2 years of Covid-19

'It was do or die': F&B business owners revived burger brand during pandemic

Joanne Toh and Shaun Leong, of Wildfire Burgers, knew they had to rebrand when sales at their former outlet made just $2,000 in April 2020 ST PHOTO: SAMUEL ANG

SINGAPORE - Ms Joanne Toh, 29, and Mr Shaun Leong, 36, are co-founders of The Hey Co, which runs two Wildfire Burgers restaurants on the Nafa campus and in Keppel Road, 8 Korean BBQ at Shaw Centre, Lil' Tiger cocktail bar and restaurant at Robertson Walk and Maki-San at Kampung Admiralty.

Ms Joanne Toh: Overnight, it was bloodshed at Cluck Cluck, our fast-casual restaurant at the Nafa campus serving fried chicken and waffles, and pasta. It catered to students, who were no longer attending classes in school because of the pandemic. For the whole month of April 2020, our sales was $2,000.

I remember very clearly May 9, the day we were offered the opportunity to revive the Wildfire Burgers brand, which had been dormant for about a year. On May 11, we decided we had to go for it, it was do or die.

In 20 days, we turned Cluck Cluck into Wildfire. We did everything ourselves - no contractors were working. I remember eight men had to carry the 500kg Inka oven into the restaurant. We hung the signs ourselves. We painted the logo onto the wall. If you go there, you'll notice that it's egg-shaped, not completely round.

In those 20 days, we retooled the menu, did tastings, got the suppliers for ingredients. Wildfire's menu was humongous but we narrowed it down to five burgers and fried chicken. We wanted to do it well and do it properly.

I also wanted to offer Burnt Cheesecake. I was never into baking but at the time, I was making eight cheesecakes a day for R&D. I must have gone through more than 50kg of cream cheese. It was sold out everywhere because everyone was baking. My dad went to a few Phoon Huat outlets to buy it for us.

Then we opened for delivery and takeaway only. Other restaurants had to pivot to that, we were the opposite - we had to prepare for dine-in when it was allowed again.

Business dropped by 95 per cent at our Korean barbecue restaurant. The main attraction there is barbecuing meat at the table. We focused on stews, bulgolgi and bibimbap for delivery and takeaway but it was not the same. Thankfully, there were government grants we could apply for to help us through.

When dine-in was allowed again, we were booked out for two weeks. Diners flooded into Wildfire too. Thankfully.

Lil' Tiger, which we opened in February last year, was the most challenging. Things were quite good at first. But it's a drinking place, for socialising. With no-music and diner restrictions, it was like working with no arms and legs.

We had to do deliveries to keep afloat. We bought a canning machine so we could sell cocktails in cans, and we set up a delivery-only brand called Darjeeling Social to sell Indian food. Why Indian food? We like the flavours, and curries and biryani are very deliverable.

Now, with music, and easing of curbs, we're seeing reservations for bigger groups and people who want to book the place for events.

Mr Shaun Leong: We decided to open the second Wildfire in Keppel last October because we saw a demand for the food. It had a slower start because there could only be two diners at each table at the time. It's more drinks-focused and because there was no music, it took longer to build the business.

Ms Toh: Covid-19 renovations are a... different experience. Contractors and workers come down with Covid-19, materials cost more, logistics issues.

And in the midst of renovations for Keppel, we were planning a wedding.

We got married last September in Jewel Changi Airport. They say we were among the first five couples to get married there. We could have only 100 people and the list kept changing because guests would come down with Covid-19. There was a surge of cases then.

Oh, and we had 12 safe distancing officers looking at our wedding - six at each entrance.

When flights opened up to London, we went there for our honeymoon in late October. It was liberating - our first time travelling in two years.

Imagine, we watched a soccer match with 60,000 people, nobody wore masks and we came back safe and sound.

Mr Leong: I thought I was Iron Man.

Ms Toh: Then on Good Friday week, after dinner at a friend's place, we both came down with Covid-19.

I still have brain fog from it. I know what I want to say, it's at the tip of my tongue, but I can't say it.

On the first day Shaun started working out again after Covid-19, he had to take a two-hour nap. But I'm glad we didn't lose our sense of taste and smell.

Mr Leong: We are now looking for good locations with good rents and good landlords for new projects. Whatever new concept we decide on, there must be delivery and takeaway. That's one of the things we learnt.

We have had to be very adaptable and flexible. Instead of dwelling on factors we can't control, we focus on what we can do.

And once you decide to do something, you have to drive it through.

Ms Toh: Resilience. You have to have a lot of resilience.

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