You could say that Mustaffa Kamal’s venture into the F&B industry was almost accidental. After all, this is a guy whose first encounter with the working world was as a lifeguard, and later as a part of the SCDF for 4 years.
That said, accidental in no way means easy. Mus, he says to call him, is the co-founder of The Black Hole Group, a collective of 9 halal F&B brands that includes (working title) Burger Bar, Afterwit Mexican Taqueria, Of Mice & Men Mobile Coffee, The Mad Sailors British Kitchen, Tipo Pasta Bar, Stack, The Co-op, Santap, and The Great Mischief – and to achieve that is no mean feat.
But let’s first rewind back to his pre-F&B career.
Mus is humorously candid when talking about how he took up a work experience program while in university, which brought him to the US to be a lifeguard. He recalls how he was unexpectedly plunged head-first into vigorous training sessions (in 5°C weather too!), and jokes, “I thought it was going to be a fun thing... But we were on green card visas, so we wouldn’t escape.”
In all seriousness, though, he was in the business of saving lives – both as a lifeguard and in the SCDF – and doing a good job out of it required him to be adaptable and conscientious.
And how did he go from that to running an F&B business? We’re getting to the best bit:
Mus was (and still is) also quite a traveller, and loved getting to know fellow travellers in the hostels he stayed in. Of course, he couldn’t travel forever.
His solution? To bring the travellers to him instead – set up a hostel.
Not without the opinion of some trusted friends, though. So when he called up Calvin Seah (spoiler alert: his co-founder-to-be) to ask for advice, Calvin offered much more than that when he said, “Ok, let’s do it.”
And so their partnership began that 2012.
Over the next few months, Mus worked at a hostel while the duo searched all around Singapore for a suitable property to call their hostel. They had easily viewed over 30 properties over the entire period, but none were suitable or within budget.
Their final shot – they were going to pull the plug if this one wasn’t the one – was a 5-storey property on Arab Street. It was dilapidated, had burn marks on the walls, holes here and there…
...And it was the one.
Mus and Calvin revamped the entire place in 2 short months, and by the third month, the hostel was up and running. The first floor of the property, which under regulations had to be an F&B establishment, was rented out to someone else to run an Egyptian shisha lounge.
But when that rental agreement came to an abrupt end 6 months later, Mus and Calvin found themselves with an F&B space to fill. And what did these guys, who had seen everything through all by themselves this whole time, do?
Run their own F&B project too, of course.
Hence, (working title) Burger Bar was born.
Mismatched furniture, a toolbox as a cashier machine… These are just some of the things that gave the restaurant its quirky character. Or hipster, as the serial cafe-hopper would call it.
“We weren’t hipster because we curated it to be so, we were hipster precisely because we had no money to curate anything,” Mus clarifies. But diners loved it! The media featured it. People kept coming.
In response, Mus and Calvin upped the game even more. They met with coffee vendors, learned from more experienced friends, bought better equipment. What’s more, because they couldn’t afford staff, the duo worked every day from opening till closing, which meant easily over 15 hours a day.
At this point of recounting his story, Mus lets out a huge sigh (we, too, were out of breath just thinking about it) and laughs. We laugh along, because we feel it – it’s the sort of laugh you let out when you think about things in hindsight and feel plain satisfaction.
After all, everything he had been through had brought him here in one way or another. His first jobs taught him resilience; working in the hostel gave him an idea of how to run one. Starting out entirely manual taught him the intricacies of operating an F&B business.
Of course, being responsible for the operations of a whopping 9 F&B establishments under his brand, Mus now employs tech solutions such as Zeemart for back-of-house logistics and Payboy for HR in order to scale his business effectively.
Beneath that light-hearted manner in which Mus talks about how The Black Hole Group came to be, we can all tell this accidental F&B entrepreneur has immense grit and, more importantly, a whole lot of love for his diners.
The (working title) Burger Bar has over 15 burgers in their menu and all made with halal ingredients. Remember to pay Mus a visit there if you happen to be around the area: