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Technology and food distribution key to F&B growth, says founder of Ebb & Flow
THERE was a time when Lim Kian Chun was your garden variety angel investor. Armed with a "small" fund, seeding fintech, consumer and media tech startups.
Then he bought a restaurant, which some of his ilk tend to do. He would come to regret it - which some also end up doing. But instead of slinking away from an industry notorious for its high stakes and slow returns, he became totally besotted to the point that he now runs one of the fastest growing F&B groups in Singapore.
The 29-year-old is the CEO and co-founder of the three-year-old Ebb & Flow Group, which at last count has some 12 brands - eight of which were launched last year and at least four this year including the fine dining restaurant Sommer, the reopening of traditional bakery Chin Mee Chin and a modern patisserie Tigerlily.
Ebb & Flow operated relatively under the radar until 2018, raising eyebrows when Mr Lim bought over the troubled Michelin-starred Bacchanalia in a distress sale and converted it into the ultra fine dining Vianney Massot restaurant helmed by the Robuchon alumnus.
"We thought it was cheap," he says drily. But with the costs of renovation and only a small, high-end clientele to support it, it wasn't long before it became a losing proposition. The restaurant closed down in June last year in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis, and they parted ways with the chef. "If we had stayed open we would have done very well," Mr Lim acknowledges. While the loss was painful, it was mitigated somewhat with government support measures. "But it was more a question of whether we wanted to. We would have preferred a greater alignment on the kind of product we wanted to create."
It was an expensive tuition fee to pay but it turned out to be a 'blessing' of sorts when he decided that this was a business he wanted to be in for the long haul. "I didn't expect to be so involved in F&B," he says. "It was more like you made an investment and 'oh-oh'. It's not doing so well so what can we do to save it. And suddenly, I was two feet in."
Instead of giving up the restaurant space in Hong Kong Street, Mr Lim quickly pivoted the business into a cloud kitchen, retaining 80 per cent of the staff and setting up an online bakery concept with his former pastry chef Maxine Ngooi. She is now his partner in Tigerlily Patisserie which sells boxes of baked goods for takeaway and delivery, and the soon-to-open Chin Mee Chin in Katong.
Instead of opening conventional brick and mortar restaurants, the game plan was always to start online first, says Mr Lim. He now has 10 cloud kitchens operating around Singapore, and his strategy is to "always have a concept that can do delivery before dine-in". It turned out to be a prescient move because after opening his first concept Wrap Bstrd, Covid-19 and the circuit breaker kicked in. "(The cloud kitchen business) was something we wanted to do over two to three years but Covid accelerated it." He ended up launching a series of delivery concepts serving Japanese, Malay and Chinese food, burgers and more. The group also launched Supafresh, an online Japanese gourmet shop as well as Kairos, its own caviar distribution line. Once a concept proves itself online, such as Tigerlily, the next phase is to go into dine in, which is why the patisserie is slated to open a physical store in Katong, close to Chin Mee Chin. Delivery for all its dine-in concepts - except for the fine dining Sommer - will still continue full steam, because "we have found that you need a hybrid of dine in and delivery to augment sales".
Not just about delivery
Mr Lim has cloud kitchens operating in targeted areas in Singapore. "We have a few operating out of Ann Siang Hill servicing three brands. We have a couple in Tanjong Katong Road, one in South Bridge Road, and we're looking at other neighbourhoods." He sees them more as distribution points or "a network".
For example, "If I have a presence in Katong, I can service different segments of the market. Why we decided to open Tigerlily in Katong is that we identified it as a high income area. But even if you don't live in the area, we also deliver, which is the whole point."
He's eyeing Sengkang next, which is a promising catchment with many young professionals and families, but not so many dining options. The Holland area is another possibility.
Unlike individual restaurants which offer home delivery - and therefore lacking the resources to balance both efficiently, Ebb & Flow's DNA is a fully integrated infrastructure stretching from concept to cooking to delivery with their own fleet of drivers so that they're not at the mercy of delivery platforms. Eventually, he says, they could open the delivery platform to other eateries, at a competitive price. The group has also developed its own app which will be launched soon.
Technology and the future of F&B
There doesn't seem to be any link or theme to his dining concepts which lurch from burgers and wraps to Japanese and zi char, but there is some 'method' to this madness, he laughs. The company is in a joint venture with Sqreem, a Singapore-based AI startup. "It uses artificial intelligence to study consumer insights and analytics, helping companies to reach their target audience easily in any industry. They do consulting and marketing so they help automate the marketing process by targeting specific segments."
It's a combination of AI and also opportunity and talent, says Mr Lim, who has put together a team of "talented chefs who have worked in the top establishments" to create the menus and concepts for all the outlets. So even though they're preparing such diverse cuisines, "there's a lot of cross-pollination of ideas from the different training backgrounds of the chefs".
The key to making it in the F&B business is to widen your reach, he believes.
"Restaurants per se are not the most stable industry but those who go upstream into FMCG (fast moving consumer goods), production, distribution, anything to do with the supply chain, will do very well in the next 20 to 30 years." With food shortage and food security among the top issues, "food tech and infrastructure will be very big". It's also why he has ventured into the food supply business as part of his push to be self reliant on all levels. "Having different streams of revenue is really critical and technology empowers you to reach a wider group of people."
Finding his niche
That said, it's still the product and experience that counts, and the simple act of "bringing joy" to people, which is what food does - especially if you're looking at a prime steak or a tray of the finest uni. And it's a business Mr Lim seems to have found his own joy in too. "Of course there are easier ways to make money (outside of F&B). It's not just about money but what you want to do. Do you want to make money or create something?" He seems to be doing both, adding that after a shaky start, the group has been profitable in the last one and a half years.
Has he found his passion?
"Yes, I would say so," he says. "It's quite exciting for me to go to work each day."