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THE current economic climate may have seen businesses around the world buckle, but you would be hard put to find any sense of trepidation in some of Singapore's homegrown F&B groups, which have been busy making waves in the region.
For instance, the Les Amis Group recently opened restaurants in the Philippines and Indonesia, and are about to launch new concepts in Myanmar and Kuala Lumpur. Also in KL is the Timbre Group, which opened Timbre @ The Row in Jalan Doraisamy last December. Even Australia is thrown into the mix, with Singapore-based French chef Frederic Colin's first overseas outpost - Bistrot Gavroche - opening in Sydney two months ago.
Says chef Colin: "All chefs talk about expanding, but it's getting difficult to do that in Singapore. Startup costs, wages, rent - are all an issue - so they're expanding to South-east Asia." Though he had no battle plan himself, the opportunity came and everything fell into place. "Yes, the economy isn't so great but one thing I know is people have to eat, and you can't put everything on standby."
These players join other F&B groups such as Zest, which owns Twelve Cupcakes International - the cupcake brand has expanded since 2011 to over 30 outlets across five countries including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The group also operates Artisan Boulangerie Co (ABC) and Alt Pizza, which are currently confined to Singapore with 10 and three outlets respectively, though they intend for these concepts to hit foreign shores by early 2017. The aim is for a total of 300 global outlets by 2020.
For Nikhil Parikh, chief marketing officer of Zest, ABC and Alt Pizza fit well into the "fast casual" trend that's all the rage in the US and Europe, where brands such as Chipotle and Shake Shack "command high valuations and draw an incredibly loyal fan base", he says. "We believe these trends merging quick-service operations and scalability with high quality food will come to Asia."
Of course, such casual concepts are more scalable when it comes to expanding abroad. As with Zest, coffee chain Joe & Dough built their brand around an approachable product - "accessible good coffee". Co-founder Damien Koh says they intend to be "the top-of-mind brand when you are at a shopping mall or in the city centre" - even when overseas. He's currently scouting regional markets such as the Philippines and conducting feasibility tests.
Admittedly, his overseas expansion plans were hastened by the competitive speciality coffee scene in Singapore - now over 400 brands by his count. The initial plan was to secure the local market with 20 outlets (the group currently operates 11) before venturing to other countries. While expanding overseas is "not a miracle pill that will immediately improve revenues and bottom line", Mr Koh intends to mitigate risks by expanding through "a country or area franchise, with the possibility of joint ventures in more strategic markets".
Moving abroad seems to have worked out well for F&B group Series of Intentions (SOI), which owns the Kilo group of restaurants and cafe Grain Traders. They opened Kilo Bali in Seminyak in 2014, and Javier Perez, co-founder of F&B group Series of Intentions, describes it as "thankfully vibrant." He adds: "We've been able to exceed every number that I've put forth for the 2016 budget, even in the low season. So that's a great sign."
The group has no immediate plans to expand further outside of Singapore (they're busy opening a new grill concept here called Camp Kilo Charcoal Club), but Mr Perez mentions Hong Kong, Jakarta and even New York or London as potential markets. While Kilo was always a "homegrown brand with a global mindset," Mr Perez only got serious about expanding abroad when the owner of Balinese resort Uma Sapna approached them. "That's when we started visiting the island, doing our research, building relationships and learning more about the culture and market," he explains. Also, having support from an established local business helps; Kilo Bali is sited next to Uma Sapna resort, and not only has a captive audience, but also serves resort guests room service and breakfast.
Singapore-based Italian restaurateur Beppe de Vito finds value in the same approach. He opened his first overseas venture - il Lido Bali - last year, and has since been receiving positive response.
"It's about understanding the local customs, business practices and culture; it was the same for me when I opened my first business in Singapore," says Mr de Vito, who also owns restaurants in Singapore including il Lido at the Cliff in Sentosa, Aura at the National Gallery, and Osteria Art at Raffles Place.
That's why his advice for restaurateurs with plans to venture abroad is straightforward: "Always make sure to do enough groundwork - spend enough time on-site to survey the local market's dining habits and the business landscape, before deciding to go into it."
