SINGAPORE - When Celine Tan took up a space at the old Monk's Hill Secondary School campus in Windstedt Road, she did what an increasing number of restaurant owners are doing: get a consultant in.
These hired guns, all of whom have experience in the food and beverage industry, offer a range of services.
Some draw up menus and provide recipes, others design kitchens and deal with work flow issues.
There are also companies which provide a soup to nuts suite of services, ranging from creating a brand and a "story" for the restaurant, finding a suitable location, designing its interiors, finding a chef, sourcing for furniture, giving clients a list of suppliers they can turn to, creating a menu, and even staying on retainer after the restaurant opens to fine-tune it.
Their consultancy fees depend on the scope of the job and from the five consultants interviewed, the range is between $3,000 and upward of $100,000.
Ms Tan, 36, owned the now-defunct Table 66 in Tras Street, and needed help setting up Skyve Wine Bistro, which seats up to 150 people indoors and out. It turns two in December. She hired Focus Hospitality Inc for a five-figure fee to help her. "I had to get it right. The space is huge and the investment is huge. I can't afford to redo things again and again."
The food scene is becoming ever bigger and more competitive. Some 686 restaurants opened last year, which works out to about two a day. Last year, there was a net increase of 149 restaurants, more than double the increase in 2011. This has inspired people with no experience to want to try their hand at running restaurants and cafes. As most restaurants have just one chance to impress a diner and get him to come back, the stakes are high and restaurateurs turn to consultants for their expertise.
So businesses have sprung up to meet that demand.
Although Focus Hospitality has been around since 1988, and Peter Knipp Holdings was set up in 1996, some others have opened up in the last two to three years.
Veteran chef Eric Teo, 50, says he set up ET Culinary Arts in August 2011 for exactly this reason: to help investors and businessmen to venture into the industry here and overseas. He says: "Some people have no idea what they are going into but just want to start something small or big, and I think advice and guidance would be of great help."
Mr Michel Lu, 44, who heads three-month-old Revolver Asia, says he has been offered about 50 jobs here and abroad, more than he can handle. He says he takes on only the ones he feels he can add value to.
Successful restaurateurs have also been called in. Ken Loon, 38, owner of The Naked Finn, a seafood restaurant at Gillman Barracks, was asked to look at the cocktail and food offerings in two restaurants, based on the success of his current restaurant and former venture, the now-defunct cocktail bar Klee in Portsdown Road. He has also been offered other consulting jobs.
Many consultants cannot or do not want to name the places they have worked for, mostly because of the non-disclosure agreements they have to sign.
They say that many who hire them are first-timers trying to break into a competitive scene or people who have money to spare and want to open restaurants because they think money can be made from their investment. Rescue jobs, where they are asked to turn around failing restaurants, are rare. The consultants say the best advice they can give these failing ventures is to close, re-brand and start afresh.
All of them say that successful restauranters must have the right reasons for opening a restaurant, know which group of diners they are targetting and above all, offer value for money.
Mr Lu, who has opened several clubs and restaurants, including the now-defunct Restaurant 360 at One Fullerton, Prive Grill at Keppel Bay Island and Foodology at Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 3, says: "You have to have a selling point, a story; understand your market and what your objective is.
"There are people who have money. They do things for show, for ego, for profile, or open restaurants for their friends to hang out in. There are also a lot of people who think, 'I love food so I want to open something. I'll be a chef'. Then three months later, they realise it's no fun. They know how to cook but the other aspects are not there. The location is wrong, the restaurant is too small or too big."
Other mismatches include restaurant names that nobody can remember, high-end food served in a dining room with casual decor and uniforms, music, lighting and other aspects that do not gel together.
Mr Peter Knipp, 58, or Peter Knipp Holdings, marvels at how some restaurateurs spend $500,000 designing their interiors but will not spend $20,000 to $30,000 on a feasibility study to see if the restaurant would work.
