The Life Interview With Peter Teo

The Life Interview With Peter Teo: PS.Cafe co-founder went from fashion to food

These are the driving forces in the work of Peter Teo, a co-founder of PS.Cafe, which opens its eighth outlet today

The latest PS.Cafe outlet, which opens today, looks like a greenhouse that somehow found its way to the third floor of Raffles City Shopping Centre.

With its 7m-high, three-sided green wall, black-and-white awnings and lashings of dark wood, the 100-seat cafe is a handsome addition to the seven other PS.Cafes that serve Western and Asian bistro-style fare, as well as two Chopsuey Cafes that serve Chinese food with a Western influence.

A modest slab of cement with three handprints can be found on the premises of the newest cafe, just like in the other nine outlets.

Following their tradition, PS.Cafe co-founder Peter Teo's handprint is in the middle, flanked by those of the other two founders, Mr Philip Chin, 56, and Mr Richard Chamberlain, 53.

It is an apt allusion to the friendship that has underpinned the success of the popular cafes, which started as an outlet in a clothing store - Projectshop - helmed by the three of them 18 years ago.

Mr Teo, 53, is the trio's de facto spokesman since Mr Chin and Mr Chamberlain prefer to stay in the background.

Mr Teo says simply: "Richard and I do design. Philip and I do the food. I'm in the middle."

Mr Teo was a fashion designer in the early 1990s. Mr Teo (centre) with PS.Cafe co-founders Richard Chamberlain and Philip Chin in the early 1990s. Mr Peter Teo, aged about two, in the 1960s with his mother, Mrs Vera Teo, and sister Elizabeth.
My Life So Far: Mr Peter Teo, aged about two, in the 1960s with his mother, Mrs Vera Teo, and sister Elizabeth. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PETER TEO

New partners in the form of a private equity firm came on board 18 months ago to "future proof" the business and expansion is in the works, he says, dispelling market talk that PS.Cafe had been bought over, but declining to provide other details.

The seventh PS.Cafe opened in One Fullerton just a few months ago in August and there are plans to launch the first overseas outlet in Manila next year.

The cafes, which are a popular brunch spot, have always been known for their photogenic looks, years before Instagram became overloaded with #brunch.

This is perhaps unsurprising as Mr Teo and Mr Chamberlain, who is British and a Singapore permanent resident, trained as fashion designers.

Mr Chin, who went to law school in the United Kingdom around the time the other two were studying art and fashion at another university there, is in charge, among other things, of another hallmark of the cafes - their splashes of flora.

Still, Mr Teo politely but firmly rejects the description of their 10-outlet enterprise, which employs more than 200 staff, as a chain of cafes.

He says: "A chain suggests a link chain, boring, repetitious. We don't see ourselves as a chain. Every outlet is a unique outlet, an urban escape.

"We always say, 'same same but different'."

Showing a keen eye for detail, he speaks enthusiastically about the scallop-patterned floor tiles and the capiz shell chandeliers at the One Fullerton cafe, and the differences between vases at the Ann Siang outlet, styled after a New York speakeasy, and at the Palais Renaissance cafe, reminiscent of bistros in Paris and French-colonial Vietnam.

He acknowledges that "consistency" is one reason customers return for crowd-pleasers such as PS.Cafe's truffle fries, which he was inspired to put on the menu after he saw a similar dish on a trip to Las Vegas.

But he is slightly defensive about the cafes not being a foodie haven.

"It's not just about the food. We don't aim to be the place where a foodie would go to try out a chef's dish. We want to be easily accessible," says Mr Teo, who likes to eat PS.Cafe food and hawker fare such as wonton mee.

He adds that he and Mr Chin, a childhood friend whose brother dated his sister decades ago, have always been drawn to cafes, such as those at renowned St Mark's Square in Venice, where a sense of place is integral to why people keep returning.

An awareness of both food and fashion was part of Mr Teo's childhood.

His late Singaporean-Chinese father, who owned a quantity surveying firm, was a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomic society founded in Paris. An East-West hybrid dish of his, tomato chicken rice, was one of Mr Teo's favourites.

The fourth of five children, Mr Teo made dresses for one of his sisters from scraps of fabric. His Austrian-born mother, Mrs Vera Teo, 85, a long-time Singapore citizen, came from a family who had a textile business in the UK.

"I was enamoured of my grandmother's style," says Mr Teo.

When his grandmother visited from the UK, she sometimes made clothes on a sewing machine they had. She was elegant and immaculately coiffed.


An instigator of change

As a schoolboy, however, Mr Teo wanted to study at Rada, the famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, to become an actor.

