The food and beverage (F&B) industry is a notorious Grim Reaper of start-ups. But a brother-and-sister team, Joey and Vannessa Lee, bucks the trend with a simple answer: Love.
They show a lot of it to their fans through social media — rewarding customers with random discounts and deals for posting their meals on their feeds. To the siblings, the power of this direct connection to customers is the strongest tool for thriving amid the challenges of the F&B scene.
Mr Lee, 24, notes: “What we have over our competitors is unique branding and premium ingredients. Our homemade treats run the gamut from kale chips to crispy salmon skin to teriyaki edamame. We’re about to add smoked salmon to the list.”
Against the lean start-up grain, they ploughed $200,000 into their business in July 2016. Liquidating a university fund and then some, they drove two years of trial, error, and taste tests with a discerning inner circle.
Although A Poke Theory was not the first to introduce to Singapore the concept of poke bowls, which are similar to Japanese chirashi don, their brand is now synonymous with healthy and tasty offerings that draw snaking lunchtime queues.
Today, theirs is a team of 19 staff and four franchises. They also operate a separate concept outlet, Alter Ego, at The Esplanade, which opened in November 2016.
Overcoming initial obstacles
When Ms Lee, 26, was regularly travelling to Melbourne (she has since migrated there), her brother was conducting taste tests while doing national service. They were both working on a business plan separately and remotely — Mr Lee managing the food and business and Ms Lee overseeing the branding and marketing.
The proof of that dedication is in the poke bowl. “Every time I see a customer tilting their bowl and scooping up the last remnants of their meal, I’m secretly beaming inside,” Mr Lee says. “It means a lot that we’ve managed to sustain our appeal especially when we’re tussling with the big dogs in the Telok Ayer area.”
Locking in a winning model
The siblings pushed initial takings into franchising consultants to scale up.
Ms Lee explains: “Franchisees help to further our business and brand name. Together we’re stronger, due to the massive combined volume allowing for more savings from our suppliers. This is especially so for small and medium-sized enterprises that aren’t heavyweights in the industry yet.”
Royalties and one-time fees from their franchisees were then channelled into the expansion of A Poke Theory. They can now consider launching their chain in Australia, China and Hong Kong.
Mr Lee says: “As scary as it was to not pocket our profits and run, the franchise model eventually worked for us. After two years, we’re finally seeing the profits.”
Backing up their decisions with data and audience insights, he explains: “We obsess over our customers, and constantly think about what makes them tick, salivate, and want to make the final action to order our food or head down to our store for it.”