73@Hillcrest is a very special place.

By day, it operates like a heartlands coffeeshop, selling Chinese, Japanese & Western cuisine, along with local coffee, or kopi. By night the regular stalls are boarded up and it transforms into a bistro and pub, serving its famous ribs, pasta, steak dinners and wine.

Its food looks and tastes great, with gushing reviews and positive reviews on various foodie blogs for its food and service.

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73@Hillcrest’s food featured by famed local food blogger ieatishootipost

But that is not the most interesting part about it.

The Hillcrest/Greenwood residential estate is affluent, composed of families and expat professionals. With limited public transport links and low population density, it’s a difficult location for restaurants to thrive in, even as 73@Hillcrest celebrates its third anniversary.

But even that is not the most interesting part about it.

73@Hillcrest is owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team. When we sat down for a chat with owner Boon, we noticed small touches of community about the place; there were posters for upcoming events, like Sunday Talks, Thursday Night Singalongs, and even a ‘Bless Another’ meal.

In the hour or so we spent chatting, people in the neighbourhood stopped in to offer Boon a wave and a chat, almost like greeting the pub landlord or the village elder.

Clearly, 73@Hillcrest is not like any other restaurant you’re familiar with; it’s a lesson in how to build a community while still running a successful F&B business.

They even managed to reach 1,000 regular customers on Candybar in just 4 months. That’s an incredible, record-setting pace!

But for now, let’s take a look at how 73@Hillcrest is going beyond the restaurant business and building a community.

A panorama during a Bless Another “Pay-it-Forward” Event (via 73@Hillcrest Facebook)

A Meeting Place for the Community

Amid a row of fine-dining fancy restaurants, 73@Hillcrest is the most relaxed, welcoming option. Boon explained that he set out to create a place where people could come together in a casual environment.

People come here for the super-relaxed, casual environments. Families can just put on their slippers and walk here. There’s no need to dress up or feel pressured to look good; they can come as they are.”

And indeed, it seems to have worked. While the other places were mostly empty during our afternoon interview, after the lunch crowd, 73@Hillcrest was bustling. An office executive on his laptop sipped his coffee and loosened his tie to relax in between meetings. Workers laughed and joked over their tea break in the corner. Two students sat in their uniforms discussing their projects. A couple came to sit al fresco while refuelling on toast. It felt like a communal living room the entire neighbourhood.

Boon has his ways of being a social mixer and connecting people.

What makes us different is how we put people at ease. You can come here and be yourself and laugh, you can talk across tables, you can go around and make friends. I see it all the time.

All I have to do is to say ‘Hey John, this is Peter. Peter, that’s Jane.’ I say it, and then I walk away, and I know they will strike up a conversation.”

Boon doesn’t have to introduce people; he wants to, and he enjoys it. When he had just started 73@Hillcrest, he spent more time to consciously spark discussions and introduce people. It gave the morning regulars and the evening stalwarts a reason to drop in, find a familiar face, and come for a chat. And the results?

“At first they used to sit alone, now they all sit together.”

It is because of regulars and the sense of community that the Thursday open mics/ Sing-Along Sessions started. Someone came up with the idea in conversation, one of them asked Boon, and suddenly it was a regular thing. Enthusiasts started bringing their own keyboard, guitar, amps and speakers, and all of a sudden there was a community and a highlight of the calendar. Boon says all he did was create a space where this was possible; the community added its own character.

The same thing happens on Tuesday evenings, where regulars formed a drinking community around their mutual appreciation for fine alcohol, deep conversations and bonhomie.

“It’s why my customers call it the village pub. It’s literally a community centre.”

Serving Other Communities in Need

The strategy, Boon explains, is to connect people to build communities, and then connect communities to help others. Boon sees an opportunity to serve as a connector, connecting the affluent families in the neighbourhood with the needy underprivileged.

For example, the Bless Another meal came from a desire to ‘pay it forward’. Boon reaches out to communities of the elderly, at-risk youth and migrant workers, and provides meals from 73@Hillcrest’s kitchen to these groups, some of whom would not otherwise step into the bistro.

“Some of them, especially the elderly, may never have had a burger before or eaten with fork and knife. Not all, but for some of them, it’s their first experience.”

For their first experience of ‘Western Food’, , they would be trying out some pretty well-reviewed food for their first time.

Previously, Boon explains, they had experimented with larger scale events, but it was difficult to balance convenience and accessibility with the logistics of catering and the effectiveness of marketing.

The next step is to try outreach again on a smaller, more personal scale, like sponsoring a single household or a small group of foreign workers.

“The hope is that they will take the relationship out of this place, and they can visit [the people they help] once a month.”

We are only a platform to enable connection. We can’t manage every relationship; we can only raise awareness and encourage people to participate.”

Boon reveals that the goal of 73@Hillcrest has always been to serve communities, and to become more than a transactional restaurant, serving as a platform and meeting ground for the community.

“It’s always been our aim – I wouldn’t say focus,” confesses Boon. “Because it’s really difficult to run an F&B business.”

 

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Brisk business for the bistro at night. (via 73@Hillcrest Facebook)

Finding his own community for support

I spent over 20 years in the software industry, working for software giants. That was tough, but nothing is tougher than running an F&B business.”

The journey has not been easy for Boon or his family. While there is a burgeoning community now, it took plenty of time to get it off the ground. Boon has since cut back to four days a week, but in the beginning, he was around morning and evening to welcome in families, strike up conversations and manage the operations.

It takes time away from his children, who understand his hard work, but also get to see him less. And, of course, he can’t simply have family time at the restaurant — he would be too busy, everyone saying hello or coming to have a word with the pub landlord, interrupting his quality time.

Restaurant marketing is also another aspect that takes time. Boon personally manages the various social media platforms and 73@Hillcrest’s digital presence on Instagram and Facebook, as he wants to get the tone of voice exactly right. He tried working with agencies, but they just didn’t get the tone right; he wants to be warm and inviting for future guests.

Part of his technique for managing stress is to delegate and trust his team. By choosing what to focus on — and avoiding micro-managing his employees — he takes on less stress for himself.

He has also used his knack for community-building to start a small support group of eight-to-ten professionals in the F&B space. They share tips on good suppliers, industry news and government grants, and even pass along opportunities, like corporate bookings or catering jobs.

“It can be very lonely and stressful – your family won’t understand your struggles if they’re not in F&B. But at least, as part of a group, you give each other encouragement and you can help solve problems.”

“It’s very difficult. The busiest days are Saturday and Sunday – and then Sunday ends and it’s Monday. The work, the stress – is endless.”

The group commiserates and understands the same struggles that Boon is going through. And in doing so, they offer belonging and encouragement for him as he continues on his journey.

How to build a Community: Why 73@Hillcrest is More Than a Coffeeshop-Bistro

Boon has plans to continue growing. He has ideas for marketing through WhatsApp and SMS, and is considering special offers like Tuesday burgers and Wednesday ribs. After having accumulated more than a thousand regulars on the Candybar loyalty app, he has plans to reach two thousand at a faster pace.

And he hopes to be able to do more for the communities he works with.

 

Darren Foong

Posted by Darren Foong

Darren works on Growth at Candybar. He spends too much time reading fiction, performing improv, and doing things that don't scale. One day he hopes to be quite interesting.