modern global tastes and preferences?
We’ve never really tried to retain the heritage, rather honour it. I think that one of the biggest flaws of modern day culture is this idea that we must stick to one way of expressing ourselves. In a restaurant sense, an Italian restaurant MUST sell pizza or pasta. If you’re celebrating a certain cuisine or culture, I think the best way to honour it is to show people what you love about it.
So for us, tea shop cuisine in Burma was only started about 100 years ago. This started with Indian tea houses (which were also from Iran), which became more culturally diversified over the generations with the Chinese influence in the country since. That’s why you find Biryani and noodles on our menu!
At the same time, for me, there’s no point in stopping at a certain point in time just because the country was shut down for so long. I prefer to imagine what other cuisine would we have been influenced by now if we had stayed open. What would a tea house look like now? And RTH is what we came up with.
In your recent TedEx talk you spoke about using the love that you have for Burmese cuisine as a diplomatic tool to shape the way the world sees Myanmar. Describe some of the challenges Myanmar has faced to date and how businesses like RTH can help shape culture.
Nowadays with social media, people often think today’s news is already history. The recent challenges that country has faced, politically, economically is a huge challenge, but not a new one. The country has struggled for over five decades now and even as soon as 10 years ago, you’d never be able to imagine that I’d even be having this interview about the type of business we have.
”The biggest challenge we have as a country, in my opinion, is in raising the standard of living. We can do this in many ways, by not looking inwards to ourselves, but to look to the rest of the world for inspiration and for help”
I think what businesses like RTH do is to shine a bright light onto the name of Myanmar (or Burma). While we face the growing pains of transitioning into a democratic country with an open economy, every second a positive article comes out, or every conversation someone has about how great the food of Myanmar is, and not how questionable the politics is, the better it is for the long term future of our country and its’ people.
What was your very first move in starting the restaurant?
I pitched the idea after a few drinks to one of my good friends at the time, who was working for a big consulting firm. The next day she had already come up with the business plan and that’s when the idea was really born!
How did you initially get funding for RTH?
We started it initially with four friends and back then the kyat was at an all time high, so it wasn’t actually very expensive to begin. We’ve since opened 9 more restaurants under different names and it costs a lot more nowadays.
Can you tell us more about why you chose these specific dishes on the menu?
The dishes that we serve are a mixture of completely traditional (Mohinga, Ohn Note Kauk Swe), a modern twist on traditional classics (Biryani, Tea Leaf Salad) and absolutely fun, new dishes (Rangoon Rack, Bamar Fish Taco).
From the logo to the interior, we love the hipster, speakeasy vibes that really makes Rangoon Tea House stand out in a city like Yangon. Can you give some advice to young creatives on conceptualisation and those looking to start a new brand.
I think it’s really important to get the balance right. Some people think the place is quite hipster. I love design, I love creating a feeling rather than a look. To a lot of people, the place represents comfort, an every-day restaurant. Like a french bistro or an Italian Trattoria. This is the Burmese version.
”How something looks should always come secondary to how it feels or rather, how it makes you feel”
Biggest myth you hear in the F&B industry?
That it’s easy to make money! It’s astonishing the amount of people who think that. If you google ‘restaurant profit margins in America’, you’ll quickly choose something else.
What’s the big dream for you and Rangoon Tea House?
For me, I love what I do. We’re opening a second Rangoon Tea House later this year. We’d love to open more throughout the country with a different take on the teahouse wherever we go. Rangoon Tea House would be amazing in other countries too but fortunately, time is on our side.
For the rest of the business, we have Buthee, which is a traditional curry house, Mr Wok - which is a Thai street food influenced fast food chain and we’ve recently just started with Naked - which is a dessert cafe specialising in Bubble tea and toast! We’ll be rolling these brands out over the next year.
You initially worked as public Relations Officer for the Yangon Heritage Trust. Can you share with us some insight into emerging markets, heritage and international relations within Myanmar.
Yes, I worked initially as an intern at the Heritage Trust back in 2012-13. I’m now on the board of trustees, which is kind of surreal and a great privilege. As a citizen of the city, I would love nothing more than to see it thrive and evolve into a more liveable place.
Our aim is to preserve the Architectural heritage of the city, to preserve part of downtown as it is one of the largest collections of British colonial architecture in this part of the world. This can bring millions of tourists into the country over the next generation and also create jobs while doing so.
What does the definition of success mean to you?
I always believed that success in the conventional sense is defined by others. Only you know the limits of your own capabilities, your own ability to have an impact on those around you.
“For me, when I look to others, I define success in the number of people they have managed to influence”
What brings you real unadulterated joy right now?
Seeing my team happy! We’ve grown from 25 to 300 within four years. A lot of them have been with us for most of the journey, if not all. And our job gets harder every year. The more we know, the more pressure we put on each other to succeed.
I don’t let them off easily and vice versa. But through all of the hardships and challenges of operating a business in a place like Yangon, remaining together and becoming a family is the thing that makes me keep on smiling.
What is the one thing you wish you knew starting out as an entrepreneur?
I’m actually happy that I knew nothing. I think the benefits of having known nothing is that we never knew the boundaries, the hurdles and barriers to entry. We pushed down many walls without having ever known there was one in the first place.
We weren’t even legally allowed to call a business Rangoon when we began. Who knew! If I were ever to start again at another point in time, I think I’d do something totally different too. Start from zero.
Favourite motto/quote/philosophy on life?
“There is no elevator to success...you have to take the stairs” -
It’s quite literal too because our office is on the fourth floor of a dilapidated building!