SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Anyone who has tried will know that opening a new restaurant is hardly a wallet-friendly affair. Especially in Singapore, the typical investment for a casual eatery easily climbs to six figures - and that is just for the set-up.
Add on monthly operating costs for manpower and notoriously high rents, plus a middling economy, and it seems that most new entrants are doomed to fail before they even begin.
But there are more than a few determined F&B entrepreneurs who will not be cowed, and are instead pursuing less risky ways of entering the market with their new concepts.
Rather than set up a cookie-cutter cafe or juice bar, 34-year-old Jake Chia wanted to fry things his way with Wok Hey, a little kiosk in the basement of Bugis Junction. Here, you get zi char but with better quality ingredients, delivered in a convenient takeaway box.
Besides a lower capital outlay, Mr Chia sees a demand for good takeaway food as families get smaller, with fewer people cooking at home.
"For a full-fledged restaurant in a shopping mall, the rent would be a killer," he says. "Add full service staff - they aren't easy to employ. Here we have a small team so our prices can be affordable."
About the zi char concept, he explains, "It's my comfort food - I'm not the type to enjoy too much pizza and salad. And it's hard to find good zi char unless you're willing to spend at places like Crystal Jade or Din Tai Fung. The other option is the coffeeshop kind with frozen mixed vegetables."
Wok Hey fills this gap, with favourites such as fried rice or noodles made with Japanese rice, ramen or udon. Starting at S$5 for egg fried rice, the salad bar-like set up lets you add your choice of protein - chicken, beef and prawns, or vegetables.
A cheaper set-up has its own challenges, namely space. Cooking a la minute creates a tight squeeze, so "we make our frying area as efficient as possible to fit three chefs," says Mr Chia. "It's specially customised so everything is within arm's reach. We're also exploring productivity measures like incorporating orders and payments through iPads."
He hopes to scale up by replicating the kiosk elsewhere, but a proper restaurant set-up is also a possibility.
"We've had feedback that people want to sit and have a quick meal. We're looking at how to make it cost effective for us and the customer. If we had more space, we'd like to add new items to the menu, but we have to anchor this concept first."
Tried and Tested: From kiosk to restaurant
Wok Hey can take a leaf out of burger joint Wolf's book. Its owners started with a stall at Pasarbella in Suntec City, selling their affordable range of burgers - handmade with Australian beef - for about a year before opening a full-fledged eatery at Changi City Point.
"Wolf was always built with expansion in mind, from the beginning," says co-founder Soh Wen Ming, 34. "Now that we know we can run the kitchen, our next challenge is bringing that same passion into curating a whole new space and experience."
It took them a while, but they took their cue from sales at Pasarbella. "Ours is one of the busiest stalls at Pasarbella, sometimes going through 300 to 400 burgers in a day."
He hopes this will prepare them for the new outlet, which has over 50 seats in total, with an expanded menu that includes their signature S$9.90 Wolf burger and upsized Alpha burger (S$14.90).
"The existing products have not changed, but we've introduced new burgers, including a fish burger which we couldn't do in Pasarbella because of an unspoken rule that you don't make something that's too much in competition with somebody else. But here, we finally have free rein," he says.
Pop-Up's The Way
Kiosks and stalls are not the only way to test out a dining concept. Restaurateur Loh Lik Peng of the Unlisted Collection has converted two of his existing restaurant spaces into pop-ups for the same purpose.
One of them is the rustic French restaurant Cocotte at Wanderlust Hotel. After head chef Anthony Yeoh left the group in January, Chef Andrew Baldus from sister restaurant Meatsmith launched a pop-up called Meatsmith X Cocotte. This three-month stint will end in April, and it combines the American BBQ element from Meatsmith with Indian flavours - inspired by Cocotte's location in Little India.
If it works out, it may pave the way for a permanent second outlet for Meatsmith, says Chef Baldus. "We wanted to see how we would do with a second outlet, setting up procedures and all. Each new opening has its challenges, but having procedures in place definitely makes it a bit easier for when we finally find the right location for another outlet."
New dishes at the pop-up include butter chicken wings (S$10, instead of buffalo wings) with a coriander chutney, and a Kingfish collar with coconut sambal and eggplant (S$18).
The same strategy is in place at Restaurant Ember in Keong Saik, when Mr Loh recruited chef John-Paul Fietchner and sommelier Sally Humble to revive it for the last few months of its lease. It had been closed for a while, but re-opened last week as November, helmed by the duo who were previously from Thirteen Duxton Hill and Lume in Melbourne.
"Ember was closing and John-Paul and Sally became available at the same time, so that was serendipity," says Mr Loh. "We didn't need to set something up from scratch to test their concept."
Not that this is going to be their strategy moving forward. "We'd only do this if kitchens become available because of changing concepts or chefs leaving. Setting something up from scratch to test a concept would defeat the purpose. But taking on a new chef and a new concept can be quite a punt, so pop-ups are a great way to test them out."