Overcoming the personal strain and struggles, understanding the importance of hospitality, and a certain mental fortitude to be okay with the little victories won along the way.
Entering the F&B scene is said to be a daunting venture.
While it is like starting a business in any other industry, the challenges are always a given, especially when it comes to Singapore. You can expect the usual case of market saturation, lack of willing and ambitious local staff, foreign staff quota woes, high cost of goods, and of course, unrealistic landlords.
Here, we speak to Min Chan, director of Singapore’s Club Street Social and Decker Barbecue to find out more about the personal struggles behind setting up F&B businesses in Singapore, and how her personality and conviction has allowed her to fuel her success in such a competitive food industry.
Tell us about the personal challenges of setting up an F&B business in Singapore.
The mental strain of taking the plunge and sinking capital into the project; bringing together all the components of design, construction, timeline, team recruitment and training, product testing, supplier negotiation and management, equipment selection and much more, while often working on a budget that is invariably too small for your vision.
But that is already the fun part; the mental toll really kicks in when you suddenly realise you’ve given up nearly everything for the past three over years — if you’re lucky — of late nights, weekends, and public holidays burnt. I’m not ashamed to admit that I eat cup noodles on my couch at least 3 nights a week due to the fatigue.
What can you advice others to expect from operating an F&B business in Singapore then?
Firstly, you have to be constantly prepared to frantically change your schedule when there is a last minute event or a team member that calls in sick. You can also expect to get verbally abused by drunk or self-righteous customers. In addition, sexual harassment at work is real and happens, particularly, but certainly not limited to, women at restaurants and bar establishments. On the other hand, you also have to worry about the virtual reality of having your product destroyed in reviews online on a daily basis.
Most of all, you need to understand that money doesn’t roll in easy, it takes a whole lot of S$10 beers and S$18 meals to cover the over $70,000 in overheads.
But don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love this business. The upside far outweighs the downside. I'm just trying to drive that by and large, most F&B entrepreneurs don’t hit the big time immediately. If ever, those who do are the unicorns of the business, and the opportunity cost is immense. It takes a certain mental fortitude to be okay with the little victories won along the way.
Share with us a time you have ventured outside your comfort zone.
You can say that opening the restaurants were outside my comfort zone but besides that, I have also recently taken on a day job with a FinTech startup, which is totally left field for someone with no experience in finance or technology. This is because I believe in personal development and pushing boundaries. However, I do have a terrible (or courageous, on a more positive note) habit of venturing out of my comfort zone, perhaps sometimes to a fault. That’s why I hope that I will be able to gradually discover the importance of work-life balance.
Tell us about some game-changing innovations you’ve introduced into the field, or if there are new tech trends used by restaurants these days that are a must-have.
I am a proponent of the influx of high quality POS systems and SaaS model accounting systems that have certainly made managing multiple businesses remotely easier. Who wouldn’t also wax lyrical about improvements in the consistency of food afforded by older technology such as the sous vide cooking? Nonetheless, at the end of the day, I am very astutely focused on ensuring human interaction between team members and customers in my style of business. It is at the core of what we do, and any technology that aims to reduce that is something that I will not be personally interested in.
Tell us more about F&B businesses moving away from owner-investor relations to being an owner-operator?
I’ve always been an owner-operator, so I can’t speak much for this. However, I do think that you will be able to feel the difference. Ultimately, the restaurant business I love is built on human relationships, hence the talk of innovations and automation driven by the government is rather painful to me, even though I understand their place. Sadly, we are increasingly moving away from the art of hospitality and into a world of iPad ordering, online delivery and pre-packaged options. While it may be inevitable, I will still stubbornly cling on to the idea of restaurants functioning as an escape from digital life. I am a traditionalist in that sense, and believe in authenticity and personality over scale.
Since you’ve worked overseas (Macau), do you notice any difference in the demands from Singaporeans that are of other nationalities?
Naturally, a myriad of cultural differences from respect for the industry to dining preferences affect expectations — but at its core, I believe that the purpose of a restaurant businesses is to enhance human relationships. I think if we focus less on the problems of different demands, but instead understand that diners don’t necessarily come with the sole intent of eating the best food or drinking the best wine, we will realise that they are also looking for an environment to enjoy with the people they love, live and work with.
What makes a great businesswoman to you?
Caring about what you do, the team you do it with, and being adaptable and resilient enough to keep pivoting until you get it right.
Tell us more about your other passions (besides F&B and hospitality) and the level of importance each passion plays in relation to what you do at work.
I think the concept of hospitality pervades everything I pursue — I enjoy creating experiences. This has manifested in many ways; event management, developing recruitment and company culture practices for an early stage startup, and connecting contacts for professional needs. A lot of this has to do with personal growth — the learning process and knowledge base I have gained in surrounding myself with such an exceptional and diverse circle of friends has been immense.