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The Accidental Restaurateur
FOR some reason, the word "restaurateur" doesn't sit well with Desmond Lim. It makes him uncomfortable, as if he's afraid someone might call him out as an imposter of sorts - that he's really a food-loving stockbroker who just happens to dabble in the F&B business like a very expensive hobby.
Except that this "hobby" - which started 25 years ago when he and a friend put up the money to open Singapore's first French restaurant outside a hotel - is now an F&B juggernaut. At last count, the Les Amis Group - of which Mr Lim, 62, is the chairman - has 21 restaurant concepts and 29 outlets in Singapore (by June this year), running the gamut of high-end French and Japanese to mass-market pizzerias and Vietnamese noodle bars. It also has 30 joint ventures overseas in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia, with more in the pipeline. Aside from the Les Amis Group, Mr Lim is also the owner (with the same partners) of Vinum Fine Wines, a separate business dealing in premium wines in Singapore and the UK.
All this on top of his role as managing director of his family-owned stockbroking firm Lim & Tan Securities. His day job, as it were.
"I don't consider myself a professional restaurateur," says the genial, self-deprecating Mr Lim, fidgeting slightly in the plush dining room of the two Michelin-starred Les Amis. "The heart and passion are there, but what I don't have is the professional training."
That said, "I've paid a lot in 'tuition fees' over the years", he notes wryly of his experience in steering the company through Singapore's intensely volatile F&B industry. "So I'm a little smarter now."
He is also notoriously media-shy, and has only consented to interviews now - to mark the quarter-century since he and partner Chong Yap Seng teamed up with then-sommelier Ignatius Chan and chef Justin Quek to become les amis (French for "the friends") of fine dining in Singapore.
While other F&B entrepreneurs may bandy about terms such as dining concept, bottomline, productivity, earnings projections and manpower woes, Mr Lim's vocabulary is dominated by one word: people. "Good, talented and passionate people - with good heart, empathy, integrity, humility and loyalty. These are qualities which are important to me and define our group."
He's proud that "over 25 years, we've groomed talent, many of whom are still with us, but many more have gone on to seek success both here and overseas". Having Les Amis on one's resume has always been a badge of quality in the marketplace, and some notable names in the industry have links to the group: Corner House's Jason Tan; dessert chef Janice Wong; Antoinette's Pang Kok Keong; and Ola's Daniel Chavez are just some of them.
Mr Lim relishes the tale of a recent dinner to which he had invited about 20 staff representing three generations of the Les Amis alumni - from chefs who have been with the group since 1994, to 20-somethings who joined barely two months ago. "It's so heartening to see one big happy family spread over 25 years," he says. "These are my dividends. Not financial returns. My proudest moment isn't so much about winning stars - of course that's a high achievement - but it's really all about the people."
Idealism plus pragmatism
It may sound like he wears rose-tinted glasses, but that idealism is tempered with some hard-nosed pragmatism. "Twenty-five years is an eternity in the F&B business, and it's always been a struggle, up to today. You have to find a balance between quality and profitability. You can't have both. But we are lucky in that we have the luxury of building something for the long term, without the short term pressure of financial performance."
Numbers-wise, the group is holding its own. In 2018, total turnover was in excess of S$100 million, comprising revenue for both the Singapore and overseas operations. While it runs all of its restaurants in Singapore, its overseas business comprises joint ventures which are not operated by the group. The group has a minority share which is purely investment, says Mr Lim.
The group started out with fine Western dining led by its flagship Les Amis (headed by ex-Robuchon chef Sebastien Lepinoy who is credited with earning its two Michelin stars). It then introduced more mid-range products such as La Strada, Bistro du Vin and La Taperia - covering Italian, French bistro and Spanish cuisine - along with Japanese eateries such as Sushi Jin and Jinjo (the fine dining Aoki was also one of the first movers in the high-end sushi scene). It stepped into the mass market with Peperoni Pizza - a casual pizza and pasta chain which is its best-performer yet - and around seven years ago sparked a Vietnamese beef noodle trend with its Nam Nam cafes serving pho and banh mi.
"Fine dining doesn't make money," Mr Lim readily says, simply due to the high food and operating costs required to maintain that level of service and cuisine.
"It's tough. It's a small market. Going forward, the concepts I would look at developing would be mid-market Asian concepts that are replicable and scalable, with menus that can stretch over longer hours of service from breakfast to supper - even 24 hours if need be. And they would involve labour-saving technology and processes to overcome tight manpower issues."
There's no point lamenting the government's strict controls over foreign labour, he reasons. "You just have to live with it and find ways to get staff to multi-task and incorporate more technology." While not actively looking to grow in Singapore, he would consider it for Peperoni or its also-successful Hong Kong congee outlet Mui Kee - a spinoff of the popular Hong Kong stall.
"Peperoni is a good concept that has a lot of scope for expansion and we are looking to develop a halal concept, with an eye on exporting to neighbouring majority-Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia." Mui Kee also has potential for growth, "but we want to keep the quality at the highest level, so we will control the expansion".