By Rachel Loi and Tan Teck Heng
LOOKING UP, DOWN UNDER
When French-born Frederic Colin opened a restaurant in Australia after five years of running Brasserie Gavroche here, he felt like he was finally getting a slice of home.
"It's very nice as a chef to finally get seasons which we can follow, and be inspired by fresh, locally grown produce," says the chef, who used to work in his grandfather's restaurant when he was younger.
"The other day when I went to the market in Sydney, I took some pictures and posted them online with a caption asking if I were in France or Sydney, because it really just felt like a market in France."
He opened the 65-seater Bistrot Gavroche in Sydney on March 17, with his friend and co-owner Lionel Richard. It is located in a new lifestyle precinct called Kensington Street, Chippendale, which launched in September last year. The Bistrot Gavroche opened less than a year after a few others in the same area, such as Kensington Street Social by Jason Atherton (who runs London's Pollen Street Social), Automata by Clayton Wells (who previously worked at Momofuku Seiobo), and Silvereye by Sam Miller (who used to work at Noma).
It occupies a corner unit on the first floor of one of Kensington Street's old warehouses, which dates back to the 1800s. The building itself was dubbed "The Old Rum Store" because it was originally used to store casks of rum. As for the restaurant, "it has a high ceiling, brick walls, metal beams, and windows all over so it's a very bright space. It's just beautiful," describes chef Colin.
He didn't do much to hunt for the location however. "The location chose me, kind of. Stanley Quek - the Singaporean developer of Kensington Street - came to see me last year and told me about the project. When I visited two weeks later, I fell in love with what is now our unit."
The style of cooking will be consistent with chef Colin's other two restaurants in Singapore - Brasserie Gavroche and Cafe Gavroche. In other words, it'll be no-frills classical French cuisine. "The difference is that in Sydney we use more than 75 per cent local Australian produce. There's no twist, no adapting to the market - that's not what I believe in. My style of cooking, presentation, even the plateware, is all the same. I only have to adapt to the local ingredients - like how the ketchup tastes different than in Singapore - but that's about it."
Translated onto the menu, this means homey, traditional dishes such as a classic French onion soup (A$16, S$15.97), Burgundy snails baked in their shell with parsley and garlic butter (A$21), and his Grandpa Henri's pike fish quenelles with crayfish sauce (A$36).
While chef Colin still calls Singapore his home and first love, he currently spends about half his time in Sydney overseeing the opening of the Bistrot Gavroche. Down the road, however, he intends to spend about one week to 10 days in Sydney every month, and leave the restaurant in the hands of its general manager, Mr Richard.
Having someone he trusts is the only reason he dared to venture overseas in the first place, especially in a competitive F&B scene such as Sydney's, says chef Colin. He observes that new restaurants have been popping up frequently in recent years, as modern Australian cuisine makes waves around the country, and there's a growing "new generation of young chefs with beards and tattoos cooking very local seasonal produce".
Ultimately, that trend won't be affecting him, says chef Colin, who maintains that he's there to counter the lack of similar classical French restaurants run by French chefs. He says: "When I first got to Sydney, I was disappointed to see the quality of French food there. The French cuisine feels a bit tired - it follows the cliche of using a lot of cream and butter, with very big portions. It's not refined at all. So that's where I come into the picture, with French cuisine but very clean and very fresh produce. It's my goal to establish Bistrot Gavroche as THE French restaurant there."
LES AMIS BANKS ON FORAYS
Les Amis Group
AFTER 22 years of being an "only-child", the award-winning Les Amis Restaurant in Singapore is about to have a sibling.
Some time next year, the Les Amis Group will open three restaurants in the heart of Kuala Lumpur's city centre, including the first-ever overseas outlet of their contemporary French fine-dining restaurant. The other two establishments will be two new concepts - a Japanese sushi restaurant, and a yakitori-focused ultra-lounge YKSK (short for Yakesaki).
These three restaurants will be opened under a management contract with one of KL's largest privately owned conglomerates, The Naza Group, whose core business is the selling and manufacturing of cars.
