This young trio quit their 9-to-5 jobs to run a hipster foodcourt in Singapore
Some fussy Singaporeans used to shun dining at hawker centres, often complaining that it's crowded, dirty, and has no air-conditioning.
But that prejudice towards hawker centres are slowly fading as many of these 'kopitiams' have undergone a facelift in recent years in an attempt to become more hip and modern.
This has brought on a wave of 'hipster' foodcourts in Singapore such as Timbre+, Platform M at SingPost Centre, Malaysia Boleh at Jurong Point, and most recently, Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre.
Riding on this trend, three friends - Wilmer Ang (30), Lim Chin Chye (30), and Amos Tan (29) - decided to start up FOMO, a 7,000 square-feet dining space at Sultan Gate, in November last year.
BECAME BOSSES IN THEIR 20S
According to Wilmer, the three of them have always wanted to start a business together, so when they heard that the space was up for lease in 2016, they decided to quickly seize the opportunity.
All of them were still holding on to their corporate jobs then, but they unanimously decided to quit the 9-to-5 life to make their first foray into the F&B industry.
"We were all PMETs (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians), but we know that this venture needed us to commit all our time, which is why we decided to leave our jobs to focus on this opportunity," said Wilmer.
The former technology research analyst added that although they had no prior knowledge nor experience, they were "lucky to know some seasoned coffee shop and food court owners" to help guide them in their entrepreneurial journey.
But this does not mean that they jumped into this new venture blindly.
In reality, FOMO has been in the works for more than a year and the trio made it a point to conduct careful research beforehand.
This includes picking the right mix of food vendors with a strong branding so that they don't clash with each other, and most importantly, complement FOMO's overall concept.
Wilmer refused to disclose how much money was invested in the venture, but revealed that they had to really tighten and budget their finances to foot the renovation cost.
WHAT IS FOMO?
Elaborating more on its concept, Wilmer said that FOMO is short for the millennial term 'fear of missing out'.
"We wanted to use a slang that can be associated with the young to signify a youthful spirit, which is the core of the FOMO team."
He added that FOMO is essentially an "upgraded version of a regular coffee shop".
While the offerings are fancy, prices remain reasonable so customers don't have to pay extra for the full restaurant service.
Ultimately, the trio is focused on offering a variety of affordable food in a casual, communal dining setting.
Its dining area is decked with plants and terrarium to exude a tropical vibe that represents Singapore as a garden city, and it also features a chill alfresco area that even comes with a garden swing.
With its Instagram-worthy decor, Wilmer insists that FOMO does not only aim to attract the youngsters in Singapore.
"Our primary target audience is the offices and residential in the vicinity, such as the Concourse, Gateway, and the newly-opened Duo."
"Apart from that, we also want to target both the tourists and the locals who visit the Kampong Glam area. Our youthful and vibrant environment tend to attract the young crowd, but the layout of our furniture allows for larger groups of family and friends to dine together. By and large, FOMO welcomes everyone."
Besides running FOMO, the trio also runs a Brew Counter at their foodcourt, selling drinks and alcohol.
It was a good business strategy - they rent out food stalls, while dominating the drinks stall.
Even 'kopitiam' king Lim Bee Huat, founder of Kopitiam, adopted this game plan: "People can't just come in for food. If a foodcourt has 50 stalls, it will take you 50 days to patronise all the stalls. But you have to come to me every day for drinks or desserts."
FEW VENDORS TRUSTED THEM AT FIRST
Securing tenants proved to be a huge challenge for the trio because very few chose to sign up with them at the start.
Since they were still newbies in the industry, food vendors didn't "trust" them enough.
"At that point in time, we could only show potential vendors a construction site, and it was very difficult to visualise how the space will look," Wilmer told YP SG.
But after the space was done up, those who once rejected them started changing their tune.
They approached them for units, but they were completely leased out by then.
Brushing these vendors aside, Wilmer said that he is thankful to those who expressed confidence in the space and believed in them.
Owner of Mr. Wholly Seafood Company, Esther Goh, was one such tenant. After her stall's lease at Satay By The Bay expired, she decided to give FOMO a try.
She admitted that it was a "gamble to work with first-timers in the scene", but said that she likes the environment and wanted to "inject some vibrancy in the area."
At the end of the day, Wilmer emphasised that most tenants chose to sign with them because FOMO is housed in a "good location" and that their "rental rates are very affordable".
Currently, FOMO is home to seven vendors - and they all serve food that goes beyond the typical hawker fare like economic rice and 'yong tau foo'.
Instead, they offer a slew of trendy food options such as laksa pasta, seafood bucket, giant-sized potato cutlets (by the renowned cook-cum-entrepreneur Ummi Abdullah), mochi ice cream and poke bowls.
While FOMO is not a wholly Halal establishment, most of its vendors have adopted a 'No Pork, No Lard' policy so as to cater to the Muslim community in the Kampong Glam district.
SURVIVING THE COMPETITIVE F&B INDUSTRY
There has been a proliferation of new cafes and restaurants emerging in our tiny island as of late, which makes competition in the F&B industry even stiffer.
The Kampong Glam area especially, has seen plenty of new 'halal' establishments in the area.
Undeterred by fellow competitors, Wilmer said that he is just glad that the "initial response was better than what [they] expected".
"This was probably because of the media coverage that we got from the start. Also, the food options available at FOMO was all relatively new in the area so our customers welcomed the new offerings."
Despite the good response, the trio chose not to be complacent and not slack with their marketing efforts.
They put in a lot of thought and effort in crafting an effective marketing strategy, which remains to be their biggest challenge thus far.
"We want to be very careful with our marketing expenses, and in ensuring that whatever resources put into marketing will generate results."
He added that the two main struggles of running a restaurant in Singapore is its "high rental cost" and the "difficulty of managing manpower".
"Food halls like FOMO actually help to reduce these operational burden; and in turn, restaurant owners can focus better on their own operations in the kitchen. This will result in better productivity, higher quality of food, and greater affordability for our customers."
Wilmer also iterated that they are constantly on the lookout to improve their business. Even if their business is doing well, it is far from perfect and he is aware that there is always room for improvement.
This explains why they are constantly working on identifying and solving problems - he believes that is the only way their business will flourish even more.
This article was first published in Vulcan Post.