Since 2012, dynamic couple Indra Kantono and Gan Guoyi are well-known as the pioneering entrepreneurs who set the stage for cocktail bars in Singapore. Located in the world’s most competitive and expensive city, they now have 5 distinct concepts that are flourishing. Jigger & Pony Group consists of Jigger & Pony (No. 29 on World’s 50 Best Bars 2019, No.9 on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2019 and Bar of The Year for The Bar Awards Singapore 2019), Humpback, Gibson, The Flagship, Caffe Fernet.
In Part 1 Interview with Indra, he believes in cultivating the right culture to deliver the best Jigger & Pony experience to customers through hospitality. Here, Indra goes in-depth in the realities of starting an F&B business, what it takes to build a sustainable F&B business – from profitability, conceptualization to marketing strategy for an F&B Group with unique brands.
As a business owner, the most rewarding thing has to be watching the genuine interactions between our guests and the team. If you enjoy the process of creating and problem solving, then maybe F&B is for you. You have to enjoy being at your venues and seeing your customers enjoy what you are doing.
When you walk into a restaurant, how do you evaluate how well it is doing?
I created this chart called the 6-legged spider web chart. It is a graphical chart displaying different attributes that draw comparisons to that of our peers. The six attributes are:
- Decor and concept
- Food and drinks
- Service and hospitality
- Customer perception of value (price) and whether it matches expectations
- Marketing and promotion
The closer the attributes are to the edges of the spider chart, the better off he is than his peers. If it is small and in the center, it is comparatively worse off. This is based on our own objective view. The goal is to get an A+ in everything. It is extremely expensive to get all attributes scoring an A+ and you might not have the capability to do it. The good news is, so long as everything is a B, i.e. above average, you are good.
Marketing and Competitive Advantage
Today, Jigger & Pony Group has expanded to include these 5 notable brands: Jigger & Pony, Gibson, Humpback, Caffe Fernet, and the currently displaced Sugarhall. Do you market your brands individually or do you consolidate marketing efforts as 1 voice within the same group?
The answer is a little bit of both. If you are a first time customer at any of our venues, you do not need to know we are related. Each venue must have its standout merits as a brand. A strong brand must have its own voice, brand promise, and brand positioning.
However, it is also true that the Jigger & Pony Group has garnered a well-received reputation in the industry. Like it or not, if a customer hears that a brand is a part of the Group, s/he will have a certain level of expectation and perception that we will need to meet.
What people expect out of our venue, that’s our DNA, strength, and signature: the Jigger & Pony experience. Think of the brands as siblings in a family – they all share the same DNA to a certain degree but each has a different sense of style. We hold to our mission statement firmly, a unifying trait that you will consistently find across all of our brands yet, each venue has its own distinct identity.
Learnings and Advice
What relevant traits have you adopted from your previous experiences?
I learned so much from my previous career in finance and consulting. My brain is already wired in a certain way so much so that when I step into a restaurant; numbers, equations, and charts come to mind. My previous career has trained me to always think of the financial implications and to watch for competitive advantages.
F&B attracts a lot of creative and passionate people. This industry is one of those primal and noble professions, but it is not an easy business. It is highly competitive and easily accessible but a challenge to sustain. In order to sustain, you cannot overlook the financial implication.
When I worked for Bain & Company, it was the top company to work for. I learned a lot from the way they crafted the company’s values and culture. One value I have come to practice in my business is, “A Bainee never lets another Bainee fail.” This is such an awesome value to have because it shaped a certain culture amongst Bainees. I can still get them on the phone and say, “I was a Bainee many years ago, and I heard you are a Bainee too. Can I sit down with you to pick your brain?” And I would say 90% of the time, the person on the other line would say, “Sure, we can meet for coffee.”
Is the restaurant business a profitable option for aspiring business owners?
It is something worth pursuing. I view F&B as a very noble profession. It is not the most financially lucrative, especially when you have a lot of other career options. If you enjoy the process of creating and problem-solving, then maybe F&B is for you. As an F&B business owner, the most rewarding thing has to be watching the genuine interactions between our guests and the team. You have to enjoy being at your venues and seeing your customers enjoy what you are doing.
Is there a component aspiring restaurant owners should look for before diving in?
You must love what you do. As an F&B business owner, the most rewarding thing has to be watching the genuine interactions between our guests and the team. You have to enjoy being at your venues and seeing your customers enjoy what you are doing.
I was fortunate to have a private dinner with Danny Meyer and he said, when he is in his outlets, besides watching the customers, he looks at how his staff interacts with one another and with customers, and after each interaction if they come away with positive body language, that would be a good contact.
I, too, sit in my bars and restaurants and watch. If you want to be in F&B, you have to love this. You have to love watching all these contacts from your team. Guest to the team, team to team, team to the guest. If you are someone who just wants to eat steak and count money, then just be the customer.
You also have to be hands-on. Go to the outlets that need your attention the most to observe critically, and catch-up with the team to go over highlighted issues. If my chef says to remove the cake selection, I’ll ask him what he sees and I will sit down with him to observe public’s response over the next couple of weeks.
The restaurant business is about all of these little things.
Restaurateurs don’t eat steak and count the money. The most rewarding thing to you has to be watching that interaction between guest to the team, team to team, team to guest. If you enjoy creating and problem shooting that, then maybe F&B is for you.
Any words of wisdom for those considering to open a restaurant?
Just be patient and think about it carefully. A lot of young chefs and bartenders rush into opening their own establishment. Try to take the emotions out of it, and start talking to friends, especially those who have different points of view.
Is this how you develop your concepts?
Yes! I observe, I talk to friends especially those who say, “I don’t think it will work, Indra.” I would ask why. This means I am going to think it through more thoroughly.
Which business format is more profitable: Bars or Restaurants?
A successful bar can be more profitable than a restaurant. The reason is that in a city with very high labour costs, a successful bar can have a more efficient manpower-to-customer ratio. A bartender can wait tables, close the bills, serve, make cocktails (basically it is possible for a bartender to run the show) whereas a restaurant would need to have a kitchen and a Front-of-House team. There are some restaurants where the chefs cook and serve tables themselves but it is very rare and usually for low seating capacity outlets.
On the other hand, the target market for a bar is smaller than a restaurant’s. Everyone eats but not everyone drinks and because of that, it may be tougher to build a successful bar. While a successful restaurant can yield greater returns due to the larger market, a successful bar can have a very good profit margin and less wastage.
That is how the world works. There is no silver bullet for everything.
Not one to rest on its laurels, the Jigger & Pony Group is looking to shake up the Singapore bar scene once again. This time, it is a new concept, Live Twice which will be taking over Flagship in Bukit Pasoh Road at the end of 2019.
Next year, change is also in the air for Jigger & Pony’s editorial magazine-style menu, a first for cocktail bars in Singapore that contains plenty of classic, signature and reimagined cocktails for guests to choose from. Check out their social media for more updates!
This interview has been edited for clarity. Words by Theri Burhan. Edited by Lim Ai Leen. All images by Jigger & Pony Group.