In normal times, Aung Po would be putting on his pilot’s uniform to fly his favorite Boeing jets for Myanmar National Airlines, as he has for the past 23 years.
With most of the fleet grounded, the 42-year-old chief pilot and his flight deck trainees have set their sights on a new horizon – making the most delicious barbecue chicken to survive the pandemic.
Instead of teaching them takeoffs and landings, Aung Po began schooling them on how to manage a business after they were laid off when airlines halted operations. Today, those students are in charge of what’s proving a successful business — Flying Chicken, or FC.
“Besides, I want them to know how to earn income during difficult times, for example, this pandemic. I want them to know how hard it is to earn some cash,” Aung Po said in an interview at their office in Yangon’s Thaketa Township.
He had just returned from coaching at aviation schools in Manila in March of last year along with his students.
When they were reunited two months later, the students asked if they could learn something apart from flying during the pandemic period. At first, they worked as interns in Aung’s office, but he wanted to do more with them. While discussing options with his partner Wai Sandar Kyaw, they thought of the delicious, home-cooked chicken 19-year-old Thuta Zaw, aka Thar Aye, brought for lunch.
Soon they threw a Filipino-style grilled chicken party, finding its taste a good fit for the Myanmar mouth. After winning praise from friends and family, they decided to develop it as a proper meal – they added white rice – and bring it to market.
In the three months since they launched in October, their barbecue chicken has gone from 50 plates in the first week to a struggle to keep up with demand.
“We were very happy when they loved our food” Aung said. “At first, we accepted orders two days a week, and now we have to open daily, as the number of plates increases.”
Thuta Zaw now heads the kitchen.
“I learned how to cook from my mother and now my duty is to control our food quality and be the chef, ” said Thuta Zaw, who used to cook the same dish in the Philippines while studying aviation there.
“I modified the recipe with a little Burmese twist,” he said of some proprietary local spices added to the mix.
Lin Khant Aung handles the accounting, Masters Flying School trainee Khant Thura Oo manages operations, and Aung Kyaw Hein oversees deliveries.
Though Aung is now steering relief flights in and out Myanmar, he’s spends the rest of his time managing the student-run operation, which isn’t always easy given their ages.
“Sometimes I have to scold them, and I feel bad,” he said. “But they learn from their mistakes very fast.”
As for the financials, he said they have altogether invested upward of MMK10 million (USD$7,500) into FC, which is selling 100 meals to 200 meals per day. Each plate of rice and grilled chicken with soup is MMK3,000 (USD$2.25)with a combo available for MMK5,500. Each of them has an equity stake.
So can they take on the chicken big guys?
“We are not competing with others, but ourselves,” Aung said. “We created our own style apart from other fast food chains KFC, Lotteria and others in the market. We target a ‘one meal’ approach to fill up your belly with one meal.”
He said cooking chicken may ultimately do more for their long-term bottom lines than commercial aviation.
A standard pilot’s salary in Myanmar ranges from MMK 3.5 million to MMK 10 million (USD$6,000-$7,500 per month) depending on the airline, he noted.
“A salary is fixed, where business ownership is not. The income and profits depend on how hard you try to grow your business,’ the captain said. “It’s limitless. So it’s the best way to earn in the long term.”
With success comes pressure.
“It’s always a mess to take care of packaging after the food comes out from the kitchen. And we need to deliver the food on time since we serve a meal, not can-eat-anytime, finger food,” Thuta Zaw said.
And because the chicken must be served fresh, they passed on partnering with food delivery services such as Foodpanda or GrabFood so they can deliver it more quickly.
Whereas air travelers tend be be grateful for reaching their destinations alive, selling food means hearing from customers. Aung described the steps necessary after one ordered 200 plates and found a hair in one box.
“We have to change all the outfits and wear safety caps in the kitchen since then,” he said.
Lessons learned – and once conditions improve – they see nothing but blue skies ahead, laying the groundwork for what they hope will be Flying Chicken outlets throughout Yangon.