Opening a business during the circuit breaker

(From left) Entrepreneurs Desiree Jane Silva, Jay Gray and Abhishek Cherian George set up the Sago House cocktail bar in the midst of circuit breaker.
(From left) Entrepreneurs Desiree Jane Silva, Jay Gray and Abhishek Cherian George set up the Sago House cocktail bar in the midst of circuit breaker.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Tucked away on a third-floor shophouse opposite Smith Street Market, Sago House harks back to an American speakeasy from the 1920s.

While business at the new cocktail bar is going strong now, this was not the case in April last year, when founders Desiree Jane Silva, Abhishek Cherian George and Jay Gray tried to get their brainchild up and running amid tightening public health restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Silva, 34, said: "My initial reaction when the restrictions were announced was extreme sadness. George was more level-headed - he reasoned it was good the restrictions were announced before we opened up. Or else we might have had to shut down a few days into operations."

The idea for Sago House started when Ms Silva and Mr Gray, 31, chanced upon the shophouse unit about two years ago.

Teaming up with Mr Cherian, 35, the founders built upon their initial idea for a small-scale joint to host friends and family, finally deciding on an intimate, unpretentious cocktail bar with a focus on building lasting relationships with patrons.

The founders, who are seasoned practitioners in the food and beverage sector, built the bar by hand with the help of YouTube tutorials and upcycled materials.

Mr Gray is a former regional brand ambassador for whisky Monkey Shoulder, Ms Silva worked for craft spirits distributor EC Proof and Mr Cherian also owns cocktail bar The Spiffy Dapper.

Their experience motivated them to start a venue that was personalised and friendly.

Mr Gray said: "We're detail-oriented towards our guests. If you come in once, we're going to make sure you have a good time, and remember what you dislike because we should never have to ask you more than once. If you hate gin, I should remember that you hate gin."

While the circuit breaker dampened their spirits, Ms Silva said it gave them time to pause and reflect on how to reach out to customers and build their brand.

"After a month, instead of waiting around for the restrictions to lift, we decided to start selling canned cocktails. It was intense because it was just Jay and I prepping and bottling and canning as George had to look out for his other venues," she said.

Through word of mouth, Sago House's canned cocktails started making waves among customers as novel drinks that could be enjoyed in the comfort of home.

Sago House started full-fledged operations after the circuit breaker ended in June last year.

Accommodating a limited number of patrons, the bar runs on a reservation-only system, which has only helped to heighten its allure to Singaporeans looking for new experiences after being sequestered at home during the pandemic.

Looking back on the journey, Mr Gray, Mr Cherian and Ms Silva say the efforts to keep pushing on despite the pandemic have paid off.

"We had been so focused on just finishing up the venue that we did not market the bar yet. So because we pivoted to canned cocktails, we were able to reach out to customers," said Mr Gray.

Mr Cherian said: "That time period gave us the opportunity to prime ourselves for when restrictions were lifted. The circuit breaker was all about keeping afloat and building our name."