Mr Carl Kjellqvist, 41, who has worked here since 1995 for Focus Hospitality, was a hotelier before relocating to Singapore and has cut his teeth on projects such as the now-defunct Salut in Tanjong Pagar and The Cafe Cartel, which opened its first outlet in East Coast Road in the mid-1990s. He says: "So many people get into this business, but they have no idea how to do it. They think it's glamorous. The company was set up to hold their hands, to limit and prevent mistakes."
He gives clients what he calls a "bible", a book that sets out how to build the restaurant. It will include notes on the concept, the number of staff needed, the budget, profit and loss projections, the kind of equipment needed, among other things. Then he assembles a team of architects, designers, branding experts and others to realise the client's dream.
He says the ingredients for success hinge on the food, the positioning of the restaurant and the value it offers diners. "At the end of the day, the Singapore diner wants value and that doesn't mean cheap. It's the relation between price and quality."
For Mr Loon, it is all about details. There must be ample parking at the restaurant, it should be easy to get to, there must never be a traffic jam leading to the restaurant. He says one mistake restaurant owners make is to consider the menu an afterthought. "They prefer to create an ambience, but people are not paying money to enjoy ambience. It's the product, the food and drinks, that will make them come back."
Mr Lu, however, has a contrarian view. He says: "Good food alone is not enough... There are places where we all go to where the food is not earth shattering but they take care of us, so we go again and again."
Three of the four restaurant owners who hired consultants said they got their money's worth.
Skyve's Ms Tan says Mr Kjellqvist help build the restaurant around the school theme inspired by the location, which then led to the name Skyve, a play on skiving off school. She says he planned the workflow for getting food out of the kitchen to tables, and most of the proposals he made worked.
Mr Joseph Lee, 49, owner of The Bread Table in Jalan Kuras near Upper Thomson Road, hired chef Teo for a four-figure sum this year. The baker wanted help to build the supply side of his business, and got the chef to help identify premium products that hotels would want to buy. Chef Teo helped with evaluating the products, working on packaging and delivery methods, and some of his advice has also helped The Bread Table's retail business. Mr Lee says that part of the business is growing, and he sells 400 to 500 loaves of bread a day. He says: "I think you have to use a consultant in areas where you don't have the skills. I know how to bake but I don't know the hotel industry. If you know what you want, it's a win-win situation."
That was certainly the case for Ms Titin Suntianto, 32, one of the owners of Yellow Submarines, a cheese steak sandwich shop in Toa Payoh Central which opened in April. She engaged chef Teo for a five-figure sum to look at the recipes, work out the best ways to cook them, draw up new recipes and even recommend suppliers. "He helped us to put everything together, giving crucial technical advice and how to get the taste we wanted."
However, not all owners get what they want out of consultants. One who declined to be named said that he had paid a five-figure sum to a consultant for his 35-seat restaurant. He says his first mistake was in engaging someone who was more used to working on larger projects. The consultant was juggling several projects at the same time and the owner said he had wanted more attention.
Still, he says that the consultant made recommendations that worked; by introducing him to a design firm, which "did a really good job", and finding an equipment supplier that suited his budget. In the end, he says he won over customers by interacting with them and creating a friendly atmosphere to entice them to come back.
This echoes the comments that diners give when asked what would make them go back to a restaurant.
Mr Shane Tay, 58, a private chef, gives his criteria: "Good service staff who are friendly and knowledgeable, attentive and yet not intrusive. Also, a chef who's good at what he does, not necessarily great, but consistent. Another would be a relatively good wine list and of course, good quality food at a cost that is on par with what is being served."
Ms Peggy Tan, 37, an adjunct lecturer in a polytechnic, adds: "I'd go back to a restaurant if there are too many 'must-try' items on the menu to squeeze into one meal, or if there's something cozy about it that makes it feel like I'm hanging out at a friend's place."
Mr Julian Yii, 44, senior manager for commercial development in a property firm, says: "The front of house staff need to make customers feel welcome and not just be someone who seats them. Some will remember customers from previous visits and welcome them back.
"It's personal touches like these. I go only to places that have been recommended because I want to be certain that the food and service are above average. With kids, going out for a meal with my wife is a treat, so we want to be assured of a good meal and a great time. It's sad but restaurateurs really need to go all out to impress their customers so that they will come back."
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