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What we can learn about small differences from CMO and founder of iChef Ken Chen

How a tech company that started out as a noodle shop is helping F&B businesses survive - then thrive - in a time of flux.

At The Peak, we’re lucky enough to talk the founders, directors and executives fronting movements and creating change on a macroscopic level. Yet, we’re also fortunate enough to speak to those on the ground – leaders in their own right, who’re running smaller enterprises that are no less provocative, and certainly as deserving of attention.  

That said, meeting someone who’s on his way to doing both is pretty rare, particularly when it’s across conventionally discordant fields. Meet Ken Chen, the co-founder and chief marketing officer of iChef, a Taiwanese iPad-based point-of-sales (POS) system that’s making the race to digitise on the F&B front easier – that was born from a humble noodle joint in 2012.

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iChef was created to solve one of said noodle joint Mazendo’s main problems – being too popular for their own good. Existing POS systems were too clunky and slow, which was why they needed something better. Ken and a couple more co-founders made a POS system – which in turn, grew into a marketable company.

They started to onboard F&B businesses in Taiwan, before looking around the region – Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Along the way, they’ve managed to snag some accolades, including the International Red Dot Design Award 2015 for Communication Design and the feted iF Design Award in Communication a year later.

Now, they’ve got a total of 12,000 businesses working with them, including 600 in Singapore and Malaysia (among them, the likes of Restaurant Ibid, Allium and Fleurette). And it seems to be working, as iChef’s users in Singapore saw a 29.5 per cent increase in revenue in February 2021 as compared to the previous year – which could’ve been a sign of a general bounceback, or proof that improving the backend’s just as important as customer-facing sectors.

Regardless, we talk to Ken and how he feels tech can level the playing field for thosee left behind in the gold rush that is rapid digitisation.

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How did being in the restaurant biz inform iChef’s offerings?

To be honest, it wasn’t a big leap for me. As a former F&B owner myself, I was aware firsthand what challenges restaurants face across different aspects of the business, which is what makes iCHEF so special. Because of how familiar we are with the ins and outs of the business, it seemed natural for iCHEF to transition into the technology provider we are today, since we know that our solutions can truly make a difference. By restaurants, for restaurants – this is the principle we built iCHEF on and I believe it stands true today.

And how is that transitioning to helping smaller businesses get on their feet?

Over the years, we have been slowly but surely expanding our range of F&B-related offerings for businesses in the region, responding to the changing needs of our customers and the business environment. 

That’s why we started to offer end-to-end F&B consulting services here. As an aspiring entrepreneur, starting out a business can be overwhelming, especially in Singapore. There’s plenty of complex regulations to contend with. We help them take the guesswork out of the equation by resolving all legal, regulatory and logistical challenges on their behalf so that they can focus on perfecting their food. 

We also run monthly bootcamps for first-time entrepreneurs, with lessons on how to set up their shop, choosing their location and getting ready for business. To date, we have taught over 900 participants in Singapore – and we expect that number to keep growing.

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What kind of results are your entrepreneurs in F&B getting?

At the core of our business, we are committed to supporting F&B businesses through their lifespan by improving efficiency and reducing costs. Our iPad-based POS system is a game-changer, with F&B owners able to run entire restaurant operations off a single iPad. This includes everything from inventory management, tracking customer preferences for item customisation as well as billing reports – we always say that iCHEF is designed for the lazy owner, because we do it all for you.

Businesses we work with have seen up to a tenfold increase in time efficiency when managing orders on the iCHEF platform, freeing up their time and energy to focus on what really matters – serving good food with excellent service, hence driving revenue. 

These time savings are only set to increase with our newest integrations with GrabFood and Xero. Previously, you might need a minute or two minutes to manually input each order as it comes in. Now, it takes only five seconds for each delivery order to reach the kitchen directly – no fuss, no mistakes. And the delivery market’s expanding as we speak – Singaporeans have shown their appetite for good food isn’t hindered by dine-in restrictions.

Has that success led to more people hopping onto iChef?

In Singapore alone, we received double the number of enquiries over the past year for our digital solutions, which was surprising. We thought that many businesses would choose to tighten their purse strings during the pandemic. This includes traditional, elderly hawkers, who are also starting to realise that digitalisation is important for them. 

We onboarded 50 per cent more new merchants in the past year than the year before, on top of the merchants that we have been supporting and servicing since iChef was established in Singapore.

You mentioned old hawkers. How would a system like the iChef help less tech-savvy business owners like them?

During the pandemic, we’re been instrumental in supporting the digitalisation of restaurants across the F&B sector. As a pre-approved vendor of the Go Digital Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) Program by IMDA, businesses have been coming to us, which can be obtained with an 80 per cent subsidy from the government. 

As for the Circuit Breaker period last year, which saw many nightlife operators having to pivot quickly to sell food and beverages, we also partnered with The Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) to help these business owners rapidly change their business models to operate as a restaurant instead.

While we have seen traditional businesses coming forward, there’s still some hesitancy among the older generation towards technological adoption. It might be a lack of awareness of its benefits, or simply a language barrier as many of tech solutions are entirely in English. This is where iChef comes in, since we’ve always prided ourselves on exceptional, end-to-end customer service. 

Not only does our software support multiple languages to fit the needs of different users, we also have a team of support specialists that are fluent in these languages including Chinese, Malay and Tamil. We try our best to build relationships with every one of our customers and be present throughout their digitalisation journey, which I believe will appeal to the more traditional businesses who may need more support during their big change.

Do you think that’s enough? How will F&B in Singapore look like a decade from now?

While working with delivery platforms has become indispensable for many restaurants, the benefits of doing so are no longer as straightforward as you might think. Simply by coming onboard a new platform can no longer guarantee restaurants huge order numbers. If they wish to stand out in this “post-delivery era” and stay competitive, business owners will need to increase investments on advertising on delivery platforms and putting greater effort in managing their own channels. 

Restaurants should also adopt omni-channel strategies to expand their in-house ordering capabilities so that customers can order on any preferred platform. We have plans for integrations with other food delivery platforms in the near future. 

Most importantly, technology will be viewed as an absolute necessity. We’ve seen consumer behavior change so much in the past year, from e-payment to digital ordering services and online food delivery, driving the shift to digitalisation. Businesses who are ready to ride this wave will definitely perform better than those who do not. Over the past year, we have already seen many F&B outlets replacing manual ordering with iPads. Soon, there might not even be iPads at all, with consumers ordering food on their own mobile phones instead.