“To have a million-dollar food and beverage (F&B) enterprise”, Mr. Benny Se Teo shared right from the get-go, “one needs to start with a billion dollars”. Speaking at “In Search of Purpose” – a session organised by the Central Singapore Community Development Council – his point was clear. The F&B industry is hard, and as a social entrepreneur the founder and CEO of restaurant chain Eighteen Chefs has to possess the business nous. Hearing his experiences in person for the first time, I was most struck by Mr. Teo’s pragmatism.
As a social enterprise Eighteen Chefs hires ex-offenders and youths-at-risk, who make up 25 per cent of his headcount.
His story is well-documented. Because of his addiction to heroin he spent 10 years in and out of the prison and the rehabilitation centre, and following his fifth release in 1993 – after rejections from six job interviews, with his criminal record – he “got a job that did not require an interview”. He bought a motorbike and pager to become a dispatch rider, and by 2000 he had his first business in the courier industry. A Chinese restaurant in 2005 was his first F&B venture, but he eventually joined the Apprentice Programme at celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, before opening his first Eighteen Chefs outlet at Eastpoint Mall in 2007.
In this vein there were five perspectives (including a titbit) from the talk:
1. First an enterprise, then a social enterprise. Social enterprises balance the creation of economic and social value, yet Mr. Teo made it clear that he was first and foremost “a businessman”. He spoke of the measly SGD$20,000 of monthly sales at his first 689 square feet outlet at Eastpoint Mall, when he was “technically bankrupt” – owing large sums of money to different individuals, including his landlord – in 2010. At the present moment, he hires “the best people in the market … paying them well with five-figure salaries to focus on the organisational structure, technological infrastructure, as well as finances”.
The enterprise must be profitable. “Too many aspiring social entrepreneurs leverage on the social aspect, forgetting that to do a good business they have to help themselves first, before helping someone else”.
“It is not about how many beneficiaries we help, and we do not have key performance indicators since we do not have funds from the government”, Mr. Teo continued. He emphasised that Eighteen Chefs – unlike the aforementioned Fifteen – was not a charity which could rely on donations. Likewise the label of the social enterprise per se cannot be used to draw sustainable crowds to the different malls across Singapore.
2. The turnaround. The first eight months were difficult, yet there was growing acceptance from the other tenants and the community in Simei. “My daughter will be very safe in your restaurant”, a lady said when she was planning the birthday party. Since then Mr. Teo has gone on to open seven more outlets in Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Panjang, Bugis, Jurong, Orchard, and Serangoon, two of which are franchise establishments, picking up awards along the way.
He also revealed that monthly sales at each location now exceeds SGD$200,000, a tenfold increase since he first began.
3. The yellow ribbon remains a stigma. “If patrons come to Eighteen Chefs because it is a social enterprise, I will not be happy”, Mr. Teo mused. “They should be coming for the food, for the location, for the ambience”. He explained that marketing the restaurants as a social enterprise was not an effective strategy, that the yellow ribbon project – which rehabilitates and heightens acceptance of ex-offenders – could stigmatise instead, and that reintegration of ex-offenders would accelerate if the government hires these individuals more actively.
4. Challenging times for F&B businesses. Another quote Mr. Teo made time and time again was that “if one wanted to destroy the lives of enemies, one should ask them to start an F&B business”. It has been “very tough”, and if he could start again he would not run a restaurant. Mr. Teo explained the high rentals, the difficulty of hiring staff members (even with job fairs in the prisons – a “previously untapped resource” – and door-to-door recruitment), as well as the economies of scale of food costs (a kilogram of mozzarella cheese would cost SGD$18.50 for one or two establishments, and just SGD$8 for a larger number).
He warned audience members against F&B endeavours, arguing that “after entry into the industry, one will not be able to leave for years”.
5. His love for Indian cuisine. Even though he serves fusion food in his restaurants and cites molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal as his culinary idol, Indian cuisine remains his favourite. “I can make a mean saffron rice and wicked curry”, he revealed. When he was young he had an Indian neighbour, and was not only inquisitive about curries but also keen to replicate these dishes.