Taking the F&B route and sticking with it

Running a food stall is tough, says Tan Hock Soon, but he's not giving up on trying to find a way to scale up his business.

ASK Tan Hock Soon what the toughest part about being his own boss is in the food and beverage (F&B) industry, and he will tell you that his job is not glamorous at all.

"In F&B, it's long hours. Your body must be able to get used to standing about 10 to 12 hours. Everything is repetitive so you have to cook 200 bowls a day. We have to do everything. We wash the rubbish bin when nobody sees it after closing. The weather also affects us. If it's too hot, people stop coming," Mr Tan told The Business Times in a recent interview.

The founder of Ramen Taisho, he has had a food stall in Maxwell Food Centre selling ramen for two years. He runs the business with his wife, Kalene Chung.

Before he moved to Maxwell Food Centre, where rental is now about 70 per cent lower, he was operating a stall in a food court in Clementi, and that compelled him to improve his standards of cooking ramen.

"We chose Clementi because they offered us a lease of one year. I was thinking: Why not tie myself down (for) one year... I'm quite grateful to them. If not, I would have given up. Because of the contract, we just go on."

The entrepreneur revealed that of his many business ideas, including introducing soda machines for home use, Ms Chung only approved of starting Ramen Taisho.

Before that, the pair went into a nail art business that eventually became an online business. However, sales took a hit when Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba dominated the online retail market.

Mr Tan said the sales volume has dropped 90 to 95 per cent since four to five years back. Although it is not their primary focus, the two are still continuing the nail art business.

"We're doing 5 per cent of what we did 12 years ago."

He has been doing research on ramen since 2013, and was inspired to go into this via previous trips to Tokyo, where he met one of his mentors. He has another mentor in Osaka.

It was also in Tokyo that he decided on the name of his stall.

"When I was in Japan, the first place I went to was called "Taisho". It's my friend's apartment so I just took (the name)."

To manage his startup cost, he turned to government grants including those from the Productivity and Innovation Credit Scheme, that funded about 90 per cent of his cost to buy machinery, and SkillsFuture Singapore.

He said his noodles are "almost sold out" every month, and he records about S$20,000 to S$25,000 in sales a month. On a good day, he and his wife can make a maximum of 180 bowls of ramen.

When they were in the Clementi food court, they made the ramen and the broth themselves. At present, due to space contraints of their stall in Maxwell, they have outsourced production of the ramen - according to their specifications - to a contractor.

Mr Tan said that it takes at least one to two weeks to make what goes into a good and tasty bowl of ramen that he sells at S$7.80, as the seasoning requires time to produce the correct flavour.

Most of his customers used to be office workers but that has shifted to mainly tourists who make up the dinner crowd.

Still, he feels that he is making too little profit each month and is not in favour of his son taking over the business.

"We are making about S$6,000 in profits so I don't think I want my son to do this. We're hoping something else will happen, like if we can scale up the business," he said.

His son, aged 20, is training with the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre, otherwise known as Shatec. He is planning to go into the hospitality industry.

Despite the hawker culture's lack of glitz and glamour, Mr Tan is not giving up on trying to find a way to scale up his business.

For example, he has used online channels to get more visibility. Ramen Taisho has started to tie up with food delivery apps such as WhyQ and Plum, and also has a Facebook page, but he doesn't think the latter is effective enough as promotions on Facebook are one-off and he can't get enough customers who will return.

Another approach he is considering is getting investors to come on board.

"We are not looking at just money. We want someone who can help us scale or see something in this business that I don't see. His experience or connections might help us. We've been approached by some people... but it's not really suitable."

BT understands that the parties that have approached him are well-known food groups from Japan and Hong Kong.

Mr Tan is aiming to open other outlets or restaurants in a few years' time, and that will be funded from his savings. He might consider investors if they "agree not to interfere with the operations".

Looking back and considering his family and the risks he took to start the business, he said with a hearty laugh: "I was afraid of course, but I like to be afraid."