The food and beverage industry in Singapore is brutal – the competition is intense, there is a dearth of skilled professionals, the consumers are fickle and the burnout is all too real. For young female entrepreneurs, it can be even more unforgiving. But for plucky individuals like Gan Guoyi, Jamie Koh and Ong Liling, perseverance brings immense rewards.
The proud feeder
Founder, Cicheti Group
Opening three restaurants in the span of just five years is no easy feat, especially as a first-time entrepreneur in such a competitive F&B market as Singapore’s. But as founder and co-owner of the Cicheti Group, Ong Liling possesses a self-assurance that has put her in good stead. “Because one really does get knocked down in this industry, if I didn’t have this attitude, I would have probably given up in the first year of opening.”
After moving back from London, where she studied and lived during her early 20s, Ong was missing the many “hole-in-the-wall, and unpretentious eateries that served honest-to-goodness food” that she frequented there. Together with her cousin and then chef at L’Operetta, Lim Yew Aun, she opened Cicheti, an Italian trattoria along Kandahar Street, in 2013.
“At 27, the immediate daily hurdles I faced hinged on my age, lack of experience, and that I was female,” she shares before recounting how she used to get walked over by contractors and senior male employees. “The first six months were the most difficult months of my life because I was not sure if we were going to make it; not even as a viable business, but as something I would be proud of and willing to put my name to.”
Adopting a “fake it till you make it” attitude, Ong drew on lessons she acquired in her previous jobs to help push through. Her law training taught her not to be afraid of legalese and how to negotiate. From her time at a company that does organisational psychology, her exposure to successful people trained her to be tenacious and focus on being a specialist. And, while working for a venture capital fund, Ong realised the importance of clear communication.
(Related: Meet the intrepid restaurateur behind Fynn’s, Cicheti, and Bar Cicheti)
“You have to be open. In the long run, your team will appreciate it. The worst kind of leader you can be is to leave the people around you guessing and not knowing what your point of view is,” the 33-year-old says.
But Ong also notes that this direct communication needs to stem from a level of self-assurance, “[Entrepreneurs] need to be very clear on who they are. Be honest, don’t make excuses for yourself and stand by what you say. I’ve learnt not to let what people think of me get in the way of my vision.”
Together with chef and co-owner Lim as well as sommelier partner Ronald Kamiyama, Ong has grown the Cicheti Group to include Bar Cicheti, a pasta and wine bar along Jiak Chuan Road, as well as Caffe Cicheti, a modern-day osteria parked in the South Beach Quarter enclave. The latter most recently went through a rebranding from its previous incarnation as a popular Australian brunch restaurant Fynn’s.
“I am my best customer, I create places I want to be in. It’s the best way to launch concepts because I don’t second-guess myself,” Ong explains. Fynn’s re-emerged as Caffe Cicheti as part of a consolidation to strengthen the Cicheti brand, which stands for “authentic, quality, and passionate, new-school Italian cooking”. For her, one of the most rewarding parts of being a restaurateur is how building a brand in turn creates a community of passionate hospitality professionals and loyal consumers.
Ong is not immune to the ubiquitous challenge of staffing in the local F&B industry, but instead of seeing it as a problem, she believes in putting time and effort into grooming and training talents. She is confident that, as the Cicheti brand grows and people understand the company’s ethos and culture, the right people will come.
At the end of the day, what is most rewarding to Ong as a successful restaurateur is her ability to feed people. “The only reason we work with food and wine is to feed people; they are at the centre of everything we do. My restaurants provide a space where memories are formed, where real conversations happen, where bonds are forged, and where relationships are being made.
“When you are doing that and feeding people at the same time, you’re fulfilling basic human needs. It’s a very meaningful industry to be in. To be able to say that I wake up and do that on a daily basis, I’m really lucky.”
(Related: Bar Cicheti: come for the food, stay for the wines)
The merry maker
Co-founder, Jigger & Pony Group
When Gan Guoyi, together with husband and business partner Indra Kantono, opened their first bar Jigger & Pony on Amoy Street in 2012, it was one of the pioneers of the local craft cocktail scene. As avid travellers and cocktail aficionados, the couple had experienced the rise of the craft cocktail movement in cities like New York and London, and were keen to replicate it in Singapore.
Since then, they have grown the Jigger & Pony Group to be one of the most successful multi-establishment bar and restaurant groups in the local F&B scene, with cocktail joint Gibson, oyster bar Humpback, Italian restaurant and bar Caffe Fernet, and their newest cocktail bar, Live Twice, added to its stable. Their inspiration for each new opening takes a confluence of the “right time, place, and concept”.
For 35-year-old Gan, opening a bar and subsequently expanding the group was more than just educating consumers to be discerning about craft spirits and quality cocktails. It was also to train skilled professionals to push the level of cocktail artistry and appreciation. She says: “I believe what we have done is to teach people how to drink better. I hope the industry continues to grow in that direction because what we then get are not only knowledgeable customers but skilled specialists in the industry. Then hospitality can become a viable career. I’ve seen that in cities like New York and ask myself why that is not happening in Singapore.
“That’s where our bars and restaurants come in. I’m not going to wait for other people to make it happen; I’m going to make it happen.”
With Kantono’s primary role in the organisation driving business development and marketing and branding, Gan takes care of the hospitality operations and human resource duties. As a former Singapore Airlines stewardess, hospitality is her natural environment and she still regularly runs the floor in the group’s various venues.
She says, “I love doing service, being around people and meeting them. At the same time, the team is my motivation.”
