Tim was the classic “Singaporean ah beng” story. He skipped school, smoked, skated, and had poor grades. At a young age, he was already condemned to be someone who will “never amount to anything in his life.”
Only if he had let them.
Today, Tim, together with Rebekah (his girlfriend) and Ryan (and 2 others) are the founders of Food & Friendship, a bespoke canapes catering company and The Palmary, a fusion restaurant located in a 3-storey shophouse at Owen Road.
I reached out to Tim to find out more about his journey — and what he had learned so far building 2 fast-growing food companies.
In our conversation, he told me an unusual story that left an indelible imprint on my mind. In fact, I think it’s a story with a lesson that can be applied to anybody, not just someone who’s running an F&B business.
This is his story.
Like many, Tim had always harboured a dream to start his own restaurant
While Tim never excelled with his grades, he was good with his hands, especially at cooking. He had previously graduated from Shatec with a diploma in Culinary Skills, harbouring a dream of setting up his own restaurant.
But, after several years of working, he had brushed his dream aside. Besides, who was he to try and set up a F&B business?
He had no experience setting up a restaurant. He wasn’t qualified, like you know, Marco Pierre White qualified. Sometimes, a dream is just a dream. Right..?
Rebekah encouraged him: “If it’s a dream you want to pursue, go for it. It’s not going to be easy, but you have to try it at some point of time.”
At that time, Tim met a fellow co-worker, Ryan, who also had dreams of entering the F&B industry. Tim had sounded him out with a few casual chats and confirmed his interest.
But, neither of them had any experience setting up a restaurant, nor did they have enough money. Their research into the F&B industry had given them an estimate of how much they should have before they started.
And it was exorbitant.
To start and sustain their restaurant, they needed at least $500,000. The problem is – they didn’t have that kind of money.
Not anywhere close.
Their dream was dead even before it began.
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“You want to start a F&B business, right? I’ll give you a launchpad. On the day this place launches, Prime Minister Lee will be here. I need you to cook for him and 250 other people.”
Just when Ryan, Rebekah and Tim were dejected over their F&B dreams, hope arrived.
One of Tim’s contacts happened to be someone important in a GRC, and they wanted to revamp their community center. They wanted to build a kitchen studio where they could conduct larger-scale culinary classes.
Knowing that Tim had previous experience working in kitchens, she hired him to be their kitchen consultant, and then uttered the quote above.
The greatest opportunity in the world had landed onto Tim’s lap, completely out of luck. Whilst many people would have chickened out due to the stress, Tim knew this was his chance. The day that he would be able to make it has arrived.
Without hesitation, he said yes.
On the 1st of August 2015, Timothy, Rebekah and Ryan (operating as Food & Friendship) served canapes to Singapore’s most powerful man, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the new kitchen studio.
The launch was covered by Singapore’s largest media channels, Channel 5 and Channel 8, with explicit coverage of Tim showing PM Lee around the studio. Then, to Tim’s surprise, PM Lee posted a shot of both of them together on his Facebook Page, crediting Tim and Food & Friendship.
Even before PM Lee began actively encouraging the new generation to build their own businesses, he had given someone the chance to build one.
That one opportunity gave Tim everything he needed to successfully launch Food & Friendship. The coverage led huge corporate brands like OCBC, Burberry and Credit Suisse to approach them for their corporate events.
Food & Friendship quickly became a success — giving them the capital to set up a restaurant. And the Palmary began.
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The Palmary grew surprisingly fast. They set up a restaurant, hired a executive chef, a bartender, a restaurant manager and other staff. Customers were streaming in, despite their “poor” location at Owen Road.
On the outside, The Palmary looked like a restaurant ready to stay. Everything looked well.
The restaurant had moved so fast that he didn’t have time to stop and think about what he was doing. And because it was the first time he had sank so much money to open a restaurant, he started becoming paranoid and calculative.
He started becoming what is commonly known in the industry as a…
Tim was rigid, strict and fearsome. He had adopted the stance of his previous manager who used to work in the banking and finance sector. He had began expecting employees to work their hardest and sacrifice their personal time.
Even Rebekah was pleading with him to be kinder to his employees.
But Tim didn’t heed the warning.
He had put in the money, and now, he wanted the ROI back.
“Boss, you know there are some nights I feel very sad when I go home.”
He realized that, if his attitude went on, he would lose all of his employees.
He says: “These are people that make my business tick. These are the people that make my business work. If I were to lose them, what’s going to happen? I can’t run the floor and the bar and the kitchen all the same time. Yeah, this is something that I cannot do.”
Tim discovered the biggest mistake he ever made in his life. As a boss, he wasn’t the most important in the business.
The rest of the employees were.
Everyone he hired were experienced F&B staff. While you could argue that he had the foresight to hire the right people, the opposite was also true.
Since they were all so experienced, they could walk away anytime and get better, high-paying jobs elsewhere where they were treated better.
Instead, they chose to stick with him. They chose to put in their blood, sweat and tears to help The Palmary grow.
But here was Tim. Arrogant, fearful and strict.
“My chef James, he’s been in the industry for such a long time. He could take up an offer somewhere else for 3 – 4X more, easily. Because he’s so wanted. But… he chose to stay with me with whatever I could pay him. Same for my restaurant manager Jane, and my bartender Damien. Somehow along the way, I lost track of the fact that all of them, they actually are giving up something really huge in their lives, to be a part of my life. To be a part of the dream that I have.”
Tim realized his mistake, and then decided to do something unheard of.
He sat every employee down — and apologized to them one by one. He had to swallow his ego, and listen to the terrible things he did. It was, in his words, “a very humbling phase” in his life.
He asked about how he was and how he treated them. Then, he had to listen very painfully to every single story about what they had to say, and how he was as a person and as a boss.
“It was a tough period of time, because I had to, I had to hear them tell me in my face like, “Boss, you know there are some nights I feel very sad when I go home.” Yeah, it’s, stuff like that.”
It hurt. But it was necessary.
The heart of Palmary are its employees. Each and every employee was an individual with dreams, goals and responsibilities. They could have left anytime they wanted.
In fact, it was actually Tim’s job to help them stay and serve his mission.
“So I was so hard-up about this kind of stuff that, I forgot that the heartbeat of the business is actually people. It’s not so much how much I care about the nitty-gritty like, “How much money am I going to get back?” all that kind of stuff. Because it’s the people who are going to be the face of the business. It’s the people who are going to sell the joy of the business, sell the love of the business. It’s these are the guys who are, I would say, going to make or break our brand now. That’s how important you all are to me.”
“I’ll take you to the top with me.”
Today, The Palmary is doing well. At the time of writing, Tim told me they had been booked by Facebook Singapore to hold their annual get-together.
Not only that, they had been invited to participate in GastroMonth, a month of gastronomic enjoyment and celebration of the culinary arts in Singapore. For the first time ever, The Palmary’s food will be showcased alongside several notable Michelin-starred restaurants, with names like Joël Robuchon, Shoukouwa and Chef Kang in the mix.
But most importantly, Tim’s message to all business owners still stands:
“Because, at the end of the day, it all boils back down to the same thing: that we are not an army camp. This is a business. Anybody can leave at any point in time, if they all want. It’s how, it’s a growing process for an employer and a boss … on how you are going to retain your staff. Some use it by force, some use it by just giving money. But they also mess up the human side. We are just trying to be able to match things up, as things go along. The one thing we’ve always said to all of our staff is that, we really appreciate you all for all that you have done for us. As our brand grows, we will be sure to take you all to the top with us.“