Western food stall The Original Botak Jones returns to leave a legacy in spite of Covid-19 pandemic

Mr Bernie Utchenik, with his wife, Madam Faudziah Mohd Ali, both directors of The Original Botak Jones.
Mr Bernie Utchenik, with his wife, Madam Faudziah Mohd Ali, both directors of The Original Botak Jones.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Since Western food stall The Original Botak Jones opened in Telok Blangah two weeks ago, the response has been overwhelming for the brand's founder Bernie Utchenik and his wife Faudziah Mohd Ali.

Queues snake all hours of the day, often past the stall's two-hour break at 3pm. Mr Utchenik, 68, says in amazement: "How the hell did we touch people so deeply that we still have a queue during a pandemic? I'm astounded."

Delivery and pre-orders have been put on hold till the crowd stabilises, says the Detroit-born Singaporean, who started Botak Jones back in 2003 in Tuas.

The brand is best known for its hearty American comfort food served in generous portions.

The menu, printed on bright yellow paper in casual Comic Sans font with quirky descriptions, features bestsellers such as Cajun chicken (from $7.50) and fish and chips (from $8). More premium dishes include Norwegian salmon fillet ($18.50) and rosemary lamb chops (from $22.50).

Mr Utchenik has been getting requests for the return of his "labour-intensive" stuffed jalapenos and intends to add new items to the menu.

But he is also wary.

"I don't want to fall into the trap we had at our peak of 13 outlets. About 60 per cent of our central kitchen was just making side dishes and that is not very cost-effective," says Mr Utchenik.

He now takes on a consultant role to provide the recipes and train staff, while his wife runs operations at the Muslim-owned stall. It is pending halal certification.

The brand's return is together with two new silent partners. The couple are directors and minority stakeholders.

Investors took over Botak Jones in 2011 and Mr Utchenik sold his shares in 2013. He then bought over the Botak Jones outlet in Balestier and reopened it as BJ's American Diner and Grill, which was later renamed Big Bern's American Grill.

The last two Big Bern's outlets - located at Timbre+ and Gluttons Bay - closed in April and May respectively.

He decided to revive the Botak Jones brand with new partners in end-April, when checks showed that the name was available for use.

This comeback, he proclaims, is about preserving a legacy. He calls being in the food and beverage scene a "terrible addiction".

"You've done something notable and, hopefully, it lasts longer than your whole life. Our partners truly believe in the brand. We want people to know that it's not changing hands again; it's the same people who started it."

Well aware that they are operating in a different, virus-ridden climate now, the F&B industry veteran remains hopeful despite tempered expectations.

"It is a different era now. We have ghost kitchens and islandwide delivery. People have had a year to get used to delivery and we took a 90 per cent decrease in business during the circuit breaker. This is round two, and we'll see."

The Original Botak Jones

Where: Yue Hua Eating House, 118 Depot Lane; open: 11am to 3pm, 5 to 7.30pm, Wednesdays to Mondays, closed on Tuesdays
Info: WhatsApp 8826-2335 or go to the Original Botak Jones' website