So while the Naza Group owns the property - a development called Platinum Park with three office blocks and a plot of land slated for residential and hotel blocks - the Les Amis Group will manage the conceptualisation and day-to-day operations of the three restaurants.
They will occupy 17,000 sq ft of the penthouse in one of the three office buildings, with Les Amis as a 70-seater on the 50th (and the highest) floor, the sushi restaurant on the 49th floor, and YKSK spanning both floors with a dining area and open yaki kitchen on the 49th floor and a bar on the 50th floor.
Another 3,000 sq ft restaurant on the ground floor called BLVD House also has ties with the Les Amis Group - it was a one-off consultancy project which opened its doors in late-March this year. Unlike the others, this 100-seater all-day dining concept's day-to-day operations are fully handled by The Naza Group.
Les Amis Group's corporate office director and spokesman Raymond Lim explains: "This expansion beyond Singapore wasn't taken this or last year, it has been on the cards for five years. It's part of our long-term plan to expand our footprint outside of Singapore."
This year, they also had a new restaurant opening in the Philippines (a franchise for Peperoni Pizzeria which opened last month), and an upcoming one in Myanmar (a 1,500 sq ft Italian trattoria in August).
He highlights two reasons for the Group's regional expansion: firstly, that they did not "envision the Singapore market to grow tremendously", and that they feel it is a good time to "monetise some of the experience and intellectual property" built up over the last 20-odd years.
Adds Mr Lim: "So rather than continuing to open restaurants, which is very capital-intensive and asset-heavy, we'd rather create a new revenue stream based on consulting for regional owners."
Although the menu at both Les Amis restaurants will be completely different, they will share the same philosophy, and flavours will not differ significantly except that the one in KL will not serve pork.
Prices at the Malaysian outlet will also be 30 per cent lower than the one in Singapore. There's no need to tweak the flavour profiles at Les Amis KL since one of the reasons they "have faith to open those two restaurants in KL in the first place is that we already see a lot of Malaysian customers at the Singapore outlets. This means that they already like it", explains Mr Lim.
As for the other restaurants, he describes YKSK as "Gray Bar in Hong Kong meets grill-focused Japanese concept Roka", and the unnamed sushi restaurant as a "straightforward sushi bar with private rooms".
Mr Lim notes that unlike Singapore, the KL dining scene is much less saturated, but this has been slowly changing in recent years. More local entrepreneurs are opening F&B concepts in KL, making the scene a lot more vibrant.
He also notes that with the recent opening of fine-dining restaurants such as the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Sushi Saito from Tokyo - which charges over RM1,000 for omakase, modern Malaysian restaurant Dewakan, and DC Restaurant by French-trained chef Darren Chin, standards have been raised for high-end restaurants in KL.
Says Mr Lim: "For the longest time, the fine-dining scene in KL didn't evolve. Even though there are a lot of tycoons in Malaysia, the older generation doesn't like to spend their money on food.
Their children, on the other hand, are returning home after their foreign education, bringing with them an appreciation for fine-dining. This wealthy second generation is more lifestyle-savvy - so it's a good time to open there."
By Rachel Loi
ALL the attention is currently on Timbre+, with foodies raving about Damien D'Silva's nasi lemak. But unbeknownst to many, the Timbre Group has quietly set up shop across the Causeway. Called Timbre @ The Row, this new outpost is located at Jalan Doraisamy in Kuala Lumpur, nested among 22 1940s shophouses.
Opened since mid-December last year with an official launch in March, Timbre @ The Row marks the group's first overseas expansion, with an investment of approximately S$200,000, occupying 4,000 sq ft of space over three shophouses that can accommodate 200 patrons.
Co-founder of Timbre Group Edward Chia is expecting the Malaysian outpost to take at least two years to recoup the investment. "It's our first time in Malaysia and the brand is relatively unknown, so our expectations are similar to when we first started Timbre in Singapore back in 2005," he says. "Right now it's more about introducing the brand, and we're in no rush, we're there for the long term."
