SINGAPORE - The fact that Soul Food Enterprise looks more like someone's living room than a restaurant is the first sign of how the company is unlike other players in the competitive food and beverage sector.
Just how different? Well, it has "no manpower issues", says founder Gerald Png wryly, placing it among a tiny minority of such eateries here.
The restaurant, located at the foot of a Housing Board block in Commonwealth Drive, has dodged the labour crunch because it is more of a training kitchen for young people with special needs.
It has two part-timers, two interns and two trainees; some have moderate learning disabilities, some Down's syndrome and some autism.
Both interns are on a work experience programme organised by Delta Senior School, a vocational school for students with special needs.
They are undertaking a Workforce Development Authority course in culinary arts and are on track to graduate by the end of the year.
Soul Food serves up what Mr Png, 55, calls "rustic, family-style food" and makes up to 10 private group meals a month depending on the season. Each meal must be booked in advance.
Lunch requires a minimum of eight diners, and dinner, 10 people. The maximum seating is 16. There is only one table.
It specialises in slow-cook techniques such as sous vide and even makes its own barbecue sauce from scratch. Meals have to be pre-arranged and the restaurant also does takeaways.
"We ask customers for their food preferences and price according to that," Mr Png says, adding that Christmas is "an exceptionally busy period".
Meals tend to cost between $38 for a typical three-course lunch to $55 for a four-course dinner, after goods and services tax.
Mr Png, who used to work in retail marketing and advertising, set up Soul Food in January 2010, shelling out the $60,000 start-up costs from his own pocket.
The major motivation was his daughter Cheryl, 21, who has moderate learning disabilities. She is one of the interns from Delta Senior School working at Soul Food.
"As a parent of a child with special needs, I always think about ways to help my daughter as she grows up," Mr Png says.
He noticed a few years ago that Cheryl "loves to potter about with me in the kitchen, and I observed over a period of time that she has a knack for it". He then volunteered to teach a domestic sciences class at her school. Soul Food was set up after that.
Although the company is a for-profit "social enterprise", it has not started to deliver a return yet.
Mr Png declined to reveal exact figures but said that Soul Food's earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation "nearly broke even last year".
Revenue for this year is 30 per cent up on the corresponding period last year.
"We budgeted for losses knowing we had a very long road ahead - to build the people, then the business."
Mr Png spent the first two years training young people with special needs to work in the kitchen so was only able to ramp up the business at the start of last year.
For instance, it takes about 1,000 training hours to get each employee to the point where he can chop carrots, he adds. The training is also "very recipe-specific".
"It's not like a culinary course where once you finish the course, that's it. The training doesn't stop."
But Mr Png says the time spent was worth it.
"We wanted them to be involved in actual food production. We do need to be profitable to run a viable business, but wanted to avoid leaving people behind. The results may be slow but I believe they will be forthcoming."
Soul Food's next step is to look for a larger space when it has to relocate next year.
Its 23.2 sq m kitchen can hold six to eight cooks. Mr Png says he is looking for new premises twice the size of his 79 sq m restaurant, so that Soul Food can have separate kitchens for hot and cold food and baked goods, and also have space to be able to train more people and expand its culinary repertoire.
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