Breaking the mould
DAWN Lim may run what she calls a karang guni business, but don't expect to see the 27-year-old former air stewardess patrolling neighbourhoods in a pick-up truck and tooting her horn.
Rather, this young entrepreneur has started Cafe Karang Guni, specialising in buying over second-hand equipment from food and beverage (F&B) outlets, and selling them to new or existing entrants in the industry.
"My love for the F&B scene in Singapore is what draws me to this trade. I often see outlets close down after just a couple of months of operating, and their almost-brand new equipment, furniture, and flatware become worthless overnight. But to many other restaurants, these items are actually of some potential use," says Ms Lim.
"Especially with this manpower crunch, getting a combi oven or dishwasher could help by cutting down the need for extra labour, but some small outlets might not be able to afford a brand-new machine. A second-hand one, on the other hand, is still attainable for them," she notes.
Life as a karang guni woman can be just as unglamorous as it sounds, too. A typical day in Ms Lim's life is often spent running around visiting outlets, hopping into lorries to pick up and deliver equipment, and overseeing the washing and sanitising of whatever she buys.
On top of that, getting her hands dirty by visiting grimy, abandoned kitchens to inspect her purchases has also become quite the norm for her.
"I still remember seeing a pot of fried rice that had turned green after being left in a kitchen for two months. Getting used to the nasty stink from closed-down outlets is part and parcel of my work," she says with a laugh, adding that it's probably why young Singaporeans prefer to stay away from her trade.
For Ms Lim, it all started when she was an F&B operator herself, having started Singapore's first DIY pancake cafe, Nook, in 2012. Though she sold the business earlier this year, she got the idea for Cafe Karang Guni while operating Nook and coming across young aspiring F&B owners along the way.
Ms Lim recalls: "I remember this girl who closed down her outlet after just four months, and she asked if I could buy over her equipment in order to minimise her losses. So I did, then I kept some for Nook and sold the rest to my F&B industry friends."
From there, she started observing the industry, and noticed "a boom in the cafe scene where youngsters and non-veteran players were jumping onto the F&B bandwagon".
So Cafe Karang Guni was born a year ago, to try and help recycle some of the expensive equipment and provide a more affordable alternative to start-up eateries.
These days, Ms Lim notes that at least one eatery closes every two days or so - be it a cafe, restaurant, or hawker stall - while openings happen around three times a week.
She explains: "It's pretty worrying. Restaurants and cafes are closing down increasingly faster than before, and the market is definitely less optimistic due to things like the manpower crunch."
Her advice? "To enter F&B, I feel it's very important to do due diligence and your homework well. Making sure you have enough cash flow is very essential, as overspending on the initial set-up could well result in the downfall of an outlet," she concludes.
Putting his best foot forward
WHILE other men his age obsess over football, whisky, and watches, John Chung has a rather different obsession - shoes. And not just to wear, either. Instead, the 24-year-old spends his days running Mason & Smith, a shoe-shine bar located above a bar in Boat Quay, which specialises in leather care and shoe-shining by hand.
"Shoes are quite an intricate product if you study them closely. We wear them almost 90 per cent of the time except maybe at home, so they are so closely connected to our lives that it makes a lot of difference whether you have a good pair of shoes or not. They affect us intrinsically and that's an aspect I enjoy studying," he explains.
His obsession started about three years ago, when he did some travelling close to the end of his National Service, and decided to buy home some second-hand vintage shoes from around the region to sell at a local flea market. From there, he hatched an idea to develop a shoe-shine business, and operated a small shoe-shine stand at Marina Bay Sands for about a year. Along the way, the Victoria Junior College alumnus gave up a spot in a local university to pursue this passion, and eventually got the opportunity to share his current 1,000-plus square foot retail space at Boat Quay with local bespoke tailor and designer Kevin Seah.
