Big, bold and beautiful. It’s not just how the gourmet sandwiches are like at Park Bench Deli, but the founders’ story too, which was where the entire operation started.
What are Merchant Stories?
Merchant Stories: Real entrepreneur stories from real people and why they started their small business. Successes, failures and struggles from the small business owners.
We’ll let the story do the telling. This is the story of how some friends went looking for trouble and founded Park Bench Deli
Focusing On The Founders’ Individualities
Opened in July 2015 by Aamir Ghani, Andrei Soen and Ming Tan, the cafe started with the trio looking to themselves first before thinking about the rest of the world. They drew on personal styles, inspirations and backgrounds to create a business that’s more than just a fancy joint but one that encapsulates who they are as people.
Hailing from Alberta, Canada, Aamir (whose background is in management) practically grew up in a deli his parents owned, while Andrei (the former co-owner of The Cajun Kings) spent his early years in America, where sandwiches are diet staples. Ming (the former head chef of Lolla), on the other hand, offers a Singaporean perspective.
What came out of the initial collaboration between chefs Andrei and Ming was a gourmet interpretation of their favourite comfort food – sandwiches – transforming them into sinful, over-the-top dishes that pay homage to the classics.
“The food we make is an exploration of who we are.”
It is a case of East meets West, of culinary finesse served with a side of swag and skateboards
This means seeing a Fried Chicken sandwich made of boneless chicken thighs marinated in buttermilk, and a PB&J slathered with thick, crunchy peanut butter between two slices of cornflake crusted milk and chocolate bread on the menu.
As Aamir says, “The food we make is an exploration of who we are.”
This is how Park Bench Deli rose through the ranks, offering customers not just kickass food but a dining experience that’s revolves around their street-style brand.
Ming has since left the enterprise, but Aamir and Andrei continue to dominate the scene with their big personalities and even bigger plates.
“Andrei’s like the HYPEBEAST of the family, and I’m kind of the old-school punk-rocker,” Aamir shares. “We both have a very deep relationship with our subcultures. We are very much a by-product of what we listen to, where we came from, and who we are, and all that’s really important to us.”
Building A One-Of-A-Kind Brand Identity
A distinct identity that’s reflected in every aspect of the business, the cafe interior is even decorated with painted portraits of the founders and a few personal items such as skateboards as well.
Partnering with Foreign Policy, they created an eclectic space with wood-panelled walls that extend to the ceiling, monochrome patterned tiles, industrial-style furniture, a splash of blue on one wall, and a feature wall on the other with overlapping posters that echo the colourful disarray of inner-city streets.
The same team helped build Park Bench Deli’s brand identity, which is all about being boisterous, unapologetic and gregarious. It’s also about being playful and occasionally sticking it to the man.
“We’re not going to make fancy food. We’re going to make who we are.”
Aamir tells me, back in the day, they were invited to participate in Savour, a local fine dining festival. “It was a pretty high-end restaurant-y thing. We ended up making our famous PB&J. The reason we did it was we wanted to take the piss out of the event a little bit. We’re not going to make fancy food. We’re going to make who we are. And it went crazy!”
Staying true to themselves has earned them quite a following – one that consists of clowders of the coolest cats and like-minded individuals who are attracted to the unfettered authenticity Park Bench Deli offers.
Their natural charismas and characters come through in their marketing approach as well, which focuses on storytelling on a personal level. While their strategy includes partnerships and events, their focus is largely on social media marketing.
“Everything goes through our Instagram and Facebook pages. We’ve always been built through a ‘social media’ kind of society and community, and it’s also where our demographic is,” explains Aamir.
The Lesson Learned: Outsourcing Social Media Marketing
In the early days, when they were still figuring those platforms out, Park Bench Deli engaged three separate companies at three different times to manage their social media pages. But none of them worked.
They were either too inexperienced to handle such an “ambitious” project, or too unfamiliar with the brand itself to capture it perfectly. One company wanted the food to take centre stage in every post, but “when you see too much of the same thing, people kind of ignore it… it’s overkill,” says the co-founder.
So, they removed the middle man and took matters into their own hands – a method that’s proven successful.
“When people develop brands, they don’t build enough depth within the brand to actually tell a story. When we develop a brand, it has to tell a story, it has to have a human connection to it.”
Aamir adds: “If you have a very clear understanding of your brand and that company doesn’t have that relationship with it or doesn’t know how to connect with that kind of identity, then it’s very hard for them to try to push it into the market.”
Now, with their Instagram page solely managed by Andrei, they’ve come a long way to understand how to engage viewers within such a densely populated sphere.
“It’s not about pretty pictures. It’s about the story that’s being told through pictures.”
“It could be two friends hanging out in a corner and enjoying themselves. It could be somebody cooking. It could be about a skateboard sitting and leaning against a table. There’s always elements that tell you something much more holistic about the brand, and there’s where the power of marketing becomes stronger because your story is getting stronger, you’re utilising the platform in the proper manner and people are just engaging a bit more. They’re interested in what comes up next.”
In the end, effective marketing hinges on a strong brand identity and the understanding of it. It’s why Park Bench Deli doesn’t spend a lot on marketing, says Aamir. “We’d rather put more money into our brand,” the place where it all began, where everything goes back to.