At SeeWoo, Lucy Mitchell has had a front row seat to Chinatown her whole life
For decades, SeeWoo has provided necessary produce and ingredients to Chinese restaurants and consumers around the UK. After taking over the business from her father, Lucy Mitchell is helping this indispensable food store become bigger and better than ever
It was one thing to open up a Chinese restaurant in London in 1969, but it was quite another to find the ingredients you need to cook the way you’d like to. That’s something Stanley Tse discovered when he opened the Lantern House in Bushey Heath. It was this realisation that they would have to import the things they needed that ultimately led to Tse and his brothers setting up SeeWoo supermarket, providing the produce and sauces they needed not just for themselves, but for other Chinese restaurateurs around London and the country as well.
Fast-forward five decades and Tse’s daughter, Lucy Mitchell, is now at the helm of what is a wildly successful Chinese food business. But just because she was born into this culinary dynasty, doesn’t mean that her career has always been linked to SeeWoo. Far from it, in fact. “I worked in IT for ten years before coming into the family business,” Mitchell tells me. “I was working in a very corporate environment, working for a number of American software companies, so it was very different.”
Her father, the late Stanley Tse, had been, in Mitchell’s words, ‘hustling’ her for many years to rejoin the family business, but what eventually drew her back in was a situation many women will know all too well: the practicality of having children. Mitchell’s high-flying IT job had her travelling around the world, often spending large chunks of time in the states and, while she makes it clear that she loved the role, she admits that it was “quite full on, and not very compatible with having children.”
While in an ideal world a woman wouldn’t have to choose between the job she loves and the prospect of starting a family, unfortunately reality isn’t so forgiving. Although, Mitchell far from packed it in on the professional side. Quite the opposite in fact. She approached joining the family business cautiously at first, dipping her toes into the experience of working with family and taking the time to figure out if it’s what she really wanted. “I said to my dad, ‘I tell you what, I’ll do some consultancy for you on the marketing side, but I’m going to carry on with IT,’ because I was working freelance at the time,” she tells me. “But I’ve just never looked back. I think it was a case of right place, right time.”
That does not, however, mean that it’s all been smooth sailing. Before I even get the chance to ask about her experience as a woman in the food industry, she addresses the topic herself, acknowledging that the move was ‘quite challenging’. “I can’t really speak about the food sector as a whole, because I’ve only ever worked in the family business, but in the southeast Asian food sector, it was quite a male-dominated environment. And, you know, I came into the business as a female, with my uncle and father, and that was immensely difficult. I had a vision for how I could see the future of the business, and I was met with a lot of resistance from my uncle, so that’s been challenging. But what I really love to see now, and I think that’s very true of a lot of second generation people taking over the family business – we’ve modernised it, taken it to the next level and made it more accessible.”
In Chinatown, there’s a lot of innovation and continuing the journey of all the hard work the first generation business owners put in
They split the business in 2017, because both brothers had different visions for the future. Mitchell wanted to take Southeast Asian food and ingredients to a point where they could actively engage with the mainstream consumer. “40 years ago, I think the way a lot of international food was sourced and provided to the customers wasn’t done in a very modern way, or in a way that meets today’s quite stringent food safety standards,” Mitchell tells me. “So what I wanted to do was say, okay, well look, we can provide all of these amazing, authentic ingredients, but we can do that in a responsible way. We can do it with the service level that you would expect. But taking the business to the next level was one of the most daunting things I’ve done.”
While Mitchell touches on the difficulties of entering the industry as a woman, she also rhapsodises about the rise of female business-owners in Chinatown, and the positive impact this has had on overall growth for the area. “I think Chinatown is on a bit of a growth trajectory into this second generation with a lot more female business owners which is really lovely to see. There’s a lot of innovation and continuing the journey of all the hard work the first generation business owners put in.”
View on Instagram
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of businesses like SeeWoo in impacting how British people consume and cook food from other countries. Mitchell’s father is largely believed to be the first person to bring Pak Choi into the UK, something that, forty years later, seems almost unimaginable considering you can buy it almost everywhere, from mainstream supermarkets to roadside greengrocers.
SeeWoo still imports about 60% of what they sell, but they’re currently expanding their manufacturing processes, which sees them produce everything from rice noodles to meatballs within the UK, helping with localisation which ultimately benefits the business and the restaurants it supplies in many ways. Because while SeeWoo has its consumer facing stores, the majority of its business still remains true to the reasons Stanley Tse started it all those years ago – to supply Chinese restaurants with the ingredients they often couldn’t get elsewhere.
But, just like how SeeWoo has changed over the years, so has Chinatown. Mitchell was raised in this little pocket of London, and has had a front-row seat to the many ways in which it has shifted and adapted throughout her life. “What I’m proud of about London’s Chinatown is that it’s still the beating heart of everything in the UK,” Mitchell tells me. “I’ve been to other Chinatowns in the world, and I think London’s Chinatown is really progressive compared to some of the ones in America, which to me are like Chinatown from 20 or 30 years ago when I was a kid. There aren’t as many different cuisines, and they’re not so accessible. What’s so exciting about Lonon’s Chinatown is how diverse it is, and if you look at the customer demographic, it’s amazing to see how many people are embracing these different cuisines.”
It is largely down to businesses like SeeWoo that this is the case. It’s not simply about importing ingredients and supplying chefs and restaurants – it’s about providing the foundations for a cuisine to be fully adaptable to a new environment. Food is not simply something to eat, but a powerful cultural communicator. And Mitchell and the wider SeeWoo business have been central to this conversation.