For those unfamiliar with the site, The Row at Jalan Doraisamy might be called the Haji Lane or Keong Saik Road of Kuala Lumpur. Other tenants include artisanal cafes, a French restaurant, a tapas bar, an events space, boutiques featuring local designers, and a co-working space.
"The locations we pick are very artsy and cultural, such as museums or creative enclaves; if we ever appear in a shopping mall, people are going to wonder if we've lost our soul," says Mr Chia. They are currently in talks with the landlord of The Row regarding potential collaborations and street events, so the enclave can cement its reputation as a vibrant hotspot.
Prior to the Malaysian expansion, the group had considered markets such as Sri Lanka and Taiwan. "We represent musicians who are from these countries, and it would have been a good story: prodigal son returns and promotes Sri Lankan or Taiwanese musicians," says Mr Chia.
Those plans are still on the cards, although the group is taking its time to stabilise operations in Malaysia. The vision is to see Timbre outposts across cities in the region.
"Even as we expand overseas, we will support the local talent at each locale. The dream is that as we set up brick-and-mortar Timbres across different cities, we will be able to do cross-cultural exchanges. Individual Timbre venues will be like pods, where regional musicians can 'land'."
The DNA of the brand remains the same wherever they are: the music stage will always be front and centre, but with adaptations - such as collaborations with native street artists and spins on the menu.
For instance, Timbre's signature thin-crust pizzas in Kuala Lumpur reflect the Malaysian palate. Instead of their bestselling roast duck pizzas in Singapore, Mr Chia has chosen to serve pizzas with crispy chicken skin, or with anchovies and sambal. "The locals call the anchovy pizza the 'nasi lemak' pizza," he says with laugh.
One would think that the economic downturn would have halted expansion plans, but Mr Chia notes that they "tend to be more aggressive during downturns, and we're actually more hands off when things are rosy".
In fact, the timing brought an unexpected advantage: "Just when we were about to sign the cheques, the ringgit crashed," says Mr Chia, recalling that the exchange rate was around 3.08 ringgit to S$1.
However, with Timbre @ The Row and Timbre+ adding two ambitious concepts to their stable this year, Mr Chia acknowledges that some housekeeping is in order. The group currently runs five other live music venues, on top of a music academy and an artiste management arm.
"Now, we have to programme seven live music venues on an ongoing basis, and Timbre+ in particular is not just a music venue, it's also a space where we can run events and music festivals," he says of the 24,000 sq ft space.
Which is why they are currently winding down their pizzeria 12-Inch Pizzas & Records, so human resources can be re-allocated to their venue management division; last year, the group also sold its shares in Beerfest Asia to Sphere Exhibits, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings.
Given recent big-budget expansions here by other live music concepts, the Singapore market is getting increasingly saturated - all the more reason then for the Timbre Group to look overseas. 2016 saw Wala Wala expanding into a 13,800 sq ft lot in Havelock Road, while Hood Bar and Cafe took over a 37,000 sq ft space along Cosford Road with new concept 555 Villa Thai.
But Mr Chia is quick to dispel any notion that the market for live music bars is saturated. "Honestly, we just focus on our own strategy. We provide differentiated concepts within our own group, so each venue offers a different music and dining experience - that's so we don't cannibalise our audience."
Switch by Timbre for instance plays both Mandarin and English pop-rock, whereas bands at Barber Shop croon the blues. Timbre+ takes it a step further by celebrating local hawker food. "Saturation only happens when people stop innovating," he declares.
By Tan Teck Heng
IMMACULATELY dressed and articulate to a fault, veteran entrepreneur Cynthia Chua doesn't come across as a honcho who would sit patiently in the lobby of a publishing house for an entire day, waiting to meet with a magazine editor to talk about her new restaurant.
"The team here will probably not let me go from office to office to personally deliver tau sar paus (red bean buns)," says Ms Chua about the signature snacks from her 40 Hands Cafe in Tiong Bahru.
"Venturing overseas has reminded me about humility. I have to start from scratch because nobody knows who you are."
