FOOD & WINE

In It For The Long Run

by Anton D. Javier
Main image courtesy of PS.Cafe
31 May 2017

Words of wisdom from Singapore's top restaurateurs

Seasoned restaurateurs and industry experts share their recipes for success in order to stand out, flourish, and retain loyal customers in Singapore’s often fickle and unpredictable F&B scene. Here's what they have to say:

  • PETER TEO, CO-FOUNDER OF PS.CAFE AND CHOPSUEY
  • SAMIA AHAD, FOUNDER OF CORIANDER LEAF AND CO-FOUNDER OF 12 ANN SIANG
  • DANIEL BALLIS, CO-OWNER OF MOOSEHEAD, MAGGIE JOAN’S, AND GEMMILLS
  • CYNTHIA CHUA, FOUNDER & MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SPA ESPRIT GROUP

Peter Teo, Co-founder of PS.Cafe and Chopsuey

PS.Cafe started in 1999 as a café hidden within the Projectshop clothing store and quickly gained a following for its hearty savory café classics, truffle shoestring fries, and indulgent desserts. The café’s reputation as a quiet escape with great food led to an overflowing clientele, which led to the expansion within Paragon.

Our regulars loved the consistent quality of service – generous portions of simple, good food, served by a professional team. Coupled with our unique spaces, I believe we offer the ultimate urban escape for our guests. It is this – first and foremost – that keeps our regulars coming back. We also make sure to listen to customers’ feedback, and act on their sentiments when we can.

Singapore’s dining scene has evolved a great deal from when we started. Back in 1999, the offerings were mainly limited to Southeast Asian cuisine. Now, Singapore is recognized on a global scale with some of the world’s best restaurants and this inspires me. Today, we have eight outlets in Singapore with further local and regional expansion in the pipeline.

For those who wish to succeed in the F&B industry, my first piece of advice would be to learn from the ground up. So many people rush into this business without learning the foundations and their product suffers. After more than a decade in the business, I believe in the importance of consistency right from the get go. Many cafes suddenly cut their portion sizes or increase pricing a few months into service, which is the easiest way to put off loyal customers."

  • PETER TEO, CO-FOUNDER OF PS.CAFE AND CHOPSUEY
  • SAMIA AHAD, FOUNDER OF CORIANDER LEAF AND CO-FOUNDER OF 12 ANN SIANG
  • DANIEL BALLIS, CO-OWNER OF MOOSEHEAD, MAGGIE JOAN’S, AND GEMMILLS
  • CYNTHIA CHUA, FOUNDER & MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SPA ESPRIT GROUP

Samia Ahad, Founder of Coriander Leaf and Co-founder of 12 Ann Siang

“I started Coriander Leaf back in 2001 — with no Plan B. I put all my eggs in one basket, or as they say in Singapore, ‘die, die, must do!’ My family, however, thought I was nuts. Not only was it my first restaurant, I was new to Singapore, without a network, and virtually unknown. It was sheer grit and hard work that helped Coriander Leaf survive.

Over the years, I noted that palates of Singaporean diners were getting more adventurous, and my concept had always been to do Asian cuisine, spanning the breadth of Asia, all the way from Turkey to Japan. Everyone wants to try the next big thing, but ultimately, people are creatures of habit and always return to what they’re comfortable with. So, consistency is critical to recreate the familiar. At Coriander Leaf, we may innovate and experiment, but at the same time, we also stay true to the original that they first pledged their loyalty to.

To shake things up, we’ve recently introduced Coriander Leaf Grill at 12 Ann Siang Road, at Screening Room. This is an extension of the Coriander Leaf brand, which targets different demographics. Also located in the same building is Catchfly, an American-style cocktail bar in the basement with an intimate space that fuses plush interiors with industrial edges.

After almost two decades in the industry, I abide by three values: Passion, stamina, and integrity. Passion is infectious – without it, you can inspire neither your team nor your customer. Prepare yourself – this is a brutal business. You must have the stamina to survive it and the willingness to get your hands dirty. Lastly, stay true to your beliefs, don’t cut corners, and maintain the integrity of your business."

  • PETER TEO, CO-FOUNDER OF PS.CAFE AND CHOPSUEY
  • SAMIA AHAD, FOUNDER OF CORIANDER LEAF AND CO-FOUNDER OF 12 ANN SIANG
  • DANIEL BALLIS, CO-OWNER OF MOOSEHEAD, MAGGIE JOAN’S, AND GEMMILLS
  • CYNTHIA CHUA, FOUNDER & MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SPA ESPRIT GROUP

Daniel Ballis, Co-owner of Moosehead, Maggie Joan’s, and Gemmills

“The very first restaurant we opened in Singapore in 2013 was Moosehead. There were a lot of big, operator-style restaurants at the time, but the market was very much still emerging. We noticed that certain cuisines were not represented or were harder to find. That said, we saw an opportunity in the market to open a small venue with the emphases on creative and affordable dining.

After four years, and a total of three establishments later, we now have many regulars who still dine with us — and have — since we started. Customer engagement and loyalty is important to the longevity of a restaurant brand, so evolving and staying fresh is also important. To do so, we travel a lot for new ideas and inspiration. As an example, we run two different styles of “Guest Chef” programs at Moosehead and Maggie Joan’s throughout the year, which have been well received. What’s more, social media is a crucial part to our business – whether we launch a new brand or a new menu, and has played a key role in communicating this to regular or potential new diners.

But at the end of the day, it is also very important for us to focus our energy on our team. We have great people working with us and it is important that we put as much love and energy into developing them as they devote in turn to the business. So for those who wish to be successful in this industry, build and develop a good team. It’s hard to succeed without people to support you."

  • PETER TEO, CO-FOUNDER OF PS.CAFE AND CHOPSUEY
  • SAMIA AHAD, FOUNDER OF CORIANDER LEAF AND CO-FOUNDER OF 12 ANN SIANG
  • DANIEL BALLIS, CO-OWNER OF MOOSEHEAD, MAGGIE JOAN’S, AND GEMMILLS
  • CYNTHIA CHUA, FOUNDER & MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SPA ESPRIT GROUP

Cynthia Chua, Founder & Managing Director of Spa Esprit Group

“I entered the F&B business in 2007 when I opened House at Dempsey, a multi-concept dining, entertainment, beauty and wellness space housed in a former army barracks. There weren’t as many dining options then, much less one that encompassed the various concepts we were trying to achieve. It was my first foray in the industry too, so to equip myself, I got involved in the entire process for the first three years – from being a food controller to waiting tables.

When I ventured into F&B, it was a chance for me to express myself through the language of food. More than just opening another restaurant, I wanted to create and build strong, unique concepts I believed in. Since then, the food business has grown tremendously with innovative brands in the roster like Tippling Club, boCHINche, Open Door Policy (ODP), Open Farm Community (OFC), and Ding Dong, among others.

With this diverse portfolio, keeping our customers interested is important. That said, I’m not afraid to change and there are always new ideas incubating in my head. For example, while ODP has seen great success and has done well revitalizing the Tiong Bahru estate, I wanted to take it to the next level by transforming it into a 100% gluten- and dairy-free eatery last year.

Currently, I’m big on the agriculture initiative and am noticing many new concepts growing in that aspect. I started OFC in 2015 to introduce the concept to the local market, but there are still many things I can improve with the project, and I am also working towards a health farm concept at the moment. Most importantly, one needs to have passion for all that one does and to always remember to combine it with stamina and great tenacity.”