While its Nam Nam noodle bars created a splash when they first opened, "a lot of competition" has emerged since. Their efforts to franchise it in Southeast Asia also haven't been very successful, "and I feel that the real big potential is in the West, particularly the East and West coast of the US or the bigger European cities", he adds. "In Southeast Asia there are so many noodle dishes and people place Vietnamese noodles on the lowest rung, below ramen, la mian, and other local dishes. The people who can easily afford to eat a bowl of Nam Nam in Jakarta don't really want to eat beef noodles. They want to eat in a proper restaurant." Hence, they are working with their Indonesian partner to launch an "express" version of Nam Nam noodles using local instead of imported beef, at half the price - S$4 instead of the normal S$8 to S$10 a bowl. The food delivery business - particularly its tie-up with Deliveroo - "is a growing trend and we want to develop concepts that can ride on this".
While the Singapore market is limited, he is open to supporting small eateries featuring promising young talent. But he sees "tremendous potential for F&B growth in our Asean neighbours". For example, "countries like Vietnam, in particular, have a young population of over 90 million and a growing middle class", he notes. "We already have nine outlets in Ho Chi Minh and one in Hanoi, spread over three concepts, and we're looking to grow at the rate of 30 per cent to 40 per cent annually (in terms of outlets)." It's a no-brainer for him. "The cost of casual labour in Vietnam is less than US$1 an hour. Here, you're lucky if you can find the same at US$6."
In Hong Kong/Macau, he has a stake in the successful Lady M pastry franchise, with eight outlets in total, two Sugafina candy shops, and five pizza/bistro outlets. The plan is for a 20 per cent growth in the Hong Kong/Macau region. Meanwhile, it has one joint venture in Yangon and three in Jakarta.
One of the biggest challenges going forward is "to continue to operate this way and be profitable", he says. And at the same time to "continually renew ourselves in all areas, to be relevant in a new environment where millennials will form the core of our customer base", he says.
The main problem in Singapore, he feels, lies with its young people. "They often want to be in the more glamorous segment of the industry, ie, Michelin fine dining. If I could turn back the clock 35 years, and if I were a young chef, I would train in the best Western restaurants to gain exposure and build my foundation. Then after five years, I would want to explore Asian and local Singaporean food. There is so much potential and it's sad to see the inevitable demise of our food culture because so many young ones don't want to carry on the legacy of their parents' business. It's understandable - it's such hard work."
Traditional food culture is a pet topic for Mr Lim, and one of his newest concepts is also closest to his heart. Indigo Blue Kitchen - set to open by June - is a Peranakan eatery whose chef is being personally mentored by Mr Lim to recreate the recipes of his late grandmother. "This is in honour and memory of her. I grew up with her in the 60s, and I believe I inherited from her the genes which led to my passion for food and all things F&B. She was a great chef, toiling in the kitchen the whole day to turn out wonderful meals for the family. Almost 50 years have passed, but I still remember the flavours of a bygone era, which would otherwise be lost forever if we don't perpetuate it."
The chef of Indigo Blue, 29-year-old Jun Xiang, is not Peranakan, but he was talent-spotted by Mr Lim as part of his ongoing quest to nurture the next generation of chefs in Singapore. The restaurant will be one of three concepts on the third level of Shaw Centre, which include a casual wok cafe and a sustainability-focused eatery. For this reason, "we work very closely with culinary schools, because that's where they're being trained and groomed, and the industry must lend its support by providing them platforms to grow".
As for regrets, yes, he's had a few as he readily admits that the group has made some bad business decisions, "a lot to do with location", he says.
But one of the most painful might have been their first foray into Hong Kong 10 years ago with the fine dining restaurant Cépage.
"It started when I asked myself the question - why were there no privately-owned fine dining restaurants in Hong Kong? They were all in the top five-star hotels. Thus, we ventured in with the idea of Cépage. Five, 10 years later and many million Hong Kong dollars poorer, I learned my lesson: I found out why."
Basically, fine dining in top hotels is more for branding than profitability. "When you factor in the full opportunity cost of the space - it's easier for them to rent it out to an operator and take a percentage of sales rather than run their own. But their business model is such that they don't have to make money; they're like casinos."
No slowing down
Still, after 25 years, there's no sign of Mr Lim slowing down - a man who loves his char kuay teow and confesses to preferring a good hot plate of wok hei-infused noodles over the best foie gras or truffles. And just to get a sense of how invested he is in the group, he was rushing off after his interview to persuade a young sous chef who was thinking of quitting, to stay.
He's mindful of the need for fresh blood, a younger management team and innovative thinkers to lead the group for the next 25 years. "I hope to be able to attract a dozen or so talented and passionate people to write the next chapter of the Les Amis story."
And yes, "I have thought about succession", he muses. "I have a few more years, beyond which I must look at some succession plan if we wish to remain in the business. It must be someone with not just the right skills and experience, but also the passion and values that the group embodies.
"I've often been asked what my end-game is. It's open-ended. I will decide when the time comes, but in the meantime, I'm enjoying the journey and all the nice people I meet along the way."
Lim & Tan Securities Pte Ltd
Chairman, Les Amis Group
Chairman, Vinum Fine Wines
Born in Singapore in 1957
BSc, London School of Economics
2010 - Singapore Tourism Board Tourism Entrepreneur of the year Awards for Les Amis
Since 2016 - Michelin Guide two stars
2018 - Two Diamonds by BlackPearl Meituan-Dianping
2018 - Ranked 29 in Asia's 50 Best Restaurants
2016 - Asia's Best Pastry Chef (Cheryl Koh) by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants
Since 2010 - Member, Les Grandes Tables du Monde
1996-2010 Wine Spectator Grand Award