Even Rasel Catering has had its bad bets

RASEL Catering generates millions in turnover these days, but it has had its share of bad bets and low periods. 

In 2003, the homegrown caterer tried its hand at operating restaurants and opened two outlets. Rasel's co-owners, Alan Tan and Chris Loh, soon realised it was "a different ball game" from the catering industry. The venture also coincided with the Sars outbreak that year. 

The two restaurants were shuttered a year later. Mr Tan, who is managing director, and Ms Loh, the company's creative director, took such missteps in their strides and continued toiling for the business.

In January, they told The Business Times that the group's combined turnover was on track to cross S$10 million in the 2018 financial year. It's no easy feat seeing as they had plunged into the catering business in 1997 with just four people, including themselves, and minimal knowledge of the food industry. The two were formerly financial consultants. 

The Rasel co-founders tell how the business came about, and the ups and downs they have gone through.

How did you get into the food catering industry?

Alan: Chris and I were talking over lunch one day when we saw a man carrying lunchboxes and thought, "this could be an opportunity for us".

I believe in this Chinese idiom, "公字不出头" (gong zi bu chu tou), which means you will never strike it big if you keep working for someone. Another Chinese idiom, "衣食住行" (yi shi zhu xing), spells out four major industries that the Chinese believe will never go bust: clothing, food, housing and travelling. There will always be demand for food; it’s a never-dying trade.

We had two options: open a restaurant or go into catering. We decided on catering as it is a more proactive approach in bringing food to customers compared to operating a restaurant, where you are passive and wait for customers to come to you. As a caterer, there is also more free play involved because you have to market your services and products.

What motivated you to start up Rasel?

Alan: I like challenges and it would be hard to find a job that will allow me to satisfy this hunger. 

Chris: I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Since I was young, I've helped out in my dad’s business and that influenced me and other aspects of my life.

How much was invested into Rasel at the start and when did you break even?

Alan and Chris: Over S$1 million was invested initially and we broke even in three years.

What do you think was your worst bet for the company?

Alan and Chris: Venturing into restaurants in 2003, as it was a different ball game compared to the catering industry. We were also hit by the Sars outbreak back then.

It was a learning point for us and we've become more prudent in investments since then. 

And your best?

Alan and Chris: As part of our expansion plan, we acquired Purple Sage, a non-halal premium caterer, in 2015 to expand our portfolio. It has allowed us to penetrate the market further and capture both the halal and premium non-halal segments successfully.

What are some of the skills that you have had to develop and that you think are most crucial to your role?

Alan and Chris: Some of the skills are prudence and negotiation.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far, and why?

Alan and Chris: We consider Rasel our greatest achievement as it has generated a safety net not only for our families, but also for our team and their families. We're proud to have taken the business this far with our employees, especially with those who have been with us for a decade.

In addition, we are very happy that our staff feel a strong sense of belonging to the company and our partnership has survived the turmoil of the initial years setting up. 

Could you talk about a challenging moment in your work or in your career and how you managed to overcome that challenge?

Alan and Chris: When the Sars outbreak caused business to dip in 2003, we tried many ways to keep our company afloat. Not everything worked and we met with one financial setback after another. It was a roller-coaster ride, but we worked harder instead and kept the business going.

When you are not working hard in the office, where are you to be found?

Alan: I can be found serving at the Rotary Club of Singapore, where I've participated in initiatives such as a literacy programme for needy kids in Indonesia. 

Chris: I have a keen interest in high fashion and interior design. I also travel for inspiration and dabble in oil painting, sculpturing and stained glass painting. These interests have influenced my approach to the aesthetics Rasel Catering Singapore and Purple Sage offer.

I'm also a member of the Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers.