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How to grow a successful F&B business in Singapore, while going zero-waste at the same time

How to grow a successful F&B business in Singapore, while going zero-waste at the same time

Coming clean

Text: Evan Mua


Bali is consistently one of the hottest tourist spots in the region, and it's only natural with the grand diversity of activities and food it offers — from catching waves, reveling in the beauty of rice terraces, to having a margarita at the beach, we've all had fond memories of the island. One of the establishments that helped build the wonder of Bali is Potato Head Beach Club, one of the premier beach clubs on the island — where lazy beachgoers spend their afternoons underneath the scenic palm trees.

But the brand is not just limited to the sandy paradisiacal enclave in Bali anymore, but also established in Singapore where their iconic outlet at Keong Saik has become the focus of countless whimsical posts on Instagram. Not to mention their successful Three Buns burger restaurant, which had recently opened a standalone outlet at Robertson Quay last year, and also chosen by Impossible Foods to be one of the first adopters of their brand of guilt-free plant alternative meat patties in Singapore.

Indeed, Potato Head has come a long way from their days as a beach club in Bali; we had the opportunity to pick the brain of managing partner Ong Seng Hoo on industry secrets, zero-waste challenges, and what's next in the pipeline.

Everybody knows Potato Head from Bali, how did the idea of a Singapore branch come about?
We started in Bali almost ten years ago and most people know us for the Potato Head Beach club. We have always wanted to be an international lifestyle brand and it only made sense to open our first international outlet in Singapore, which is close by and currently has a strong global presence with good foreign exposure. The local and expatriate communities in Singapore have created a strong demand for a world-class F&B offerings ranging from bars, restaurants, clubs and quick service restaurants. In addition to Bali and Singapore, we also have outlets in Hong Kong and Jakarta totaling to 12 restaurants among these cities.

Was there a particular difference between the F&B scene in Singapore and Bali?
Every city has its perks and challenges, you just have to understand it and work your way through it. Singapore is an extremely competitive market as you are spoilt for choices with all the international cuisines at world-class standard comparable to West. I feel that labor and rent would be the key challenges we face in Singapore, as you can get more talent at less cost in Bali due to the lifestyle the island can offer, with many trained and passionate hospitality staff available. However, it's easier in Singapore to import the best ingredients from around the world due to the infrastructure and tax regulation. In Singapore, you can achieve strong revenues as long as your product is good, but overhead is definitely higher, causing margins to be thinner as compared to Bali.

The iconic Potato Head Folk outlet at Keon Saik

What do you think set Potato Head apart from the saturated F&B scene, to enable your brand to grow to its size today?
What makes us different is our mantra — "Good Times, Do Good" — and the fact that we are not only serving our guests but also trying to inspire them to experience something different through our cultural programming. We are a lifestyle brand that enables consumers to a better way of living through products, services, and experiences.  Our distinction is a lifestyle founded on the principles of duality, balance and contrast. We stay true to who we are in all the experiences we provide. Our venues offer an eclectic experience where we bring our local spirit and "tropical soul" wherever we go.

What do you think are some pitfalls that many young restaurateurs in Singapore run into?
The common pitfalls are underestimating cost, challenges in finding good staff, and underestimating the competition.  Restaurants in Singapore open and close every week. The market is unquestionably strong, but it also craves new experiences, not having to settling for the mundane.

Sustainability is a big word — especially when applying it to a business as big as Potato Head. Tell us more about the brand's efforts.
With sustainability as the essence of the company, we take a very simple approach, which is, "today we want to be better than yesterday, and tomorrow we want to be better than today". Even though we don't have all the answers to a very complicated issue, we are humble in our approach and striving. We believe that our approach to sustainability has led us to a far better experience for the consumer, and we can make the best products for our customers while not sacrificing the guest experience. Sustainable can be beautiful and exceptional.

For instance, we established the Sustainism Lab in Bali with two purposes. The first was when we opened Ijen, the first zero-waste restaurant in Indonesia — to demonstrate to others how we achieved this, what we'd learnt, and the concepts of zero waste philosophy. The second was to research and develop new ways to recycle and upcycle waste. We reinforce using events like the Future Design week we held, with a commitment to sustainability and our love of creativity, that we can design a better world.

Indonesia's first zero-waste restaurant Ijen

Can a restaurant be truly sustainable?
As mentioned, Ijen is zero-waste. The furniture and cutlery area are all made of recycled, upcycled and sustainable materials. It serves sustainable seafood and organic plant-based dishes, and all waste is either fed to animals or made into compost. Even our clothing merchandise going forward will be made of sustainable and organic materials.  We work with the government in Indonesia to clean up beaches and increase awareness of being environmentally conscious, and we are the first hospitality company in Indonesia to take the Climate Neutral Now pledge. We have reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills by 76% and have established industry benchmarks for further eliminating waste and promoting recycling in Indonesia, and hope to do the same in Singapore.

What are some challenges that the brand has had to overcome with its expansion plans?
Finding the right people and having them fit into the right structure is probably the most challenging thing we have faced.  We went through many changes, trial and error, and probably learnt things the hard way before discovering what works for us.  At the end, its finding people with the right mindset, with similar principles and core values, that can allow you achieve the same goals.

When did the initiative for the beach clean-up start? And what are you hoping to see come out from it?
We started planning this months before our 5th anniversary and thought a beach clean-up was the best fit for our sustainability pillar. We decided to work with NGO Seven Clean Seas because of the brand synergy and their expertise in conducting beach clean-ups. People just have to be educated and be exposed to what's real, in this case the amount of waste on the beach that has been washed ashore. Giving back to the environment starts with a simple step and every effort counts no matter big or small.

Three Buns is one of the first, and probably best, adopters of the Impossible Meat when it launched in Singapore, do you think Impossible Meat/Beyond meat and such meat alternatives will gain mass-market appeal or even entirely replace real meat in the near future?
I think that plant-based meat has built up a great deal of momentum in the market over the past few years and is getting better with each product generation. As the products and ranges develop, along with the prices becoming more competitive, and with the state of current affairs globally, I feel that they can take a good piece of the market share. They give customers a real choice as a very close alternative to meat and going forward, it's going to help the environment if customers could just partially eliminate meat from their day-to-day lives with plant-based foods.

Following that line of thought, does Potato Head see more value in trying to innovate and be a tastemaker to its consumers, or is there more value to be found in adapting to prevailing/appearing trends?
Innovation is a big part of who we are and one of our objectives now is to show others that a company doesn't need to sacrifice guest experience or their own success to be sustainable. While trying to show others how this can be achieved, we've found that our sustainability initiatives offer a more enriched experience. So I guess if you stay true to your values, you inspire others and hopefully create a trend.

Three Buns at Robertson Quay

With the huge success of Three Buns at Robertson Quay, what is next in the pipeline for Potato Head?
We believe there is room for Three Buns to have six to eight outlets throughout Singapore. We are also looking for a location for Kaum, our take of authentic Indonesian food, presented in a contemporary way. Kaum is successful in Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bali and I believe Singapore does not have a restaurant quite like this yet.

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