(Related: [Photos] Jigger and Pony’s Boo Jing Heng Crowned Diageo World Class Singapore Bartender of the Year 2016)
Gan lets on that her recruitment process (she personally interviews 90 per cent of her hires) focuses on 51 per cent attitude and 49 per cent skills. The group then plans and implements initiatives that develop career and skill progression for staff.
As a F&B business owner, she recognises the need to create a better work environment to help individuals understand that hospitality can be a viable career. “When somebody decides to work for you, you are also agreeing to give them job stability, help them create a career path, and aid with personal growth. I’m growing the business to take care of my team and provide more opportunities for everyone.”
Throughout the past decade in the F&B industry, Gan has had her fair share of trials and tribulations. “Jigger & Pony was our first bar so getting kicked out of our Amoy Street lease in 2018 was a very distressing time.” The group had the option of taking another venue on the same street, but decided to “push further and open up in a bigger venue not synonymous with where people would think we’d be”. It was a huge risk, but the group was also gunning for bigger rewards.
It helps that she possesses a fearless can-do attitude, nurtured from a childhood of attending countless extra-curricular activities. Citing how she pushed on to obtain a Grade Three in piano despite not being musically inclined, she notes: “I don’t overcomplicate the tasks before me. I always see things as ‘yes, that can be done’. Nothing is too difficult; I’ll keep trying.”
The risk paid off. Both Jigger & Pony and Gibson have been making the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list since its inaugural 2016 edition, and barely a year after opening, Jigger & Pony, which had moved to Amara Hotel, clinched the 29th spot on the World’s 50 Best Bars 2019 list. A worthy achievement in itself, but unsurprisingly, Gan attributes how the whole Jigger family rallied around each other during the frantic months in between closing and opening of the bar as her proudest career accomplishment. She states matter-of-factly that the group’s success lies predominantly in how her team works together. “People are our greatest assets.”
(Related: Jigger & Pony’s latest menu is a journey through lesser-known spirits)
A singular spirit
Founder, Brass Lion Distillery
Jamie Koh is not one to do things in half measures. The founder of Brass Lion Distillery came up with the idea of creating a local spirit as well as Singapore’s very own distillery back in 2012. It took her six years to finally launch the full-fledged micro-distillery on Alexandra Terrace in late 2018. Throughout that time, she wanted to make sure she had all her bases covered.
While on a year-long solo trip around the world, the self-proclaimed gin lover was taken aback by the number of nations and cultures she’d come across that had a representative spirit. This sparked the idea of creating one for Singapore. Ever the intrepid go-getter, Koh diverted her journey to the US, where she took on a distilling course with Artisan Craft Distilling Institute.
(Related: The latest gin on the market has a distinctly Asian identity)
Looking for more hands-on experience, she hunted down stints in distilleries and ended up in the southern part of Germany, where she wanted to learn from people for whom distilling is a way of life and whose skills were handed down through generations.
Koh wasn’t satisfied with just creating a gin though, she wanted to create an entire experience that she found lacking in Singapore’s F&B scene. She expounds: “To me, you either go big or you go home. When we first wrote to the local authorities and told them we wanted to make gin, they classed us as manufacturers and insisted we set up our distillery in food manufacturing zones in the remote parts of Singapore.
“I was adamant that I would not open my distillery there because that would mean no one would visit, and I wanted to provide a very specific experience.” It took over two years of back and forth with authorities before Koh finally got the approval for her distillery concept.
(Related: Whisky aged in Singapore by Brass Lion Distillery will be available in 3 years)
Thankfully, this was not the 34-year old’s first foray into the local F&B scene. After graduating from business management and finance studies from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and a short stint in consulting, Koh moved back to Singapore in 2010, with the intention of creating “something to call my own” within the hospitality sector. Upon her return, she chanced upon a competition to win six months’ free rent for a space in Clarke Quay. She entered and won with the concept of Chupitos, a Mexican shots-only bar. This was followed by the opening of The Beast Southern Kitchen and Bourbon Bar in 2013. They provided the capital to set up Brass Lion, and instilled in Koh the drive and tenacity to see the creation of the distillery through.
As a female entrepreneur in her 20s, Koh met with a lot of resistance when opening her first two establishments. Neighbours in the Clarke Quay area and industry veterans were disparaging, and hiring experienced managers and staff was challenging as few took her seriously. But she persevered. “All the negative remarks I got early on fuelled me to prove these people wrong. What excites and drives me is creating something unique and bringing people new concepts. When I have a clear idea of what I want, I pay attention to every little detail to build up the whole experience for my customers.”
Though just opened for over a year, Brass Lion Distillery has already been attracting a good number of discerning drinkers, spirit aficionados, and genuinely curious folks who attend their distillery tours and gin-making classes. Koh notes that this holistic experience is as much for educating industry professionals as it is for consumers. “Hopefully, in the next decade, Singapore remains one of the best bar cities in the world. To support this, we aim to create products that highlight our local and regional botanicals, as well as have a hand in training a new generation of knowledgeable bartenders.”
(Related: Inside Brass Lion Distillery, Singapore’s first standalone micro-distillery producing homegrown gin)
And while she may have “a lot of new ideas that I can see develop into concepts”, Koh is devoting the next few years to building up the Brass Lion brand, locally and eventually globally. “Up first, we’re launching a few new products, including the long-awaited Pahit Gin. We also have a navy-strength and barrel-aged gin in the works, and then there’s our whisky. Our distillery is equipped to make anything, but at the end of the day, there is only a finite amount of products we can churn out. The focus for us now is to expand beyond Singapore’s shores this year through exporting and finding distribution partners. When we enter a new country’s market, we don’t want to just go in there, we want to support it with activities and campaigns.”
(Related: 12 women honoured at Women Entrepreneur Awards (WEA) 2019)