The F&B world is a vast one. There’s a full spectrum of players in the game from consumer-facing brands in high-end restaurants, cafes, bars, dance clubs to catering, manufacturing and distributing companies. With each of these segments, there comes a different set of challenges and obstacles. Play your cards right, however, and you’ll find the ride a rewarding and enjoyable one. After all, we’re in the business of pleasure. The overarching agenda through any segment we are involved in is to provide pleasure to our customers and guests. That’s an exciting prospect!
Singapore is a great place to be when it comes to F&B. There are new concepts opening up pretty much every week, and an abundance of high quality options if you’re looking to eat and drink well. While the F&B scene here may not be on par with Hong Kong, New York, London, or Tokyo, there are many options available to anyone who is open minded and seeks out new experiences. If you’re looking to start a career in F&B in Singapore, you’re in a dynamic, diverse space.
So how do you go about starting an F&B business? First, ask yourself – in which spheres do I have existing networks? This could be a location you’re familiar with or a segment you already have built relationships in.
Real estate is a key part of the business. Choosing the right location at the right price is crucial. Let’s take the example of a convenience restaurant like Thai Express. If you’re hungry and in a mall, you’d drop by Thai express because it’s the most accessible option for Thai food. In this case, they would pay high rental for real estate in a mall, but it is justified because they need that kind of traffic. On the other hand, if you have a strong brand and can draw your own crowd, you don’t have to look for a location that gets high traffic. You can choose to opt for a spot with a lower rental. Figuring out the mechanics of real estate in F&B is an art in itself.
Once you’ve figured out the real estate portion, your next step is to build a strong brand.
The best F&B brands are the ones that tell a story. I like my brands to be strong, and pack a lot of punch in the personality department. Let me give you three case studies from my F&B brands.
Centro was a dance club. Start with the name Centro - I liked it because it was a strong word. It was a “masculine” space - a big room, strong music, very high energy. Compare that to a second concept called Lola. Lola was Centro’s “feminine” counterpart. For Lola, we went with a lounge feel – think posh, velvet, softer music – very sexy. We designed the bar to feel almost like a home bar. Overall, it felt comfortable and intimate. The logo was a mermaid named Lola. We didn’t plaster the logo everywhere. My view is that if you’re in my venue, you know where you are. I shouldn’t have to shove my branding in your face. At Lola, we just had the mermaid logo with no words, and it was only displayed near the bar. Same with Centro. We didn’t have any signage outside but still had massive queues. People just knew who we were.
Privé was a different concept altogether. I wanted to create a special venue that also wouldn’t require signage. The original location of Privé didn’t pan out, but a few years later I was offered a space on Singapore’s only private island – Keppel. That was where Privé’s journey began, and the brand has since expanded to quite a few more locations. I was adamant about taking the whole ground floor of the site on Marina at Keppel Bay for Privé’s restaurant, open bar, and bakery café. The idea was to reflect the exclusivity of the location. Keppel Island was private – you wouldn’t just find yourself there, you’d have to go there intentionally. I wanted to give people a sense of being away from the bustle of Singapore. That was the inspiration behind Privé.
Orientalist Spirits is another good example of strong brand storytelling. The inspiration was a mythical, exotic Asia – tapping into Hollywood’s perspective of the East. Think Crazy Rich Asians meets Dr. Strange. That was the brand direction, and the product mirrored this appeal. The spirits centred around botanicals and pan Asian ingredients. Even though it is a Singapore based company, we wanted to tell a larger Asian story that extended beyond our little city and had a wider appeal.
If you’re looking to start an F&B brand of your own, ask yourself what your story is and weave it into all aspects of your customer’s experience.
Consumer engagement will look different based on the type of F&B business you’re running.
If you’re a F&B venue you should design a venue to reflect your brand. You should focus on building consistency across your customer’s journey with you – the concept, name, location, decor, music, lighting, and service should be in keeping with the brand image. Let’s take the example of a Hard Rock Cafe. They have a distinct kind of music. Their service is also unique - the servers sit or squat beside you in close proximity. Compare this with a fine dining restaurant, with carpeting on the floor such that all the sounds are absorbed. You’d have a different service style, dim lights and soft music to reflect a more upscale vibe. But if you're conceptualising a more refined restaurant, the service style is different, the music style is different.
For products, you can engage with customers through your online presence or at events. Be active on social media, and regularly update your website with upcoming events. Incentivise your customers to RSVP and show up. Once they’ve come to one event, they’re more likely to join you for others. You could give out free passes to the first 50 registrations, for example. Or you could do limited edition product drops and get customers to sign up to your email list for early access. You should create a sense of exclusivity to drive engagement. Most times, people can afford to pay but what they desire more is accessing experiences that are not readily available to everyone.
