It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: First the Roost, then the world

Eatery boss plans to go global with the world's first automated poultry cooking machine

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Alson Teo built a successful institutional catering business with a turnover of $22 million. After a business setback, he decided to focus his energies on creating a machine which could cook Singapore’s national dish chicken rice.

The bigger the tree, so the Chinese proverb goes, the more it catches the wind.

Mr Alson Teo will tell you that the saying holds true. About 15 years ago, he was standing tall in the institutional catering scene in Singapore.

Then only 33, he owned Stamfles, which ran about 35 corporate canteens providing thousands of meals daily, employed 500 people and enjoyed an annual turnover of more than $20 million.

Things changed when Stamfles scored a coup and won a plum contract from a big multinational corporation. It prompted a larger international rival to launch separate lawsuits against Mr Teo and eight of his staff accusing them of, among other things, corporate espionage and stealing trade secrets.

It took him more than three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight the case. The court ruled in his favour but Mr Teo paid a heavy price.

Now 48, the entrepreneur was forced to sell the company he built to a Britain-based food service group.

"A lot of people didn't know about my legal woes and congratulated me on the sale. But I was crying inside," he says.

But any bitterness over the episode is long gone. If not for what happened, he says, he might not have what he now hopes will take him global: iKook, the world's first automated poultry cooking machine.

Mr Teo is hoping his latest idea, the iKook, will help him go global. The iKook is the world's first automated poultry cooking machine. The contraption cost him more than $1 million and took 10 years to develop. It can poach, braise and sous vide chicken and other poultry, and helps lock in nutrients and flavours. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

The contraption cost him more than $1 million and has taken 10 years to develop. It can poach, braise and sous vide chicken and other poultry, and helps lock in nutrients and flavours.

Sous vide is a cooking method that involves immersing vacuum- sealed food in a water bath at precise temperatures.

The iKook can cook 10 birds in 40 minutes and is the star at Roost, an eatery Mr Teo opened in Centrepoint five months ago. It serves chicken rice and other South-east Asian dishes.

Mr Teo is now in talks to export both the iKook and Roost franchise to food operators in six countries, including China, Australia and Britain.

The food and beverage industry has fascinated Mr Teo for as long as he can remember. The fourth of five children of a car dealer and a housewife, he grew up in a rented one-room flat in Toa Payoh.

As an eight-year-old, he ran his own "restaurant" at home.

"I'd set up the dining table, borrow cutlery from neighbours, fry eggs and make friends pay 40 cents for the experience. Oh, and they had to bring their own egg," he says.

Although business was brisk, he had to shut it down because the parents of his patrons wised up to his shenanigans.

"They were wondering why their kids were asking them not just for money but also eggs. It was such a lousy deal for them," he says with a laugh.

Next, he started getting soon kueh from a supplier near his home and peddling the steamed Chinese dumplings after school and on weekends. To gain an edge over his competitors, he got his mother to make a special chilli sauce to go with the dumplings.

His family, he says, used to have big cookouts on Sundays.

"Preparations would begin on Saturday. I loved the smell, the hard work, the process of preparing the dishes that we enjoyed. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be in this trade."

At 15, he started working, first as a dishwasher and later as a waiter, at Swensen's, three or four nights a week.

"It was my choice. I was never interested in books and studies. I wanted to experience life," says Mr Teo, who was a Normal Stream student at the now-defunct Whampoa Secondary School.

After completing his national service, he went for food and beverage studies at the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (Shatec) in 1989.

Mr Alson Teo (left) at a food and beverage fair during his Shatec days. The F&B industry has long fascinated him. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALSON TEO

Upon graduation, he worked for a year as a restaurant manager at Swensen's before joining an international institutional catering company. His duties included running a staff cafeteria on Pulau Ayer Merbau, an island that housed petrochemical facilities.

"I was then living in Hougang. Every morning, I had to wake up at 5am and catch the first ferry from Pasir Panjang to the island. It was a touch-and-go situation every day," he recalls with a grimace. Because getting to work proved too exhausting, he decided to stay on the island. The storeroom became his bedroom.

He says: "There was nobody around at night, except for the security guards. So, in the evenings, I'd just do my paperwork and learn to cook. It was a bit creepy. I'd tune in to a Mandarin station on my radio but it would get changed to a Tamil one every night."

Working on the island was like being in the army, he says. "I'd book out on Saturday afternoon and go back to the island on Sunday evening."

In less than a year, he was promoted and given a company car.