He quips that he "exchanged occupations" with his schoolmate from Anglo-Chinese School, veteran theatre practitioner Ivan Heng, who was sketching fashion designs then.

Heng, artistic director and founder of local theatre company Wild Rice, remembers the pair of them walking around, with a certain freedom and swagger, in outfits they put together on weekends as "Far East kids", a phenomenon in the 1980s which saw fashionable youth thronging Far East Plaza and elsewhere in the Orchard Road area.

We choose everything, from the weave of the seat to the plant species on display.

MR PETER TEO, co-founder of PS.Cafe, on his hands-on style and attention to detail

Heng describes his old friend as having a "restless creativity" that crosses genres and he sees a sense of theatre in PS.Cafe. "The performance begins when you arrive in the space with its beautiful surroundings. Like a patron who goes to the theatre, you can have an experience there."

After his O levels, Mr Teo was determined to study fashion. His father objected, preferring him to go into a steady job in hotel management or law, but his mother fought for him to pursue his interest.

At Kingston Polytechnic, he met Mr Chamberlain, a fellow student. Renamed as a university in the 1990s, its alumni include British sculptor David Nash and Hong Kong pop star Eason Chan.

In his late teens, Mr Teo suffered back pains and, on a trip home when he was 17, he was diagnosed as having a tumour in his spine.

Although he says he does not regard the illness as life-changing, he required surgery and was exempted from national service.

After completing his studies at Kingston, he worked for several years in clothing firms in Paris and London, and designed children's wear and luggage at a lifestyle company in New York.

On another visit home, he found that the tumour had come back, which required another operation. During several months of recovery, he started sketching colourful T-shirts, the genesis for what would become Projectshop, a clothing line, which started in 1990.

"Singapore was one of the Asian Tigers. Everything was positive," says Mr Teo.

He and Mr Chin started Projectshop together and they were joined by Mr Chamberlain about six months later.

They each put in $5,000 and took a loan for the business, says Mr Teo. He says their aesthetic then was like the graphic elements in artist Keith Haring's work, but more "painterly".

Their clothing business grew to include more menswear and encompassed some 15 outlets and counters in Singapore and other countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, at its height.

They later started designing bags and accessories.

In 1999, they decided to open a small cafe, their first, and something Mr Teo and Mr Chin had always been interested in.

Blood Cafe was located in their Projectshop clothing store at Paragon shopping centre.

But by the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis was in full swing. There was a feeling of "the sky falling down", says Mr Teo, especially when their bank threatened to withdraw their credit facilities, demanding payment of more than $100,000 upfront.

Though he experienced sleepless nights, they weathered the crisis by managing their cash flow through various means, such as by asking suppliers to extend their credit.

Mr Chin credits Mr Teo with their making the leap from fashion to food.

"He has foresight and a good gut feeling. When the big boys like Zara started rolling in, other people may not have been brave enough to make the move. It's not an easy decision to change your business in your 40s," says Mr Chin.

"The impetus to make the change came from him. He's a leader in that way."

Mr Teo says they could not compete with retail giants who had lower price points. The food business also yielded more satisfaction than the fashion trade.

He says: "It was harder to please fashion customers. They might want a garment in another colour or feel it made them look fat. With food, people don't want you to change what you do.

"But we never really thought the cafe business would be the main business."

After Blood Cafe, the next PS.Cafe in Harding Road, which opened in 2005, had a garden-like feel and was inspired by Australian cafes.

It was booked for months despite initial hiccups when designing the space, such as erratic electricity, something hard to imagine in the still-buzzing restaurant enclave in the Dempsey area today.

Mr Chamberlain credits Mr Teo with always being on the lookout to "instigate change" and take the business further.

"He tends to be the person to find new locations for us. He likes to keep things fresh. He's collaborative and good at getting people on board with him to follow his ideas," says Mr Chamberlain, adding that Mr Teo's rapport with the staff has led to 18 staff members staying for more than 10 years with the company.

All three co-founders, who are single, say they have few disagreements and are tolerant of one another.

Mr Teo says: "I'm not lucky in love. I have great family, friends and business partners. I have a lot. I guess I've never prioritised relationships."

He says his long partnership and friendship with Mr Chin and Mr Chamberlain is "a bit like a marriage, just without the relationship part of it".

"The reason it works is that there was so much work to be done. One thing led to another," says Mr Teo, adding that their various businesses used to entail 12-hour days.

"It was exciting and we enjoyed it."

Mr Teo describes his creative and business ethos as organic. He says: "You try and recreate a picture of something you have in your mind that you can't find. You never really think of yourself as an entrepreneur."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'For the love of fashion, food, friendship'. Print Edition | Subscribe