Do-good restaurant with triad name

A marketing poster for eatery chain Eighteen Chefs shows restaurateur Benny Se Teo's face amid other details, and the resemblance to a police mugshot is no coincidence.

A former convict himself, Mr Se Teo founded Eighteen Chefs six years ago to employ former inmates and youths at risk.

Even the eatery's name comes from the shadowy underworld of Chinese secret societies, which use numbers to refer to one another.

"I'm not encouraging my boys to join gangs," Mr Se Teo explains. "I'm challenging them to renounce their gangs, and get a skill, and get a life."

Mr Se Teo has certainly made Eighteen Chefs his life.

Remarkable growth

Under his management, the company has grown remarkably from an Eastpoint Mall outlet with a daily turnover of just $500. It had a revenue of $1.3 million and profit of $163,000 for the first six months of this year and that came from only one store operating consecutively for this period.

Eighteen Chefs now has two branches, in Tiong Bahru Plaza and Cathay Cineleisure Orchard. The latter opened in May, and based on the brisk sales and frequent dining reservations it has enjoyed since then, Mr Se Teo expects to recoup his investment by November.

It has not been smooth sailing all the way, though.

The restaurant became a victim of its own success in 2008, when it expanded "too fast", opening four different outlets across the country which steadily lost money and plunged the company $390,000 into the red. The loss-incurring Yishun 10 branch shut down three years ago, while the Eastpoint Mall and Fusionopolis outlets became victims of mall renovations earlier this year.

Mr Se Teo hopes to revive his flagship Eastpoint Mall outlet if the shopping centre reopens with affordable rents. Having to juggle his attention across multiple outlets also taught him the importance of running a tight ship with a well-trained and well-managed crew.

Since April, Eighteen Chefs has been working with the National Trades Union Congress's Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to provide training for prospective workers in the food and beverage industry.

But Mr Se Teo's business sense is at play here. "e2i will help me to defray (training) costs, and the good ones, I keep." He aims to steadily increase his headcount and open two new outlets every year for the next five years. By then, he anticipates that Eighteen Chefs will rake in $20 million in revenue and turn a profit of $3 million.

Mr Se Teo is confident he will get his expansion plans right this time round, having just signed a deal to open the restaurant's first franchise in Singapore this October. He is also in talks with a Malaysian partner to expand across the Causeway in the near future, saying: "Hopefully, we can extend our business to the neighbouring countries."

And for those unwilling to brave the crowd at Eighteen Chef eateries, where pounding Linkin Park music plays nonstop over the speakers, Mr Se Teo hopes to set up a central kitchen and introduce a delivery service in 2016. He says: "It will generate more sales and manage costs because we don't have to pay rentals."

The idea about running a delivery service is thanks to feedback from his customers, with whom Mr Se Teo likes to engage on social media. Aware that the low prices at Eighteen Chefs appeal to students, many of whom hail from overseas, Mr Se Teo also hired a Chinese national to manage a Weibo account to target students from China who are living in Singapore. Weibo is a microblogging site similar to Twitter.

Mr Se Teo himself posts multiple times a day on the restaurant's Facebook page, with content ranging from menu updates to funny pictures, and he points happily to the number of online fans he has gained: "I don't buy 'likes', and organically we have grown to 7,000-plus!"

One of his Facebook posts even went viral this April. In it, he wrote that he never had to deal with a labour shortage because, unlike many competitors, his eatery was not reliant on low-wage foreign manpower.

By directly approaching ex-jailbirds instead, Mr Se Teo says that he is deliberately "tapping this group of untapped resources". "We try to hold their hand and integrate them into society."

Two priorities

However, he is quick to add: "I'm not a charity where I hire anybody."

Prospective staff must undergo four months of training before he picks those he's satisfied with, and he insists that he puts the bottom line first.

Listing his two priorities, Mr Se Teo states: "We must be viable. We have a social mission. Both are very important."

He feels that he cannot adequately serve his pet cause of ex-convict employment if he runs his business at a loss.

"If it's not affordable, it's not a solution at all," he says. "We must be profitable in order to make a social mission."

Mr Se Teo insists that Eighteen Chef franchisees must also agree to his passion for keeping former offenders on the straight and narrow. "I will always be a spokesman for my cause, which is hiring ex-convicts," he says firmly. "It's not only an investment. You need to carry this social mission."

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