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Founders of Wolf Burgers: Not a lone wolf on the burger scene

Founders of Wolf Burgers plan to grow the gourmet burger business locally and in the region

Throw a private equity professional, a private banker, a self-taught cook and a musician into a room together and what do you get?

The recipe for a really good burger joint, of course.

As with many friendships forged and maintained in Singapore, the one between Wolf Burgers co-founders Serene Chua and Ho Song En began with the discovery of a shared passion for food.

Soon after they first met six years ago, Mr Ho introduced Ms Chua to long-time friend Sarah Lin, who from a young age had taught herself to cook and occasionally invited friends over to her house for meals.

"She'd been cooking for friends since she was 17 and she would throw these supper clubs for friends and family so I brought Serene along twice," Mr Ho recalls.

Ms Chua was duly impressed by Ms Lin's cooking, and they soon began talking about opening their own restaurant.

A Wolf burger from the Pasar Bella Suntec City outlet. Mr Ho Song En and Ms Serene Chua (above) made their first foray into the food business with Carvers & Co, together with Ms Sarah Lin and her husband Soh Wen Ming. Early last year, the friends lau
Mr Ho Song En and Ms Serene Chua made their first foray into the food business with Carvers & Co, together with Ms Sarah Lin and her husband Soh Wen Ming. Early last year, the friends launched Wolf Burgers, which will have three outlets by this year. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

TEAM EFFORT

It's always a partnership... As a small organisation, it's very important for everyone to understand where all stakeholders are coming from, and that includes customers, employees and shareholders - in that order.

MR HO SONG EN

"Ever since I was a kid I've always wanted to be in the food business. To have a coffee place, an ice cream joint and a casual dining cafe. So when I came across this opportunity to do an all-in-one, and to start a business with this passionate and dynamic team, I thought, why not?" Ms Chua says.

Mr Ho adds: "One thing led to another and one day, I learnt about a shophouse in East Coast Road that was available."

And so the three opened Carvers & Co, a cosy eatery specialising in roast meats. Ms Lin's drummer husband Soh Wen Ming was also involved.

In 2015, the burger sold at Carvers & Co was named among the top three in Singapore.

"We thought to ourselves, what if we made this burger accessible to the general public? And that was when the idea for Wolf was born," Mr Ho says.

GROWING BURGER BUSINESS

Wolf Burgers was launched at Pasar Bella Suntec City in January 2016 and has already grown to include two more outlets, one at Changi City Point that is already in operation and another at the upcoming Marina One integrated development, which will open in the fourth quarter of this year.

And the burger joint is set to grow further, with the founders planning to open two or three more outlets in Singapore over the next few years and expanding overseas as soon as they can find the right partners.

The secret sauce in their journey is the lupine pack mentality that is reflected in the company's name and logo, they say.

"Everything is a team effort. We each have different ideas and skill sets and we work hard to create the right ecosystem for innovation to take place," says Ms Chua.

At the beginning, Mr Ho says, their different personalities and backgrounds led to some diverging thoughts about how to run the business.

Ms Lin and Mr Soh would come up with creative ideas for the restaurant while Mr Ho and Ms Chua, with their experience in finance and investments, would guide the team towards keeping things pragmatic.

"But it's always a partnership," Mr Ho says.

"As a small organisation, it's very important for everyone to understand where all stakeholders are coming from, and that includes customers, employees and shareholders - in that order."

This means, for example, that the founders occasionally stand sentry next to the cashier just to listen in on customer orders and requests and learn about what people want.

The founders also have weekly chats with their staff, who have provided valuable feedback that has affected the way things are run at the company.

A Wolf burger from the Pasar Bella Suntec City outlet. Mr Ho Song En and Ms Serene Chua (above) made their first foray into the food business with Carvers & Co, together with Ms Sarah Lin and her husband Soh Wen Ming. Early last year, the friends lau
A Wolf burger from the Pasar Bella Suntec City outlet. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

For example, feedback from staff that a lot of carb-conscious customers were asking for burgers without the buns led to Wolf introducing wraps and salad bowls to their menu.

In fact, in keeping with rapidly changing food trends in Singapore, Wolf's menu has been updated several times since its inception and now includes desserts such as waffles and ice cream. It will soon include breakfast items such as croissant sandwiches and breakfast burgers too.

Another comment from an employee that the box in which they served fries was too cumbersome to handle efficiently, especially during peak hours, led the team to make the switch to lidless boxes.

Mr Ho jokes that the attention he has to pay to such details is a far cry from the kind of high-level strategic decisions he used to make as a private equity investor.

"I met with my former boss recently and he reminded me that not too long ago, I was recommending that the PE firm make a huge investment, worth millions of dollars, but now I was talking to him about the difference in quality between burger wrappers that cost one cent each and 1.5 cents each."

Perhaps what is even more remarkable is what the founders do when they are not focusing on Wolf's operations.

GOING REGIONAL

Mr Ho, who has taken a sabbatical from private equity, also runs a separate food and beverage venture in Myanmar, a Killiney franchise with a modern twist.

Ms Chua still maintains her day job as a full-time private banker at LGT and finds time to travel to exotic locations around the world.

Last year, she went to Kazakhstan and wrote about her trip for Icon magazine. Earlier this month, she trekked Tiger's Nest in Bhutan - four months after giving birth to her third child.

"My life is about the three Bs - banking, burgers and babies," she quips.

Life is likely going to get more hectic from here on as the friends are planning bigger things for Wolf Burgers.

"Going regional in this day and age is a must," Mr Ho says.

"Malaysia and Indonesia are culturally very similar to Singapore and we have many links there so these two markets would naturally be the first place we would look at when we are ready to venture out."

But the company is still on the lookout for the right partners to make this happen, he adds.

"We need to strike a partnership with people we are comfortable with, who have the same long-term vision as us.

"We started off as a burger joint but we are evolving."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'Not a lone wolf on the burger scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe