Cooking up social change

Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014

Grim questions, begging for answers, had been eating away at his mind all day. Chef Benny Se Teo was in the deepest funk of his life since recovering from drug addiction in 1993 and starting the casual Western restaurant, Eighteen Chefs, in 2007.

His first shop in Eastpoint Mall, started with two partners and a pooled capital of $200,000, had spawned three branches in Yishun, Tiong Bahru and Buona Vista in 2009. But less than a year after the breathless expansion, the chain was haemorrhaging losses. A branch had been forced to close and a similar fate loomed over another outlet.

How would he face his debtors? How was he to pay the mounting bills? Could he still keep his remaining shops open for business? As he stood alone that night in 2010, depressed and distressed, in the elevator rising to his ninth-floor Housing Board flat in Telok Blangah, another snare came his way - a long straw of heroin on the elevator floor.

The former heroin addict, who had spent more than a decade of his youth behind bars for drug-related offences, picked up the packet of white powder. A rush of incoherent thoughts followed.

When the elevator doors opened, he stepped out and tossed the heroin away, nine floors down into the night.

Four years on from that dismal moment, the portly 54-year-old with a shiny pate and tuft of black goatee is at a high point in his professional and personal life.

His restaurant chain is a profitable business with a monthly revenue of over $750,000. On the day of our meeting earlier this month, he was gearing up for the launch of the fourth and newest branch at Ang Mo Kio Hub.

The restaurant chain, committed to hiring ex-offenders and youths-at-risk, also recently earned the honour of being the first home-grown social enterprise with a strong business model that successfully wooed investors to start a franchise. Its first franchise outlet opened at The Cathay in Dhoby Ghaut last December and a second franchise shop in Serangoon Central is in the pipeline.

His happiness is set to double in July when he marries his civil servant fiancee, in her 50s, whom he met last year while volunteering at a soup kitchen.

Mr Se Teo, who dropped out of Bukit Merah Secondary School after failing his O-level exams, credits his success today - its trappings include a one-year-old Rolex watch that he saved up for and a second-hand convertible - to the many failures he encountered in life. The adversities taught him to bounce back from difficulties with grit and the business setbacks taught him invaluable lessons on how to run a social enterprise.

"When I started Eighteen Chefs, I was 47 years old. To fail was never an option," he says stoically.

Until then, his life had been mostly marked by defeats.

The youngest of seven children of an opium dealer and housewife, he grew up in Chinatown helping his father pack opium for sale while being warned of the dangers of taking drugs. But he buckled under the influence of friends and the hippie culture of the 1970s and began smoking marijuana in his teens.

He soon fell into the quicksand of drug addiction and spent more than a decade getting in and out of prison and drug rehabilitation centres.

A near-death experience with intestinal ulcers and a spiritual awakening in 1992 made the Christian resolve to live "like a normal person, someone who goes to work, has normal meals, goes home, sleeps, wakes up the next day and goes to work again".

After he left prison in 1993, he stayed at a halfway house to help him keep on the straight and narrow, while he worked as a freelance despatch rider. By 2000, he had done well enough to start his own despatch company with about $20,000 in savings. Then in 2005, at the nudging of friends who had full confidence in his self-taught culinary skills, he started the Chinese restaurant Goshen in Geylang with a few partners.

Business at Goshen was brisk, but poor corporate governance led to the restaurant's closure in just a year.

Undeterred, he gave himself a second chance by starting Eighteen Chefs.

The restaurant was all he had going for him so when faced with the setback in 2010, the once painfully shy chef mustered the courage to meet his landlord face to face to negotiate payment for arrears of rent.

He says: "I was buying time at the meeting; I had no confidence. But I said, 'Give me six months, I will revamp my business.' And I gave the landlord a timetable for payment."

The landlord agreed to give him a chance. To tide over cash-flow problems in the interim, the restaurant took out bank loans that were later paid off. In six months, the outlet in limbo was back to paying rent on time.

The crisis drove him to scrutinise and tighten food costs. For example, every lemon used to make its signature ice lemon tea must yield at least 13 slices. "Even better if I get 14 slices," he quips.