Every month, Mr Chung shines no fewer than 200 shoes for his clients, and he says this number is increasing as Singaporeans become more affluent and concerned about leather care. "We're seeing a revival right now even though it's not really in our culture to shine shoes. But there's a growing number of Singaporeans coming forward to take care of their shoes because they are purchasing good-quality shoes. It's the same as handbags - when you purchase a Prada or Chanel you would want to take care of that," he notes.
Mr Chung admits Mason & Smith's services are not cheap, however - they can range from S$30 to a couple of hundred depending on what needs to be done. Its signature Smith Shine, for instance, would set you back S$50 and involves vacuuming the inside of the shoe, dressing the edges, oiling the outsoles, and polishing the exterior to give it a "mirror shine".
The reason, he points out, is that "the products we use are the best from each brand - we don't have one specific brand that we endorse. They can come from France, Japan, Germany, or Switzerland, and are of a high quality. Normal Kiwi brand costs a few dollars at NTUC but the ones we sell here are about 10 times more expensive."
Not to mention, everything is done by hand to avoid the risk of ruining clients' expensive shoes, which Mr Chung estimates can cost from S$100 for a store-bought pair up to S$10,000 for something custom-made. Adds Mr Chung: "Shoe-shining is a very tough job that requires a lot of manual labour, not many people can take it. You don't just have to love shoes, you have to be obsessed. It's not the most profitable job in the world - if I wanted to earn big bucks I would have been a property agent or something. But I just want to learn more about shoes and work closely with them every day of my life - seven days a week is no problem for me."
DID you know that there are at least 20 different kinds of aluminium and even more kinds of copper? Neither did Steven Tay. That is, until he took over New Tsingyi Pte Ltd - a seven-year-old scrap metal business with scrapyards in Sungei Kadut and Defu Lane.
Sure, he knew a bit about different materials after working in the construction industry for about eight years, but scrapping is a whole new ballgame, says the 34-year-old.
"People just see aluminium as one type of metal, but there are different kinds, different grades. It was very hard at the start because I only knew about the different materials, but here I had to learn to separate every type of the same material. Each grade has a different pricing, and when you don't separate them, exporting as a bundle gets you a lower price. By learning to separate, you can sell them at a higher specialised price," he explains.
Mr Tay graduated in 2008 from Nanyang Technological University's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and was immediately roped in to follow his older siblings' footsteps and help out at their family's construction company.
It was just a few years ago during a minor construction job for New Tsingyi Pte Ltd, when they found out the owner was looking for someone to take over the business. Reveals Mr Tay: "None of the previous directors wanted to take it up because there was so much debt. So we decided to do it. But in the end, my father handed the business over to me."
Holding up his oil-stained hands, he continues: "My dad never told me what to do, how to run it, or anything. He had an old-school philosophy - it's best to learn from scratch on your own, because if you're spoon-fed, you'll never learn. That's why my hands are all dirty. I follow the workers around every day. That's how I learn."
He adds with a chuckle: "And my dark skin is not from sports, it's from spending time under the sun."
Mr Tay recalls that when he first got thrown into the deep end, it was a hectic mess of reading through company records, doing online research, and making cold calls to overseas companies that might potentially be interested in buying their goods.
Now, however, things are running much more smoothly. After paying off the previous owner's debts, he has worked out a system of buying scrap materials from small shophouses in Singapore, separating them, and exporting them to countries like China or India to be recycled. Every month, he now exports about 300 to 500 tonnes of material, and he has even implemented a new automated system as a manpower-saving way of keeping track of the inventory.
It hasn't been an easy two-plus years, of course, as Mr Tay's daily schedule involves waking up early to help out in the construction company before switching hats to run his scrap business, and staying with his workers whenever they work overtime. Still, he says: "I enjoy it though. My time is well-spent doing different things every day. I enjoy doing collecting, meeting people, and seeing the things they sell that you may have never seen before in your life. Because scrap can come from any industry, be it aerospace or agriculture, so collectors sell me just about anything. I can spend my whole life learning about new things, it never ends."
This article was first published on August 20, 2016.
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