DIY pancake a recipe for success

PHOTO: DIY pancake a recipe for success
Dawn Lim, owner of Nook House of Pancakes.

IT'S not often that a company gets investor interest barely two months into existence, but one pancake restaurant with a unique business model seems to have struck a winning formula.

What perhaps makes it more amazing is that the person who runs the show had no prior experience in business or the food and beverage (F&B) industry.

Nook House of Pancakes is run by 23-year-old Dawn Lim, a former Singapore Girl and model, along with two other partners. She seems to have carved out her own niche in an increasingly overcrowded cafe and all-day breakfast restaurant scene.

The "pancake art" concept behind Nook is fairly simple. As a customer, you are provided a bottle of pancake mix, a hot griddle and assorted colourings and toppings. Just go to work and make whatever design you might fancy.

This way of doing business cuts down unnecessary overheads, Ms Lim said. She pointed out how some F&B establishments have five service staff on a normal day in a much smaller space than Nook, which has a floor space of 1,400 square feet.

Even on a weekend, there are no more than five staff members, including Ms Lim, at the cafe. Only the chef and the dishwasher, who performs many other duties as well, are on the permanent staff roll. The rest of Ms Lim's helpers are on part-time employment.

When business first started, it was just her at the front end, waiting up to 60 people while being the cashier.

Ms Lim's prudence extends to her marketing efforts as well. She has focused almost solely on social networking site Facebook, and her only investment in marketing so far was for some videos about pancake making.

But Nook was not supposed to have turned out like this.

As late as two weeks before Ms Lim and her partners secured the restaurant's current location at Lorong Kilat, she had still wanted an all-day breakfast cafe, which was her lifelong dream.

But she felt uneasy about that concept. She has seen her fair share of failing F&B businesses - some outlets were shuttered within three months of opening - during her search for a shopfront. She also realised there is strong competition with many similar cafes sprouting across Singapore.

Eventually, she found out about DIY pancake operations overseas while surfing the Internet for ideas, and thought the novelty factor might work here. Even so, Ms Lim knew she needed to do some tweaking. "It wasn't enticing because they only made round pancakes," she said.

"And being a Singaporean and someone who gets bored easily, if I want to bring in DIY pancakes that are round, I don't think it will survive - Singaporeans won't really like it and there is no meaning to making just round pancakes."

So she decided to give customers the freedom to do whatever they want with their pancake mix, and express whatever they wish to, which means there's something for everyone.

So far so good for the low cost, high engagement concept - Ms Lim expects to break even on a total committed capital of some $200,000 in under two years. She had put in over $30,000 in savings into the enterprise, and together with her two partners had also taken a hefty loan to finance renovations at what was once a run-down garage.

It may be hard to imagine that the entire project rolled into motion only in February this year, and the learning curve had been a steep one for Ms Lim. It took countless hours in front of the computer and talking to friends in the industry for her to overcome her lack of experience in the industry.

During renovation, costs soared by $30,000 just because of a misunderstanding with the property agent over electricity requirements. The garage then ran on one ampere of current, but the restaurant needed three.

Then there was the time she had to venture into Geylang all alone, 23 years of age, to purchase kitchen equipment from old hands of the industry.

"The staff are pretty surprised to see me, being so young I guess, and I still bargained for prices, so they are like pretty shocked, and some of the guys are like oh ... that's a girl," she said.

There was also a huge scare when business dipped towards the end of the first month, after she pared back on marketing. So it was full steam ahead back into marketing efforts on Facebook. Much to her relief, the customers have streamed back in the last two to three weeks.

But one particular challenge came from her family. Between her mother who is ill with cancer and the family knowing of relatives who had taken their lives after business failures, there was huge resistance.

Even some of her friends didn't feel the idea would take off, leaving her disheartened. But she knew this was what she has always wanted. "I felt like as much as I am pretty scared, I shouldn't let this stop my dream to open a restaurant or a cafe."

She is also especially determined to succeed precisely because of her mother's illness. "Although I'm young I want to be successful, before anything happens," she said.

Her family came around after seeing Ms Lim's hard work and the company's good performance, and is now fully supportive of her endeavour.

Such has been the potential shown by Nook since it opened on Aug 25 that a steady stream of investors, some of whom were diners at the restaurant, have approached her.

The offers were enticing, but Ms Lim wanted to make sure that she ran a steady ship first. She said she would start considering seriously after the cafe hits around six months of operations.

Her dream is to eventually expand in the region, in the likes of Hong Kong and China with her unique practice of what she dubs "pancake art". "Right now I don't think there is any other Asian country that works on this concept," she said. "I feel that there is potential."