But it is not about cutting costs, he insists. In fact, he willingly pays more for quality where it makes a difference. An instance is the vegetables used at the restaurants. The outlets receive fresh supplies of greens every day rather than periodic deliveries of bulk orders, which are cheaper.

He also lowered menu prices, revising its popular student menu comprising a pasta or cheese baked rice, beverage and dessert from $7.80 to $6.40, the original price in 2007. The price has remained unchanged.

Explaining the price reversal with animated gestures, he says: "I always tell people I'm their roti prata guy. To sell you an 80-cent kosong (plain prata), he has to prepare and massage the dough the night before, flip it like mad the next day, cook curry, give you sugar if you ask, and then wash your plate and fork. But the bulk he sells, you can't see.

"I don't want to position myself with the big boys; they can fight among themselves. I want to remain low in price so that people will come to my place."

Its wallet-friendly prices, with cheese baked rice selling from $7.80 and pastas from $8.30, was what fuelled the restaurant's growth during the economic meltdown of 2008.

He says: "We positioned ourselves as value-for-money. A family of four that was tightening their belt could still go to the mall and eat at Eighteen Chefs for less than $50. At another restaurant in the mall, they might have to pay $80."

The near-failure in 2010 also spurred him to market the brand boldly with himself as the poster boy.

"Nobody gave me the idea," he says, "I just felt a restaurant brand should be the chef himself. So I put up this big photo of myself."

The larger-than-life, black-and-white portrait is plastered over a wall at each branch. It shows him in chef's whites, arms crossed before his chest, eyes fixed on the viewer and without a smile, his default look even when he is not annoyed.

The picture is accompanied by compliments from food critics and executives from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's London restaurant, Fifteen, which trains disengaged youths to help them turn around their lives. Mr Se Teo had a month-long stint at Fifteen as a kitchen help in 2006, to learn how the social enterprise was run.

He acknowledges that some people might regard his photograph as a show of narcissism but he claims "it works". "As I marketed myself, a lot of doors opened. I was invited to speak locally and internationally about how I run a social enterprise." His speaking engagements have taken him to Taiwan and Hong Kong.

His marketing push also turned the restaurant from just another casual eatery to one with distinct character, or "attitude", in the argot of the young crowd it attracts.

He says: "I dare not say that I serve the best food in Singapore and I don't think we have the best service in town. But we have a lot of people who come because we sell a culture."

That culture pulsates with youthful vibes and shows up in everything from the restaurant's hip decor with street art drawings on its walls to the pop-rock anthems playing loudly in the shop.

Yet the real strength of the restaurant, he says, is its commitment to hiring ex- offenders and youths-at-risk.

At a time when the Government is tightening the influx of foreign workers, which the food service industry depends upon heavily for labour, Eighteen Chefs is free of such manpower woes.

"Until today, I've never had difficulties finding staff because I have a large pool of untapped resource," he says, referring to ex-offenders whom employers once shunned because of their criminal past.

Of the 80 staff at Eighteen Chefs, about 30 are ex-offenders. Mr Se Teo hires them mostly through walk-in applications - "We're a household name for those in prison who want to change" - as well as by working with counsellors, the Singapore Prisons and boys' homes. His only criteria for recruiting ex-offenders: They must be willing to change.

He notes that the stigma of hiring ex-offenders is fast fading, with some restaurants even poaching his staff. But staff have returned, he says, "because per hour, we still pay better and we have a better working environment".

He believes in fair remuneration and has been steadily raising entry-level wages over the years from $1,100 to $1,300, with plans for another raise soon.

However, he cautions businesses against employing ex-offenders simply to plug manpower gaps. He speaks plainly of the challenges: He had a staff who, in a drunken rage, trashed the restaurant kitchen, another who broke into the restaurant's safe and one who stole from the cash register.

He is quick to add: "You hire normal people, you will face such problems too. But if you're easily discouraged, this is not the kind of thing you're going to do."

