By Raphael Lim
btnews@sph.com.sg

Singapore

IN a country known globally as a foodie’s paradise, aspiring restaurateurs in Singapore often look to distant shores to bring new exotic flavours to the market.

Not for Ven Chin and Ricky Shawn Lim, co-founders and executive directors of GD Group.

The duo decided to look closer to home – to Penang, near where Mr Chin was born – when developing a concept for their new chain of restaurants.

“We knew we had to be different, because if we sold Japanese or Thai food, the landlord would not want us as we cannot fight the big chains,” Mr Chin said. “When I first came here, I missed home food a lot, I realised there was not much Penang food or Malaysian food at that point in time.” 

With around a quarter of those living in Singapore having ties to Malaysia, the company decided that Penang hawker fare would be in strong demand, Mr Chin,who is now a Singaporean, added.

They opened their first Gurney Drive restaurant – named after the popular food street in Penang– at Jubilee Square in 2010 to positive reviews from the media.

In the five years since, the company has expanded across the island, with seven outlets under various brands. Its eighth outlet is scheduled to open in October, and revenue is expected to grow 37 per cent this year to S$14.5 million.

Director of franchise and marketing, Petrina Tan, said: “The idea is that we first try to grow in a way with brand proliferation in a particular segment, so that we are truly the market leader where Penang food is concerned.”

 In addition to Gurney Drive, the company has three other brands – Penang Culture, Mamak Culture and Penang St Buffet – which come at different price points to diversify their offerings and cater to a wider market.

Entering the food and beverage industry did not come easy for both Mr Chin and Mr Lim. Both had been in stable careers, before deciding they wanted to do something different.

Mr Chin left a high paying job as an actuary to become a restaurant manager at Fish & Co to gain experience in industry.

“I came in for a reason, to learn so that I could start my own business, that’s the main objective,” he said, adding that his motivation was to generate passive income for himself.

After a year at the restaurant, he joined Polar Puffs & Cakes, where he met Mr Lim, a former regular in the Singapore Armed Forces. For Mr Lim, the decision to run a restaurant came in his military days.

“After seeing one of my seniors who had to continue working after retirement age in the army, driving taxi to fund the kids education, I felt I did not want that to be my situation,” he said.

From the beginning, the company knew that its food needed to appeal to Singaporean taste buds. At the same time, it had to maintain an authentic Penang flavour to keep patrons happy, Mr Lim said.

The co-founders took several trips to Penang to better understand the offerings there and came back with ideas for their menu.

They partnered head chef, Wong Thin Lipp, who worked as a hotel chef for over a decade, to create a menu suitable for local tastes. The approach spawned traditional hawker fare as well as novel dishes – including crab meat and salted egg fried kway teow, and tom yam seafood rice – that have become favourites among their patrons.

Penang Culture, which launched in 2012, was the group’s first Halal-certified chain. “We started off with Penang Culture, and now, we have made all our brands halal,” Ms Tan said. “We spent a lot of time trying to replicate the taste without using pork, and when we turned halal, our sales increased by about 20 to 40 per cent.”

Besides its menu, GD Group focused on other ways to scale up business quickly and profitably. Mr Chin tapped on his analytical finance background to write a program, which helps staff monitor the daily costs of running a restaurant.

“For every outlet, the outlet manager sees the numbers on a daily basis, which means on a daily basis you know how your utility bills are going to turn out at the end of the month, so if you need to arrest something, you arrest it now versus waiting to the end of the month,” Ms Tan said. “That allows our staff to have more empowerment and control.”

To retain manpower, GD Group has options for employees without higher education to pursue a diploma in hospitality to upgrade their skills.

The company also sends managers for courses on coaching to better guide junior staff.

“When you (promote them), they still need that set of soft skills to handle people,” Mr Lim said. “You need to create a leader in a person, and it takes time to build this up.” 

The company also focused on kitchen processes to ensure consistent quality. It decided to rely less on individual chefs – common in Asian restaurants – and used a Western model where kitchen staff are rotated across various roles.

GD Group outsources a central kitchen that prepares the sauce used in all its outlets to keep the taste consistent and the business scalable.

Mr Chin said: “Next year, our target is to buy (a central kitchen) and operate it ourselves, so with the central kitchen, we can supply sauces to all existing outlets as well as overseas expansion.” 

The company is keen to expand overseas with possible joint ventures or franchises in Indonesia, Hong Kong and China, although there are no firm plans currently.

Having its own central kitchen will also allow the company to venture into the catering business, something that customers have been asking for. It plans to start “in a big way” within the next two years, Ms Tan said. “The big advantage of catering is you don’t have to be concerned over rentals.” 

In the next five years, the company plans to grow by another 10 to 15 outlets in Singapore, with new concepts in the pipeline.

Mr Lim said: “We are already very good at this, so what we can do is to adapt (our processes) here to go into other cuisines.”

* This article first appeared in The Business Times"