A businesswoman, lover of food and true Aussie at heart – Jackie Yun is a pioneer of western food on the global culinary stage.
Jackie Yun is the Food Award winner in the Advance Global Australian Awards, which celebrates Aussies in key industries who have taken their expertise overseas.
Smudge Eats chatted with Jackie Yun, covering all bases from the Australian influence to her Cantonese heritage, the Wagas Group and what it’s like to be a winner of an Advance Global Australian Award. Jackie’s passion for hospitality comes from her Australian upbringing, but it flourished when she relocated to China in 1999.
“When John Christensen, the founder of Wagas, offered me a job as a store manager in late 2001, I saw an opportunity to bring a piece of Sydney cafe culture to Shanghai,” Jackie says. Since joining Wagas, Jackie has been responsible for infusing Shanghai’s transformation with the same casual, beachside style of dining that Sydney knows and loves. “After joining Wagas, I introduced little details like hand-written blackboards, menus on butcher’s paper, ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches on wholemeal bread, uniforms of T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, casual and friendly service, loud music and obviously, the flat white.”
While Sydney was the inspiration, the role played by Jackie’s Cantonese heritage in her success is vital. “From work ethic, family values and not really having a fear of trying something and failing – these are all typical characteristics of Cantonese entrepreneurs,” she says.
Jackie’s grandparents instilled in her many traditional Cantonese values, while she also looks to her mother as responsible for her “common sense skills”.
“Many of [these] were ingrained without me realising. During my career, any time I have fallen face-first into problems or challenges, somehow I have been equipped to deal with it.”
Jackie’s family not only gave her the skills to reach new heights in her career, but the inspiration to do so. With her great-grandfather being the first Chinese businessman in Papua New Guinea, the Yun family inherited not only a family trade store to run, but a mentality of hard work and business ethics.
She’s also sought inspiration from other sources, namely her business partner and “force of nature”, John. The ideal opposites, Jackie and John have formed a partnership that bounces off one another and sets a vibrant dynamic for the rest of their team.
“After selling his logistics company in 2015 and officially joining Wagas, John asked me, ‘So Jackie, what don’t you like doing?’ I replied, ‘Design, dealing with builders, site visits and negotiating with landlords. What about you? What do you want to do?’
“In his Danish-English, John replied, ‘I think that’s good… Yes. That’s good. I’ll do the things you don’t like. You can do all the other things.’”
From there, the rest is history, with Jackie and John’s Wagas group empire flourishing thanks to their complementary skills. “I learnt from John how to do things on the fly, the pivot, how to fail, to run fast and take risks,” says Jackie.
Now with over 70 venues in 10 cities throughout China, and an organic growth that is testament to the cafe’s immense popularity, Jackie is showing no signs of slowing down. Their first two locations were strategically placed in high exposure spots, which paved the way towards opening the doors to more outlets of this reliable and wholesome brand. When it comes to the rest of their team, John is responsible for all business development and design alongside two BD managers and Jackie, who oversees operations, marketing and product development.
Wagas group has been instrumental in providing a stepping stone for Chinese people to accept Western food and incorporate it in a casual way to their daily meals.
“We spent many years educating and exposing Chinese people to healthy Western food,” Jackie says. “Today, our style of food is considered a normal everyday product in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. However, in second and third tier cities, we are going through the same education process. We cannot assume what has worked in Shanghai will work in a city like Wuxi. It takes time.”
Despite the incredible growth of this business in a market where the concept could have fallen astray without a hands-on approach like the one she’s taken, Jackie is still very much involved in the day-to-day operations of each of Wagas’ venues. As such, there’s little wonder that her career has been followed by admiring Aussies back home, and has earned her a place at the Advance Global Australian Awards as a Food and Agriculture winner.
“It’s an honour to even be considered for an award at this level, but to win is totally unexpected and I feel very, very grateful,” says Jackie. “The Advance Award is the ultimate recognition of my original 2001 idea – we pioneered healthy Western food. Today, Wagas has evolved into more than just a food brand – it’s become a lifestyle for the growing middle class.”
Jackie will be honoured, alongside the other winners of the Awards at the Art Gallery of NSW on 10 October. To learn more about the Advance Global Australian Awards and Jackie’s fellow winners, click here.