To say that the past 18 months have been a rollercoaster ride for Mr Chua Ee Chien, owner of popular local cocktail bar Jekyll & Hyde, would be an understatement.
Like many other restaurants in the embattled food and beverage (F&B) industry, Jekyll & Hyde was hit hard by the pandemic.
As with many other establishments, during the Covid-19 restrictions, traffic from its regular CBD crowd slowed to a crawl and earnings dwindled, forcing him to shutter the Tras Street bar in May last year. Having just taken over the reins two years before in 2018, it was an especially tough decision.
When the 33-year-old first announced the bar’s imminent closure, there was an immediate outpouring of support from the community who loved its innovative bespoke cocktails. As a result, Jekyll & Hyde was able to tide itself over, and find a new home in a two-storey shophouse at Neil Road in June last year.
But when Singapore reverted to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) in July this year, restrictions kept diners at home once again. While sales stabilised in the last two weeks of August, Mr Chua remains cautious: “With the uncertainty of yet another lockdown happening, we’re starting to see dine-ins fluctuate.”
To stay afloat in the face of increased challenges, Jekyll & Hyde has had to continually pivot and reinvent itself over the last year.
The bar revamped its food menu by introducing updated local favourites, from chili crab nachos to Sakura Beef Char Kway Teow, delivered in wrapped opeh leaf. It bottled its popular cocktails for takeaway and deliveries, and sold Curry Fried Chicken from a cloud kitchen – a dish that was such a hit it was later added to its dine-in menu.
Wearing many hats
On top of setting the business direction of Jekyll & Hyde, Mr Chua holds multiple responsibilities in his life. In the evenings, he deals with the challenges and complexities of managing a bar during a pandemic. But come daytime, he is the director of Business Development and Partnerships at digital wealth advisor Endowus.
From a young age, Mr Chua has always been adamant about being defined by his own merit. He has racked up experience in companies such as Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, Uber and Grab, “all through hard work, and the kindness of others.”
Juggling multiple responsibilities is just something he takes in his stride. “It’s not easy,” he says.
“The reality is that I work from the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to bed. It’s tough sometimes, but you push through. It’s about having the fortitude that allows you to win the day, one day at a time.”
Mr Chua’s motto for mental resilience is “always be hustling” and to work hard and smart. It is an attitude he has carried with him through the years.
He explains: “When I worked at Uber and Grab, burning the midnight oil was the norm. I learned that I can not only work hard, but also do hard things. In the F&B industry, it means getting down and dirty, and doing what it takes to help your business survive.
“For example, when we became short staffed, I was at the restaurant every day after nine-hour work days for three months helping with service and managing the schedule. Whether it’s behind the bar or in the office, I make sure to always give it my all.”
Harnessing the power of tech to work smart
Mr Chua also believes in using digital tools to complement his hard work. “No matter how hard you work, not having the right systems or processes in place will hurt you. Putting in the right systems matters just as much, if not more, than working hard.”
Fundamentals, such as accounting, must be done efficiently. It was a piece of advice that his mother, a former accountant and auditor, gave him upon his acquisition of Jekyll & Hyde.
“At the start, we had a very messy way of tracking expenses and payments, and did everything manually – we dealt almost entirely with petty cash, including paying our suppliers with stacks of bills,” he recalls.
Upon his accountant’s recommendation, Jekyll & Hyde implemented cloud accounting system Xero, which allowed the business to streamline its financial workflow, and gain access to real-time visibility.
“The real-time tracking is invaluable in managing and understanding our cash flow. I don’t have to wait to see where we are in terms of expenses or our debt-to-revenue ratio. On top of that, Xero integrates with Stripe, which automatically records and reconciles every transaction we make,” says Mr Chua.
He adds: “With Xero, I can better understand where we are financially and make better business decisions from there. It changed our lives overnight.”
For new business owners, he recommends checking off these fundamentals on the to-do list. “Get a good accountant and accounting system first. Proper financial management is the foundation to success. You’ll never be a viable business owner in the long-term otherwise.”
Onwards and upwards
With tools like Xero to support his business, the go-getting entrepreneur is confident that he will be able to face whatever challenges that may come his way.
Mr Chua is currently working with business partner, the Mandala Group, to reopen a shuttered World’s Top 50 establishment, and has already set in motion plans to take Jekyll & Hyde to even greater heights.
“With Jekyll & Hyde, we are looking to scale to three or four different concepts. I believe that constant growth through experimentation is really one of the only ways to do well in this industry,” he says.
So while the past one-and-a-half years have been filled with ups and downs, Mr Chua has few regrets.
“Things will get tough, but if you avoid difficult things, great things will avoid you. You may wish you had never done it, but when it all comes to pass, the life experiences will be worth it.”