SME Spotlight

F&B owners set the bar high in grooming staff

Small and medium-sized enterprises sometimes find it hard to recruit and retain staff, but the owners of cocktail bars Jigger & Pony and Sugarhall, who recently opened three new F&B establishments in a Bukit Pasoh Road shophouse, have found a secret formula. Indra Kantono, 32, and his wife, Gan Guoyi, 31, tellRachael Boonhow they overhauled their human resource policies to retain and groom employees.

Mr Indra Kantono and his wife Gan Guoyi own cocktail bars Jigger & Pony and Sugarhall, and three other F&B establishments. Among the HR practices they have put in place are mentorship and continuing education programmes, as well as helping staff stri
Mr Indra Kantono and his wife Gan Guoyi own cocktail bars Jigger & Pony and Sugarhall, and three other F&B establishments. Among the HR practices they have put in place are mentorship and continuing education programmes, as well as helping staff strive for work-life integration.ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

Q When did you realise you had to rethink your HR policies?

Indra Kantono (IK) The first year we started Jigger & Pony, in 2012, we had an opening team that we thought was good. Within 10 months, no one remained. The F&B industry is notorious for its high turnover. Coupled with our inexperience and lack of structure, no one stayed. They left for various reasons, and we had to replace them.

Close to our first-year anniversary, we started thinking, we've got to fix this HR issue. We had a company offsite retreat in Bali, where we gathered everyone and started discussing how we recruit and make sure those people become effective in their job quickly, how they stay in their job and grow with us.

We knew HR was a problem for everyone in F&B, and we saw it as an opportunity to turn that into our competitive advantage, to put in more effort in the way we ran our organisation so that people wanted to join us and grow with us.

Back in 2012, that was the only problem with Singapore F&B. Rent was rising, sure, but we locked that in, demand was strong and the talent base was there.


We want them to be a leader, whether they're with us, or they "graduate" and go somewhere else. All of that has made employees feel there's a sense of why they are with us.


Q What are some of the innovative HR practices you've put in place?

IK When you're a fresh hire and don't know anyone in the company, we assign you a buddy - someone who's of the same level as you or one level more senior. A buddy shows you the ropes, just the basic things, like what time should I report. Gan Guoyi (GG) We introduced mentorship. There are the four pillars - Indra, bar programme director Aki Eguchi, group chef Polo Seah and myself. After a month of joining us, you can decide who you'd like for a mentor. IK The mentorship sessions happen once a month. You can talk about anything -like struggles at work - with direct supervisors. We have a lot of young people in our organisation and they tell us they want to save money or pursue higher education and still want to keep their job.

One of our staff Jerrold Khoo has been with us for three years. He joined us as an apprentice, rose up the ranks from bartender to senior bartender and, now, he's running the programme at dive bar The Flagship, which opened last October. A year ago, he told us he used to study interior design and wanted to get a degree in it but didn't want to quit.

So we came up with a flexible work arrangement where he works half of the week but still maintains his full-time status. The pressure I put on him was, I'm still going to evaluate you as a programme leader, a full-timer.

The numbers are starting to show results. From September 2014 to the end of last year, we added about 24 people, and started to have a core office team for back-office functions.

Time will still tell, but 83 per cent - 20 out of 24 - of the team are still with us.

Q Smaller F&B establishments may not have the same corporate culture as major corporations. How did you introduce that to your organisation, which has 33 people?

IK I used to work for a lot of corporates in finance and consulting, and I realised that even though we are a small company with a lot of passion and energy, it doesn't hurt to have some of the structure that bigger companies do. So we created the right job titles and career progression path. When the opening team members left, a lot of them said, okay I don't know what I'll do next, so I guess it's time for me to leave.

But they can grow with us. There are still a lot of skill sets we want them to develop with us.

We've a ladder for each department. If you join as a bar apprentice, you eventually move up to become a bar programme director. If you join as a cook, there is a process to becoming an executive chef.

Each job title has a detailed job description, which gives employees control, as they know what they have to do to get promoted.

We also have an employee performance review every six months. We commit to a time, sit down and have a very thorough discussion, and they are evaluated based on the job description given to them. It's not a ranking format, it's how well they performed compared with the expectations for their role.

That has given people a lot of clarity. When they get promoted, they know the next set of challenges and job expectations they have to meet. Bringing in that sort of culture, even though we're still a small, free-flowing organisation, has helped.

Q Being in F&B means working erratic, long hours, among other things. How do you help staff manage that and stay the course?

IK An F&B job is tiring and labour-intensive - you're standing up all day serving customers and you've to have your game face on. It can take a toll on you, so we strive for work-life integration, instead of work-life balance - which works differently for different people - where hopefully the employee enjoys this life.

We adopt a start-up culture where everybody is pushing towards the same collective goal and we make sure everyone knows our mission. We've mission and purpose statements. The first thing you get are those on a piece of paper. You'll sit down with me and I'll explain it.

We have a set of seven values all over our premises that customers don't see. One is to deliver (the) "wow" with hospitality, and another is service from the heart that's not pretentious, and to constantly learn, share and lead.

We want them to be a leader, whether they're with us, or they "graduate" and go somewhere else. All of that has made employees feel there's a sense of why they are with us. We also want to promote from within, and it's our current challenge. We're coaching them step by step on how to become leaders, and we've also sent some of them on a Dale Carnegie managerial course, which is about 12 weeks long and costs about $3,300. It's a huge commitment, so for every cycle, only one person can go.

We've five bars now. Aki is managing one and, for the rest, they've joined us from the rank and file.

The Wage Credit Scheme also helped us promote from within, knowing we have the budget.

Q With young people being attracted to join your organisation, how else do you help groom them and meet their needs?

GG We implement things like a networking expense. We recognise going out on a daily basis is expensive. Sometimes, when you're young and just starting out in F&B, your pay is not that high, but we still want our juniors and apprentices to go out to bars, get to know people in the industry and see what others are doing.

We give them a budget of $60 each month, which they can claim for spirits and cocktails. All they have to do is go to any of six bars we pick - that list changes every month, which one of the seniors manages. IK We also have a continuing education programme. If someone studies for a degree relevant to our industry, like hospitality and tourism, it would be 80 per cent subsidised.

We'll pay for the course in return for your commitment to us, like a bond. Some of the staff have taken it on for more casual courses, like foreign talent for English courses. The only criterion is that once you sign up for a course, you have to finish.

There's no one thing we're doing, it's made up of many small things. It's like playing averages in baseball. I've studied in the United States and am a big sports fanatic. For a player with a batting average of 300, he hits the ball 30 per cent of the time, and that's considered an all-star, while someone on the bench could be a 220-batter, but the difference is only 8 percentage points.

An initiative doesn't make you an all-star, but it improves you by a few per cent each time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'F&B owners set the bar high in grooming staff SMESpotlight'. Subscribe