Having started her first spa concept 20 years ago, Ms Chua has since launched 18 brands that cover beauty, lifestyle and food and beverage (F&B), with over 100 outlets around the globe. And she has just unveiled The Beauty Block Chelsea in London, bringing together the fourth Browhaus brow bar in the city, the fifth London Ministry of Waxing depilatory salon and the first A Wanted Man espresso canteen.
A Wanted Man, which serves healthy, tasty dishes inspired by street food from around the world and Asian touches, along with artisan coffee, is Ms Chua's 14th F&B concept, and first overseas. She has previously launched restaurants here under the Spa Esprit Group such as House, Tippling Club, Common Man Coffee Roasters and Open Farm Community. Today, F&B accounts for about 40 per cent of the group's total earnings.
"I was constantly being told that Londoners want scrambled eggs, greasy fry-ups and salmon with eggs benedict, even by my own London chef," recalls Ms Chua, who personally provided the direction for healthy dishes with a low glycaemic index (GI) such as a pork oatmeal "risotto" inspired by Chinese congee.
"They ask: 'Why do you want to educate people about healthy eating in a market you do not understand?' There was so much counter-current. I would see people walk in asking for a sandwich and leave when we explain what we do, and my chef would say: 'I told you so'."
Fortunately, there are weight- and health-conscious residents in the neighbourhood who have taken to dishes such as roasted seasonal vegetables with sauerkraut and satay sauce, or the signature sourdough waffle with salted peanut cream - suitable even for folk with gluten intolerance.
"The Londoners, especially women in Chelsea, are very mindful and very advanced when it comes to what they eat; they want soy milk and almond milk, and every other person is dairy- and gluten-free," adds Ms Chua.
"With a name like A Wanted Man you think fried hash browns and greasy food, and when you think of the British, the stereotype of big, burly men drinking beer and enjoying big breakfasts comes to mind. You might lose customers with something new, but you have to stick to your guns."
Despite the obstacles, venturing overseas was a necessity for the entrepreneur to grow her business. She opened her first overseas outlet - the Strip hair removal salon - in Kuala Lumpur's Bangsar neighbourhood in 2006.
"I look at how people here have to spend S$70 per head for a meal, they're spending so much money because of costs, and how it is getting very challenging with the lack of manpower, and realised there are other places we can explore that are less difficult," admits Ms Chua.
"After creating 18 brands here, I want to let Singapore rest for a while and consolidate rather than keep growing in one direction. Personally, I need to be inspired too. It's more challenging to learn new things in a new area, but I need to open up new avenues for the group in other countries because the labour situation here will not change."
Having opened six beauty outlets in London since 2009 also provided Ms Chua with a business infrastructure that she could tap for her first F&B business in the city. She estimates that up to 40 per cent of services can be shared between her beauty and F&B businesses in London. The businesswoman also spends 30 per cent of her time in London to ensure that her businesses are running smoothly and to groom a local team - as well as learn more about local tastes and culture.
"Initially, I wanted to hold a drum 'n' bass party at A Wanted Man but I forgot this was Chelsea which is more upmarket and probably more suited to a jazz event," says Ms Chua.
"I also forgot that, unlike here, where we would consume hot drinks all year round, nobody drinks hot chocolate in summer. But palate-wise, at least I was in a location where I could be progressive and focus on a low-GI menu, whereas Asian food like sushi and porridge is geared towards white rice which is a fast carbohydrate."
But even for someone who has already launched other businesses in cities such as New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Bangkok, introducing a new F&B brand to a highly sophisticated metropolis has its fair share of challenges.
"There are so many difficult periods when I think, why am I putting myself through harsh British winters or have to work so hard from scratch when I have already enjoyed some success in Singapore," admits Ms Chua.
"But I think London can be a gateway for Singapore, and I can help propagate the Singapore brand and culture to the people from around the world who travel through this capital. I can showcase how coffee flown in from Common Man Roasters in Singapore is that good, or reflect Asian cuisine such as a congee-inspired risotto. I always keep my eye on the prize."
By May Yip