Man behind Botak Jones chain reveals health struggles

Man behind Botak Jones chain reveals health struggles
Mr Bernie Utchenik and his wife Faudziah.

To most, the burly restaurateur behind Botak Jones is a jolly man associated with a popular chain of hawker stalls serving affordable American fare.

But if Mr Bernie Utchenik were to keep a diary, it would be filled with demons and dark times, fear and despair.

The 62-year-old, who made a comeback with his new stall at Toa Payoh North, Big Bern's American Grill, has been suffering from anxiety disorder for about three years.

Speaking from his mother-in-law's flat in Tampines on Thursday, the American-turned-Singaporean opened up to The New Paper about his mental health condition for the first time.

In the 90s, Mr Utchenik was diagnosed with general depression, which he said was because he was "brought down by general melancholy".

For the most part of his time running Botak Jones, he was also bipolar.

Bipolar disorder causes extreme shifts in mood, energy and activity levels. Mr Utchenik found out he had anxiety disorder only when he was hospitalised three years ago for emotional breakdown.

Then, he had just sold his shares in Botak Jones due to some disagreement with his partners. There were 13 Botak Jones outlets across the island. 

He went on to run his own stall at Balestier Road but was increasingly overwhelmed by fear and anxiety.

The scariest thing, he said, was not knowing what exactly bothered him.

He likened it to the butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling before bungee jumping.

"Imagine having that feeling most of the day for no apparent reason. Your mind is racing and starts jumping from one situation to another even though you don't have to deal with it yet."

At its worst, the disorder made him stay home for "a couple of weeks", just flipping channels on the television, or watching movies. A domestic helper took care of his meals.

From the life of the party, often performing at gigs, Mr Utchenik became a recluse who feared leaving his bedroom, or "man cave", as his wife Faudziah Mohd Ali, 52, calls it.

The only thing that could get him out of bed was the guilt of missing an appointment.

"Even though I felt more comfortable at home, I would feel guilty if I were shirking a responsibility or missing an appointment," he explained.

Madam Faudziah witnessed the times her husband of 16 years found it difficult to overcome his anxiety.

"It's crippling. Even when everything is going according to plan and there is no reason to feel this way, he would be unable to get out of bed because of his anxiety," she said.

Mr Utchenik added: "Dealing with something that puts fear into my life makes me feel less confident and look at myself as being a weak person."

Madam Faudziah immediately reassured him: "You are not weak, baby."

ALONE TIME

She supports her husband by giving him the alone time that he needs.

"I'll just let him chill out. When he is ready, he'll come out. We have that respect because we are very open to each other," said Madam Faudziah, who manages Big Bern's with Mr Utchenik.

"She was the person I leaned on. She didn't judge me.

"I thought I wasn't living up to the standards of the person I would want her to want me to be.

"But she rarely berated me for it. If she did, it was just to get me to stand up to fight my demons," he said of his wife, who goes by the nickname Zee.

Now, one of the ways Mr Utchenik copes with his anxiety disorder is to try to do something positive.

This includes asking after the bus driver whenever he takes a bus to the MRT station.

"It got to a point that the driver would wave to me from the other side of the road.

"Part of dealing with this type of disorder is filling yourself with satisfaction that you have done something nice for somebody else," he said.

About a week ago, the couple moved from the Yishun maisonette, which they had rented, to a Tampines flat belonging to Madam Faudziah's mother, because of some "rough patches".

The family support seems to be helping. Said Madam Faudziah with a smile: "He told me recently, 'Baby, now I look forward to going to work'.

"Something has changed. He feels the support."

His ups and downs in F&B industry

Detroit-born Bernie Utchenik, who owns Big Bern's American Grill, is no stranger to the food and beverage (F&B) industry.

In 1996, the 62-year-old settled down in Singapore and, with some friends, set up pub restaurant Bernie's in Changi under the firm Four Amigos.

He left three years later after some disagreement with his partners.

Mr Utchenik then set up Bernie Goes To Town at Boat Quay with friends. That folded due to his "mismanagement".

For a while, he worked at the kitchen at Handle Bar before venturing into another business: Botak Jones.

The first outlet opened in Tuas in 2003, with Mr Utchenik becoming the major shareholder.

Thirteen outlets later, the F&B veteran opted out of the partnership. He declined to elaborate on the reasons, but cited "internal management issues".

Buying over the Balestier Road Botak Jones stall, Mr Utchenik set up BJ's American Diner and Grill - later renamed Big Bern's - in 2011 with his wife Faudziah Mohd Ali.

Unable to get the business running at a profitable level, they closed their stall in June.

PERSEVERED

Big Bern's burnt a hole in their pockets, leaving them in a "bad financial situation", but they plodded on.

Two months ago, the Utcheniks made a comeback with a spanking new Big Bern's outlet at the Mapletree Industrial Estate foodcourt at Toa Payoh North.

And it seems business is picking up.

"In October, we had a small loss. I haven't looked at the books yet but it looks like we broke even in November," he said.

HELPLINES

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours)

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928


This article was first published on Dec 13, 2014.
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