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A year of highs and lows
Indra Kantono and Gan Guoyi – co-founders of Jigger & Pony Group
ASKED TO DESCRIBE THE YEAR that is 2020, Gan Guoyi replies, without missing a beat: "Productive." By now, stories of the pandemic hobbling the F&B industry are legion. But the two co-founders of the Jigger And Pony Group are keeping their chins firmly up. Ms Gan and husband Indra Kantono bandy about words such as "scary", "crazy" and "unpredictable" when chronicling their months-long struggle to keep their five bars and restaurants from going under. But they always return to that same adjective: "Productive."
As early as late March when F&B venues went dark across the island, the duo were already drawing up their battle plan. Ms Gan says: "We were fortunate in a sense that Singapore was not the first country to go into lockdown. Even before the circuit breaker, Indra and I were spending a lot of time on midnight calls with friends who have businesses in China. We were asking them: How do you pivot to delivery? What kind of packaging works? How about your team, how do you keep morale up? How do you protect them from getting the virus?"
By the time the circuit breaker arrived, they had a grip on the situation. They decided with their team on a clear plan of action and executed it quickly. Though they'd never offered delivery for their F&B establishments, the service was up in a matter of days. And in the 10-week Phase One of the circuit breaker, they delivered an impressive 19,000 serves of Jigger And Pony cocktails. Even Mr Kantono played deliveryman, zigzagging across the island to bring tipple treats.
"We were realistic about our one goal – survival," he says. "We implemented a few cost-saving measures, unpaid leave and salary cuts. Everyone took on different roles to ensure the success of the delivery model. Senior management took significant salary cuts. Guoyi's pay was down to about S$1,400. Mine went to zero."
In May, great news arrived: Jigger And Pony had clinched the No. 1 spot on the annual Asia's 50 Best Bars list, knocking Hong Kong's The Old Man off the throne. But there was no way of physically celebrating it, as F&B venues remained shut for on-site diners. A month later, most were allowed to resume. But even then, Jigger And Pony had to stay closed for three more months because of the licence category it was registered under.
Chastened by the turmoil of 2020, Ms Gan rolled up her sleeves and called on other leading lights of the cocktail scene to set up Singapore Cocktail Bar Association (SCBA). It aims to support the country's burgeoning cocktail industry through funding, education and other initiatives. Within a few months, it managed to raise S$170,000 to assist industry workers who were severely affected.
Ms Gan says: "In 2012, you could not name 10 cocktail bars in Singapore. Now SCBA has 66 members. We've come so far. We can't let Covid-19 demolish the hard work we've put into building the scene. If we lose more people, our recovery will take even longer."
When Jigger And Pony finally reopened in mid- September – after a lengthy 166 days of closure – the couple saw many new faces among their patrons. Mr Kantono says: "Some had tried our delivery service. They liked the cocktails so much, they wanted to check out the bar. For this and other reasons, we believe bottled cocktails are here to stay. So we recently launched our new range of PONY cocktails in mini and standard bottles, with classic and signature flavours such as our negroni and sakura martini.
"Overall, 2020 turned out not to be as bad as we had feared. We planned for the worst, but it became one of our most productive periods ever." In early November, the World's 50 Best Bars unveiled its annual list: Jigger And Pony broke into the Top 10 for the first time, charting at No. 9. Three weeks later, DRiNK announced its 2020 winners: Jigger And Pony took the crowns for Bar Of The Year (Asia) and Bar Team (Asia).
With new notches in their belt now – and the worst behind them – Ms Gan and Mr Kantono can finally let out a small sigh of relief, even as they prepare their establishments (Jigger And Pony, Humpback, Gibsons, Caffe Fernet and Live Twice) for the busy Christmas season.
Meanwhile at home, the couple had been usually throwing private house parties with another F&B couple, Empire Eats Group's Howard Lo and Lim Hui Nan. Called the "Kanto-Lo parties" (a play on their surnames), the highlight of the night would be the Christmas sabrage, where some 20 guests have to slice open the champagne bottles they brought with a saber.
This year's home celebration will be somewhat quieter, as the couple spaces out their guest list over a few nights to abide by the government's rules on house visits. On top of that, they're also mindful of friends and colleagues who are unable to see their families this year due to travel restrictions.
Ms Gan says: "We have friends in the industry who have only been working in Singapore for a year or two. They'll be quite lonely, what with house parties limited to smaller groups. So we want to make sure they have someone to celebrate Christmas with... To me, one of the things that has become especially important during this crisis is relationships."
Mr Kantono says: "If the last 10 years have been about the ‘experience economy' with people looking for what's novel and exciting, the next 10 years will focus on what I call the ‘relationship economy'. People want experiences that strengthen human relationships, and they're willing to pay for it. That's what we're preparing for in the coming years."