Most chefs would say that they have always dreamt of opening their own cafe or restaurant — but not Mr Charles Tan. The 28-year-old behind the popular local ice cream parlour, Fatcat Ice Cream Bar, is what you might call an “accidental” entrepreneur.
After graduating from Temasek Polytechnic’s (TP) School of Business with a Diploma in Culinary & Catering Management in 2012, Mr Tan worked in the kitchen of the erstwhile two Michelin-starred Restaurant André for several months before deciding that it was not his cup of tea.
At around the same time, he discovered the joy of making ice cream from scratch. Together with his siblings, Mr Tan — who professes an interest in dessert-making and used to bake cheesecakes for class gatherings in his teens — devoted the next three years to honing his craft. Finally, in January 2015, Fatcat Ice Cream Bar opened its doors.
On the other hand, Mr Jeremy Han, 27, has always known that he would one day start his own business. At 14, he had already decided that he would be a chef after being inspired by his mother’s and grandmother’s cooking skills.
Like Mr Tan, Mr Han also holds a Diploma in Culinary & Catering Management (2012) from TP. Upon graduation, he took a year to convince his parents to let him pursue his dreams. Eventually, they relented and have been extremely supportive ever since.
Today, he is the founder of The Burning Oak, a hawker stall in Bedok that specialises in premium Japanese-style yakitori.
Grooming budding entrepreneurs
For both Mr Tan and Mr Han, the training and support from their alma mater played a key role in their entrepreneurial journey.
Mr Tan explains: “TP gave me a good, holistic grounding in restaurant operations — from culinary training across cuisines and basic patisserie skills, to front-of-house training as a service provider.
“I also found the training programmes conducted by TP’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Department (I&ED) useful. We were taught to think like business owners and come up with business proposals. Our lecturers — all industry veterans — weighed in on our proposals and provided tips to help improve our chances of success. Along the way, I picked up essential skills like creative problem-solving, as well as how to overcome failure and build confidence.”
And when Mr Tan found himself deliberating over new business ideas, he turned to his former lecturers for advice.
“A few years back, I wanted to create a dessert that involved spherification — a molecular gastronomy technique — but wasn’t sure if customers would take to it. My lecturers helped me analyse the possibilities and advised me to occasionally take calculated risks as an entrepreneur,” he adds.
So, he went on to create Lime Mojito Sphere, which has become one of Fatcat Ice Cream Bar’s signature desserts today. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder for Mr Tan to courageously follow where his creativity leads.
Mr Han, too, values the tremendous encouragement and mentorship that his former lecturers continue to provide — particularly when they accommodate his schedule outside their working hours.
For most entrepreneurs, it would be ideal to have a safe space to explore and develop new food and beverage concepts before bringing them to the market. And that is where TP’s SPROUT — an incubation testbed within the campus — comes in.
In Mr Han’s case, SPROUT has enabled him to incubate concepts that he would otherwise face a higher risk executing in the current market, and also “helps mitigate factors such as rent, manpower and marketing, which are critical factors that make or break a new business”.
Both Mr Tan and Mr Han are currently testing new ideas at SPROUT — the former with a homemade bubble tea shop called MĀO Milk Bar that specialises in unique creations like durian pearls, while the latter is working on FUMÉ (pronounced “few-mee”) to showcase his charcoal-grilled "cai png" (rice with dishes) concept, where he reinvents ingredients like vegetables and pork, and churns them out as Kimchi Cauliflower Gratin and Grilled Pork Collar, respectively.
Future-proofing its graduates
For the past decade, TP has been gearing towards equipping its graduates with enterprising skills and an entrepreneurial mindset with its I&ED programme.
Mr Samuel Ang, director of I&ED, says: “In today’s workforce, being innovative and enterprising are almost prerequisites for any job. These skill sets are highly sought after across all industries and disciplines. This programme aims to help students develop core skills such as the ability to translate innovative ideas into reality to help them stand out from the crowd.”
In the last three years, the department has consolidated its efforts into the creation of Temasek Launchpad. This all-encompassing ecosystem includes various programmes, spaces, resources and facilities — all designed to promote and support innovation and entrepreneurship.
For example, all TP students undergo ‘INNOVA’, a core subject that helps them develop innovative mindsets. Additionally, students have access to facilities like Makerspace+, which provides cutting-edge equipment for aspiring creators to tinker with prototyping or product development.
According to Mr Ang, Temasek Launchpad has since supported close to 200 start-ups at different stages of their growth to date.
“Most notably, an alumni team recently won the grand prize at the ASEAN-Korea Startup Summit, where 1,600 promising start-ups from 11 countries came to compete and showcase their business ideas.” he adds.
What it takes to be an entrepreneur
It has been almost five years since Mr Tan and Mr Han started their respective ventures and neither shows any signs of waning enthusiasm. The key, it seems, is to find joy in what you do, despite the toil involved.
Says Mr Han: “Being an entrepreneur paints a rosy picture of money, fame and success, but it is far from it. The journey is one of self-discovery — you’ll come to experience jubilation, sorrow, angst, comfort and regret. It requires a lot of hard work, dedication and passion, so you have to love what you do. If not, there is no point in doing it.”
Concurring, Mr Tan adds: “It’s easy to think that the grass will be greener on the other side, but you really need to have self-motivation and solid work ethics. Things like punctuality, discipline and organisation are lessons that I took away from school, and I’ve found that they are just as important when it comes to being a business owner.”