He walks the talk by giving his staff second and even third chances. The former employee who damaged the restaurant kitchen in an intoxicated spell was re-hired recently because he was looking for employment and repentant of his misdeed.

Mr Se Teo says: "I hire ex-offenders because it is something very close to my heart. When I was released from prison and looking for a job in 1993, I went for six job interviews and no one would hire me. I decided then that if I became a business owner one day, I would hire exoffenders."

He also named his restaurant after the gang, Eighteen, which his late father used to belong to, to inspire delinquents to renounce their gangs and pick up pans.

Even the cuisine he sells is aimed at appealing to the young. "Chinese cooking is still my first love," he says, "but I decided to do food that young people prefer. I'm selling something that is not what I like, but what my customer likes. If you ask me, my comfort food is chicken rice, char kway teow, hawker food, mee pok tah (dry)."

His fondness for Chinese food and Hong Kong cafe-style grub shows up, however, on the restaurant's menu in the form of items such as cheese baked rice, peanut butter with condensed milk toast and hot Coke with lemon.

While the restaurant responds to social needs, he is adamant that customers treat the social enterprise like any other food and beverage business and not patronise it out of sympathy towards its social mission.

"When somebody supports you, it is for only one or two times. I don't want that kind of business. Treat me like another restaurant, not one that is doing good work. Come because you like the food or you find the price affordable," he says.

Indeed, he runs the social enterprise like any shrewd businessman and executive chef. This includes regularly coming up with new menu items to keep things fresh for diners. His latest concoction, Double Bypass Fried Rice ($39.80), serves up 400g of striploin beef, a whole spring chicken stabbed with a knife - "It looks more deadly" - dark sauce fried rice and a piquant homemade dip on a wooden board. A mini version with half the amount of beef and chicken sells for $22.80.

His long-time friend and mentor, Pastor Don Wong, 54, executive director of New Charis Mission, a non-profit organisation that helps ex-offenders and youths-at-risk, says: "At his low point in 2010, I told Benny that even with the discouragement and disappointments he faced, he was no longer stuck in prison so he must move on and learn from the mistakes.

"Now, he has moved a few notches up. He is still very humble, but he is also more confident."

Indeed, Mr Se Teo now wears his multiple failures as a badge of pride, having risen above them to become a successful social entrepreneur.

Of his past, he says: "To be very honest, my past works well for me. With my not-so-good past, I'm inspiring a lot of people, whether it is ex-offenders, normal people or entrepreneurs."

My life so far

"I asked Liam Black (former chief executive of Fifteen) to give me a chance in the kitchen. He said no, their apprentice programme was only for the British. But I continued to ask him every two days, then every day on Fifteen's online public forum. He finally said, 'Okay, you can come, but you have to settle everything yourself.' The whole trip, airfare and lodging, cost me $7,000. All my peers in the kitchen were young kids but I never felt the least embarrassed. I knew what I was there to achieve. I wanted to run something like that in Singapore and I wanted to see its kitchen operations."

On his stint at London's Fifteen restaurant, a social enterprise that trains disengaged youths

"This is not a place where you come in and, straightaway, you become a good, responsible person. This is a place where if you take it seriously, you will get a skill and have a chance to change. But if you take it as a place where you can get away with not putting in effort, then you could go back to jail. Many of my trainees have later gotten caught and gone back to jail."

On what Eighteen Chefs offers ex-offenders and youths-at-risk

"A lot of young kids look up to me, young employees, Facebook friends and regular customers, even those in secondary school who bring their parents to eat at our restaurants. So whatever I do, my speech, my behaviour, I really have to think about the people around me. For example, I don't curse. Do I lose some freedom? Definitely. But it's worth it."

On being a role model to young customers, friends and employees

"I am very close to my family, but only in recent years. I don't blame them because I know how troublesome it is to have a drug addict in your family. They never thought I'd be the one to go to drugs and they never thought I'd recover and have a normal life. They thought they had lost a brother to drug addiction."

On his relationship with his family

This article was published on April 14 in The Straits Times.

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