SINGAPORE - The chic Greyhound Cafe from Bangkok may have made its name among cafe-hoppers over the years, but was actually an afterthought to complement its fashion line.
Now, it has 14 cafes in Bangkok as well as 12 outlets in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur.
Its 13th outlet, outside Thailand, and the first one in Singapore, opens at Paragon in Orchard Road today.
In 1997, Greyhound's founder, Mr Bhanu Inkawat, 62, was offered an empty unit next to its store at Emporium shopping complex in Bangkok to sell coffee and food.
Mr Inkawat, who is also Greyhound's executive creative director, says: "We had no knowledge about food. But we thought, let's just do it. In the first week, we had people yelling at us for food and had to close the restaurant for another week.
We served a full food menu from the beginning. Yes, we were ambitious."
Despite its rocky beginning, the cafe chain is more successful and recognisable than the brand's fashion business.
Mr Inkawat, together with his Thai team, are in Singapore for the opening of the 2,600 sq ft, 100-seat restaurant.
Greyhound Cafe is brought in by JC Global Concepts, a food and beverage company which runs Central Hong Kong Cafe at Resorts World Sentosa, VivoCity and Wheelock Place.
It also operates Chinese restaurant Black Society at VivoCity as well as BreadStory, a bakery chain with outlets in Malaysia and Dubai.
Greyhound's extensive menu is a collection of the childhood memories and travel experiences of the founders, and are based on old Thai recipes and ingredients.
For example, Mr Inkawat grew up eating the cafe's popular Complicated Noodle ($16), where diners wrap minced pork and spicy chilli sauce with noodle sheets and lettuce.
The other signature item - Greyhound Famous Fried Chicken Wings ($14) - is based on the recipe from the grandmother of Greyhound Cafe's managing director Pornsiri Rojmeta.
While the food may be Instagram-worthy, Mr Inkawat makes it clear that he is not selling "fashion food".
"The thing I hate the most is when people call our food 'fashion food'. That's how people judge our restaurant. But we serve real food. It is the authentic taste of Thai food, with a twist.
"We know that no matter how beautiful your restaurant is, the food is important. Now people take food photos and they just leave. We need to make sure they come back."
Indeed, he is a stickler for quality. During a media lunch yesterday, he takes one bite of the Pita Pizza with Seafood Stuffing, shakes his head and asks the chef to try the pizza as well.
He then points out that it is not spicy and not cheesy enough. He also insists on the use of fresh ingredients such as coconut milk and Thai mangoes to ensure the taste is consistent.
And if one finds it odd to see pasta and hamburgers on the menu, he says: "In Bangkok, we are known as a trendy cafe, so it doesn't really matter what we serve as long as it is trendy.
But when you open outside of Thailand and people know that we are from Bangkok - they think we are a typical Thai restaurant. So we present Thai street food in a hip way, but it's not your traditional Thai food.
"Bangkok is very chaotic - where else do you get taxis in five colours? Similarly, anything goes here, it can be chaotic, but it is controlled, beautiful chaos."
An exclusive dish to Singapore is the Crispy Pork Leg With Surprisingly Curry Paste ($36), a German- style crispy pork leg marinated with Thai herbs and served with tamarind chilli paste, Jaew sauce (North-eastern Thai dipping sauce) and sticky rice.
The savvy and stylish founders, who have been friends for 40 years, are also always on the pulse of trends, asking reporters many questions about the dining habits of Singaporeans, the dining scene here and the influence of social media.
Noting that retail is on the decline, Mrs Rojmeta, 62, says: "It is a digital world now and people are shopping online.
But people are always exploring new things in the food and beverage scene.
We are confident of our expansion to Singapore as many of our fans are Singaporeans and it has always been our plan to open here."
They plan to open another four to five Greyhound Cafes in Singapore within the next five years, including a stand-alone.
There will be a seventh outlet in Hong Kong and they are eyeing new markets in Indonesia, Taiwan and London.
Greyhound's sister brands - dessert bar Sweet Hound, the Italian- influenced cafe Another Hound and Everythinghound, which sells the brand's sauces and ice creams - will remain in Bangkok for now.
On the longevity of the brand so far, Mr Inkawat says: "People are leading trendy lifestyles and they are expecting more unique concepts rather than the usual fast-food brands.
We are not just selling food. It's a total experience from when you first walk in."
This article was first published on December 13, 2016.
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