Beyond the Entrepreneur: Helen and Lisa Tee

Names: Helen and Lisa Tee

Business: Sweet Mandarin restaurant, and range of sauces

Written by: Rachel Hiney

How did they do it? Hold onto your hats, people, because this is quite a story.

Helen and Lisa’s grandmother Lily Kwok was born in 1918. Lily’s father became a successful soy sauce merchant and moved the family to Hong Kong in the 1930s to sell his sauce in what was then a British colony. He became wealthy very quickly, but was murdered by a rival merchant, and as he had no sons, his fortune went to a distant male relative.

Lily was forced to go to work as a maid at 11 years of age, where she learnt to cook and to speak English. The family she worked for, the Woodmans, asked her to return to England with them, and, desperate to get out of her marriage, she decided she would indeed leave with them.

Mrs Woodman Snr passed away, leaving Lily money in her will. With this money, she moved to Greater Manchester and opened Lung Fung restaurant in 1959. It fed stars such as The Beatles and Cliff Richard!

Lily ended up getting into gambling debts and was forced to sell her restaurants to pay them off,; she was left with only a small take-away and the family struggled to make ends meet. Helen and Lisa (Lily’s grandchildren) were born in 1977. To help out their family, Helen went to Cambridge University and became a lawyer, while Lisa went on to work in finance. Around 2000, they decided they wanted to restore the family name and make good on what their grandmother Lily has lost. The family decided to go back to the restaurant business together.

One bright idea that helped the business grow: Sweet Mandarin was opened in 2004 and went on to appear on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word, where it beat 10,000 other establishments to become nation’s best local Chinese restaurant. In 2013, Helen and Lisa got £50,000 from Dragons’ Den to target export their range of sauces, securing listings in 500 Sainsbury’s supermarkets. They have won deals to supply their sauces to boutique hotels in Germany and Switzerland.

Unfortunately, Lily passed away in 2007 but her incredible story was turned into a play, Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok.

Latest news: Through lockdown the owners went the extra mile for their customers, sending handwritten letters with every delivery, making sure their customers knew how much they valued them.

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