The visual aspect of your business is incredibly important, especially today with the popularity of social media. Everyone with a phone should want to take a picture and share their experience of your brand with others. Whether you're a casual restaurant or a fine dining restaurant or a bar, your story should be clear and share-worthy. People should come to your establishment and experience something that stays with them. It should engage with all their senses – you should get your customer to see, hear, feel, and remember you differently. Now that visual information gets spread faster, your brand story can easily be amplified. Make it count.
So how do you get people to fall in love with your brand? Ultimately, it boils down to their experience of your brand. Remember, we are in the business of pleasure, whether it is the pleasure of your taste buds, your nose, your eyes, your ears or your hands.
Think about how your customer’s journey with you would begin. Most likely, on the internet, when they do a Google search to find your address or browse through your menu. This first interaction is crucial, so make sure all of these elements are telling your brand story. Does your website do justice to your brand? Is all the information a customer would need readily available and presented in an appealing way? Is the look and feel consistent with your restaurant’s concept?
The second step, at least previously, was the phone call. This is where your staff training kicks in. Imagine someone calling in to check what time your kitchen closes. Maybe they speak to one staff member who tells them 10.30pm, but another says 11pm. How does that reflect on your brand? Give your staff a set of questions that they’re likely to be asked by customers, and get them to study it. Make sure every staff member’s response to each question is identical. This consistency will instill your brand with a sense of credibility and professionalism that your customers will appreciate.
The third step is the customer’s arrival. Do your guests walk through your doors and immediately feel welcome? Consider having a few designated guest experience managers who can take care of this part of the journey.
When we first opened Privé, we rushed to open. It was a new location, people needed explanations on how to get there and where to park. In response to this confusion, I hired an amazing team of guest experience managers whose sole and explicit mission was to make our guests “fall in love” with the experience of being with us. Nothing else.
Now imagine a guest, Mr. Lee, who has made a 7 o’clock reservation at our casual fine dining restaurant. He arrives at Privé but sees the bakery café outside. He wonders if he’s in the right place, and feels doubt and discomfort. Your job is to nip this in the bud. So our guest experience manager would walk up and say “Hi, do you have a reservation with us tonight? May I have a name, please? Yes, Mr. Lee, please follow me.” Immediately, our guest feels acknowledged and welcome.
Now Mr. Lee now walks into the restaurant but his table isn’t ready. Do we just apologise and make him walk back out of our space? That’s not going to make him feel welcome. Instead, we would offer him a round of drinks at the bar on the house, with an apology. We’d let him know that we’d inform him as soon as his table is ready.
When his table is ready, a staff member would walk him to his table, hand him a menu, and introduce him to the server assigned to the table. Our staff is trained to scan the room to see if any guest looks uncomfortable or needs something, and attend to them swiftly.
Now how about when Mr. Lee has finished his meal. In most places, a guest is handed a bill, and once they’ve paid, they have to leave. This is a wasted opportunity. We’d walk him to the door, open it out for him, thank him and wish him a good night. That's it. I don't believe in technical follow through like emails because I find it can come across as being intrusive. The idea is to make your customers fall in love with you. Engage them, and show them a good time while you’re at it. Very few restaurants do this well – sometimes even the Michelin starred ones, so if you make good service a priority, you can really stand out. Think about the details and how you can add delight to every step of your guest’s journey.
Whether you’re managing partners, suppliers, staff, or customers, you’ll need to have top notch people skills to make it in this business. People skills can realistically determine whether you succeed or fail in the F&B industry.
Remember that people skills are especially important when managing your staff. A lot of times, people forget that their staff have their own families, lives, and problems. Sometimes, your staff will invariably end up bringing their issues to work. As a manager, you need to be encouraging and supportive of your people. You’ll find that they’ll respond by being more effective, loyal, and committed in return.
What happens when the business is under pressure? Are you keeping lines of communication open with all your partners and shareholders? Manage your shareholder’s expectations and keep them briefed on the relevant aspects of the business. Leaving people in the dark is a recipe for disaster.
Your suppliers are your rockstars. If you build a good relationship with your suppliers, it often means you’ll get access to better, or even exclusive, products. Be very open about money matters as well. Some people who are running late on payments just won’t answer your calls. That’s bad for the relationship. Instead, if you just communicate openly about your issues and suggest a realistic solution (paying in installments for example), most people would be understanding. The F&B business comes with a lot of fluctuations, and people in the industry know that businesses go through tough times. But, to maintain good relationships, you need to put a lot of effort into how you communicate with the people who matter to your business.
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Owner & Founder