Although the pay was good, the work was gruelling. Six years later, he quit. "I was burnt-out. I spent one year soul-searching. I was probably a bit depressed," he says.

A year later, in 1997, he received a call from a former client.

Mr Teo told him he was no longer in the business, but the client offered him a contract, worth about a million dollars, and told him to start a company.

"It wasn't my plan to start a business," says Mr Teo, who borrowed the use of his sister's office and plonked $20,000 of his savings into starting Stamfles.

"I thought I would happily service just that one account but other people started calling. By the second year, I had a second contract," he says.

By the fourth year, he was doing so well that an international player flew him out to Hongkong, put him up at the famed Peninsula Hotel and offered to buy his company.

He declined the offer, and continued to grow the company over the next couple of years. By 2002, Stamfles was pulling in $20 million in revenue.

The company scored a coup by landing a huge contract but ironically, it also triggered a nightmare.

A big international rival that had expected to be awarded the contract launched separate suits against Mr Teo and eight of his employees in the High Court.

"I had to decide if I should defend or indemnify my staff. The lawyer told me that if I did, and if we lost, it would be the end of me," he says.

It took him a few nights to arrive at the decision but in his heart, he knew what the answer was.

"I told the lawyer I would take on everything. One of the things I've learnt about entrepreneurship is that you also have to be a leader to your men. Our livelihoods were at stake. I didn't want to be called a coward for the rest of my life."

Tears start welling up in his eyes and he pauses to compose himself.

"I didn't tell my wife. I told her only that I was defending myself," says Mr Teo, who was by then married with three children.

His wife is a systems analyst. Their twins - a boy and a girl - are now 17 and the youngest, a boy, is 15.

It was no small undertaking. The legal fees for the case - which dragged on for nearly four years - amounted to nearly $50,000 a month. In less than a year, his savings were depleted. "I had to sell the business to raise funds," he says.

He sold his majority stake in Stamfles to Britain-based food service group Compass in 2004. About five years later, he sold the rest of his stake. Compass, however, allowed him to take the Stamfles name.

"The moment they came on board, I knew that no matter what happened to me, the company would still go on," he says.

Ironically during this period, Mr Teo and Stamfles won several honours, including the Rotary SME award in 2003, and the Enterprise 50 award in 2003 and 2004.

His nightmare ended only in 2005, when the High Court threw out an appeal by the plaintiff after the first ruling.

One of the people Mr Teo defended was Mr Steven Lim, who was Stamfles' assistant general manager at the time.

"I'm grateful that he helped to indemnify us. All of us felt that we didn't do anything wrong," says Mr Lim, 50, who is now Stamfles' vice-president for the production kitchen.

The unhappy chapter in his entrepreneurial journey prompted Mr Teo to think of a new scalable business model, one that was not so reliant on staff and chefs.

While on a trip to New York in 2003, he chanced upon a Krispy Kreme outlet in Wall Street.

"It was a Sunday and Wall Street was very quiet except for this outlet. There were only two staff members serving a steady stream of customers. I peeped into the kitchen and saw a machine churning out doughnuts," he says.

It sparked off an idea to use automation to internationalise Singapore food. When he came home, he talked to the late renowned chef Toh Thian Ser, whom he had persuaded to join Stamfles.

Mr Teo (left) with the late renowned chef Toh Thian Ser, whom he persuaded to join Stamfles. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALSON TEO

"He took a long time to be convinced but I told him I wanted to plant his brain into a machine and replicate his culinary skills to every part of the world. And I wanted to do it with chicken rice because it's the national dish of Singapore."

Discussions to design the iKook started with engineers, says Mr Teo, who also worked with design and technology experts from the National University of Singapore as well as the Food Innovation Resource Centre.

The first prototype took two years. "Chef Toh initially didn't really buy it but when he saw the prototype, he started to really believe in the project. Unfortunately, he developed stage four colon cancer but he was working on it until he took his last breath in 2006."

Mr Teo says: "It made me think, 'What would you want to spend your last breath on?' I want to spend it doing something I really believe in."

The iKook went through another five iterations before Mr Teo rolled it out.

Since getting his Stamfles trademark back, he has devoted all his energies to developing the world's first automated poultry cooking machine.

The company - which currently employs 80 workers and has an annual turnover of about $6 million - still does institutional catering but on a much smaller scale.

"In two months, we are also starting an e-commerce platform for on-demand food, targeting corporates and households," he says.

When asked if he wished life had turned out differently, he shakes his head.

Things, he says, happen for a reason. "I wouldn't change a thing."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline It Changed My Life: First the Roost, then the world. Subscribe