Merchant Stories: Real stories from real people – successes and struggles from the small business owner.
In an industry where 28% of F&B outlets close in their first year, The Wicked Garlic has survived 6 years. From a single stall in a Serangoon Gardens kopitiam, The Wicked Garlic grew to 3 full restaurants in 4 years – not just anywhere, mind, but, 2 in the CBD (Central Business District) and one along Orchard Road.
They must be doing something right.
From humble beginnings … (Via: The Wicked Garlic FB)
In an industry where restaurants compete using glamorous food photos on Instagram and sponsored blog posts from influencers, @thewickedgarlic has 29 posts in 6 years. Their Facebook page hasn’t been updated since 2018. Surely, that’s a (wicked) sin.
The biggest expense Wicked Garlic ever spent on marketing was $600 on flyers. Stanley, the owner, had opened their new branch at Clifford Centre in 2015, and thought he might need some flyers to lure people into his restaurant. Even his accountant was in disbelief. “Are you sure this number is right?” he asked Stanley.
Stanley laughed. His “marketing experiment”, he told me, was a big failure. Not only was there no change in the number of customers coming to Wicked Garlic, he had actually sacrificed restaurant efficiency due to staff having to distribute flyers instead of serving customers.
… to packed lunchtimes at International Plaza (Via: The Wicked Garlic FB)
Yet, in spite of this “lack of marketing”, Wicked Garlic has thrived. Delighted diners post pretty photos and rave reviews, recommending friends through word of mouth.
I reached out to Stanley to find out.
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5 huge King Prawns stared back at me. I had to gulp down my saliva.
I was sitting with Stanley at the Clifford Centre branch to have our interview.
Stanley isn’t your usual restaurant owner mold. It was obvious that he hit the gym quite a bit. “I gym to eat,” he joked. He was also easy-going and friendly, yet he possessed a level of fiery passion when it came to food.
“Go on, have a slurp of the noodles and try the king prawns,” Stanley encouraged.
I picked up the fork, twirled the pasta inexpertly and stuffed it inside my mouth. It was wondrous. I almost teared. Good, affordable pasta is difficult to find. But in front of me was one of the best pastas I’ve ever had.
The “how” had become apparent.
When the food is good, people rave. When the food is consistently good, customers stay. And tell all their friends. And keep coming back.
And that IS Wicked Garlic’s secret ingredient.
Not social media. Not a wide network of #influencers. Not the latest fad trend for brown sugar milk tea.
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You are now imagining the aroma when you unwrap… via iG
It was just that – consistent good food every single day, for six years and counting.
And that in itself is a huge struggle.
“Cooking delicious food for 3 – 4 people is easy. Cooking delicious food for 300 people every single day, and ensuring that it is the exact same every day, every month, every year… Now that is challenging. Every single day, we fight the battle of making sure the food that comes out is consistently good. The food you eat today will be the same you eat 3 months later. That’s what we’re fighting. That’s what we’re optimizing for.”
“And that is all I focus on. You only have 24 hours a day. You have to choose what to work on. So I chose to focus on the cooking process.”
Why Wicked Garlic’s Pasta is like the British Cycling Team
In 2010, Dave Brailsford was appointed the Performance Director for Team Sky, Great Britain’s professional cycling team, with one goal – win the Tour de France.
There was only one problem: no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France.
Dave believed that if he could make Team Sky improve every area related to cycling by 1 percent, these “mini gains” would eventually add up and turn into something huge.
This was his “aggregation of marginal gains” methodology: He began by optimizing the riders’ nutrition, training and ergonomics of bike seats. Then, he even went on to optimize “unrelated areas” like making sure the pillows they used were the best so they could sleep well, how to wash their hands to prevent infection, etc.
Foolish? Whoever won cycling competitions with handwash and pillows?
In 2012, Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France.Then, in 2013, Chris Froome won the Tour de France, the second British cyclist to do so. Froome went on to win again in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but his streak was finally broken in 2018 by Geraint Thomas, the third British cyclist to do so.
The streak was finally broken by Team Ineos, led by Dave Brailsford…oh. Via Wikipedia
But, okay, why are you telling me this story? And what has the British cycling team have to do with Wicked Garlic?
Because Stanley IS the Singaporean “Dave Brailsford.”
When Stanley said he focuses on optimizing the “kitchen process”, it wasn’t him blowing hot air. It wasn’t a “nice-to-have” while the kitchen ran amok during peak hours.
Optimization was an obsession. And he got the gains 1% at a time.
Coming from 7 years of work experience at Siemens (and 15 years total in telecomms), Stanley understood systematic improvement. He knew how to think in processes, and how to optimize them.
So, he applied all of it to Wicked Garlic.
He first optimized everything his chefs used. He tested different kinds of cooking pans to see which one cooked better and faster. He even tested the most optimal thickness required for the pans to be the best.
And this gorgeous Prawn Curry Risotto is the result. Via Burpple
After that, he optimized the rest of the kitchen. He looked at how the chefs could move without obstructing each other. He made sure the aircon vents weren’t directly pointing at the chefs, because the vents could cause a dip in pasta temperature, and cause the food to be done slower.
There was one time his supplier tried to cheat him by providing standardized pans instead of the carefully-measured thickness Stanley required. Stanley fired him.
Stanley also insists all his staff carry pens with them so they never have to scramble to write or check off stuff in their order chits. He even bought 100+ pens to place in the kitchen so no one could have the excuse of not having a pen.
And this fits in with their marketing philosophy – letting their great food speak for itself.
So, if you’re wondering how Wicked Garlic consistently churns out good, affordable pasta every single day, and how they could grow rapidly without any marketing…
There is your answer.
The Secret Sauce that drives Wicked Garlic
Stanley doesn’t like the limelight. When I first started the interview with him, he told me his rules: no photography, no audio recording, no video recording. Stanley doesn’t want to be recognized. You won’t find him on Google.
When I pressed him about Wicked Garlic’s future plans, he is coy. He doesn’t want to reveal them.
But why does he do all of this?
Is it growth that excites him? Is he trying to be rich? Does he have plans to conquer F&B in Singapore, and then France?
What drives his relentless drive for quality and improvement?
I don’t know for sure, but there is a small story we can tell.
One weekend in November 2017, The Wicked Garlic ran a charity drive over a weekend, and donated all the proceeds to the Make-a-Wish foundation. On one day in November, the entire restaurant shut down for something very special.
S is a 13-year old girl who loves playing masak-masak and dreams of becoming an Italian chef making pasta, pizza and cakes. She also has a terminal diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
“Her story struck a chord with me,” Stanley revealed.
So on one day in November, Stanley, the boss of Wicked Garlic – the private, analytical, process-optimizing boss, the one who even analyzed aircon vents and pan thickness for his chefs – shut down his restaurant for a day and helped a little girl fulfil her dream of being an Italian chef at Wicked Garlic.
In his 2018 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos shared a quote about efficiency:
In contrast, wandering in business is not efficient … but it’s also not random. It’s guided – by hunch, gut, intuition, curiosity, and powered by a deep conviction that the prize [is] worth being a little messy and tangential…Jeff Bezos
Wicked Garlic know exactly where they’re going.