Tips for Finding Suppliers and Managing Inventory in Singapore
From pizza fries to poke bowls, Joey Lee, co-owner of Tandem Collective, has brought all these concepts to life in Singapore’s F&B industry. This week, we had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with him to learn more about running an F&B business in Singapore.
Zeemart: So Joey, tell us a bit about yourself.
Joey: My name is Joey, and I run Tandem Collective together with my sister Vannessa. We basically came into the scene wanting to do something different and bring a change to the F&B scene. We had some experience part-timing in various restaurants, but we learnt the bulk of our skills on the job. Currently, we are running two concepts – A Poke Theory and Alter Ego (by A Poke Theory).
Can you share with us what was your concept behind Alter Ego?
Alter Ego’s materialisation was quite a funny thing. As kids, my sister and I had always dreamt about opening our own café. Being little and naive, we always dreamt about a concept where we would serve polarising ends of the food spectrum so people who liked junk food (like myself) and those who liked healthy food (like my sister), could eat in one place and be happy.
When Esplanade approached us, they said we had to have alcohol to go with the great view of the waterfront and that’s when it clicked – merging A Poke Theory’s healthy image with an indulgent spin. It was perfect because we had A Poke Theory already running, so naturally one-half of Alter Ego was formed. The other half was basically what I liked to cook – all the sinful recipes that I’ve accumulated cooking for my friends and families.
What are some challenges you faced as a newbie in the F&B industry?
One of the first things we experienced as a major challenge was managing our inventory. Typically, chefs are the ones in charge of this. If they’ve worked in the kitchen for years, they rank up and learn exactly how ordering is done. That’s when they will take over inventory management.
Being newbies in the F&B business, we had a big shock when we started handling our inventory which consisted of lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and sashimi-grade fish. We honestly did not expect the kind of traffic that received at the start. What we thought was going to be almost over-ordering (we were worrying about things like “Oh we’re gonna waste our pineapples, we’re gonna waste our fish because we cannot keep them for long and we want to serve them fresh”) ended up being “We don’t have anywhere near enough”. That’s when we needed to start figuring out how to get in more fridges because we were were needing to order in these perishable ingredients in such bulk.
“I never expected the rain to play such a big role in F&B.”
Other than that, the rain – I never expected the rain to play such a big role in F&B. Logically, of course it would affect things – but when your shop is a heritage shophouse unit instead of a small store in a sheltered, air-conditioned shopping centre with many underpasses leading to it, things are very different. Rainy days with excess inventory brought about some problems, but we’re lucky that our day-to-day on weekdays are very consistent, and we’re dealing with a decent volume, so we managed to handle our inventory on an almost daily turnover. This is something we’ve always stuck to in order to maintain freshness in all our ingredients.
One of the things that caused a lot of frustration was keeping track of prices. I wasn’t aware of how much the prices of fruits and vegetables fluctuate. There was once when I noticed “Eh, the price on my written invoice is different,” and wondered whether the supplier gave a good price at the start, but slowly increased it without notifying me.
As business owners, there’s a lot to oversee. One of the things that we cannot do is to constantly be checking through every single invoice. An ordering software will allow us to keep track of that. Prior to us ordering through Zeemart, we basically had a Whatsapp group for every single supplier. Essentially that’s when I had 50 to 60 Whatsapps, up to the point where my own conversations with my friends and family got lost because there’s just so many groups.
What was your process of finding your suppliers?
We definitely changed suppliers quite a fair bit at the start. I learnt that business is business, and there is never any hard feelings with the suppliers. Never let yourself get strong-armed by anyone who is trying to push across that “Hey you know, I’m your friend, you should be getting from me as your supplier, type of condition to you.
“You need to do what you have to do for your business.”
Our suppliers know that we need to move on – we need to adjust our menus accordingly to our own customers. You need to do what you have to do for your business. There are certain things i’m a little particular about – like what time our suppliers deliver their goods to us. I don’t want us to be in the middle of lunch service and someone’s wheeling a vat of oil into my kitchen. These are things we tried to negotiate on. If they have their own delivery route and they cannot suit our timings, we know that it’s not personal.
How would technology help your restaurant to be more efficient?
As we scale up, there’s always concern about quality control. This is something that has made us want to produce all the things that has a chance to go wrong ourselves. With A Poke Theory in particular, our style of expansion is franchising.
We’re going into technology to make sure that it can help us with these orders. As I mentioned with Whatsapp, ordering with suppliers is challenging enough. Within the next 2 months, we’ll have another 2 outlets coming. We are going to be both buyers and suppliers. With a software like Zeemart, at least we’re all using the same system, we know there’s a way to keep track of it.
How do you insert a personal touch in your restaurants?
We’ve always been a big advocate of the personal touch. The main reason why we went into the concept of A Poke Theory was because we felt that poke was a new product. Not everyone is going to be comfortable entering a shop that is completely centric around poke, and they may feel like a fish out of water. With that, they don’t feel at home, they don’t feel comfortable, and that’s something we never wanted to happen.
At A Poke Theory, when you enter the door, our staff would immediately greet you. They’ll say “Hi, welcome”, ask if it’s your first time here and guide you on the ordering process.
“The competition’s very fierce – you can’t possibly be half-hearted and still expect to be keeping up with everybody else.”
So Joey, any advice for people wanting to start their own F&B business?
Please make sure that you want do it for the rest of your life. F&B is something that is pretty niche. If you’re really into it – I’d definitely say it’s a fun industry to go into. If you have the interest then make sure you put your 110% into it. The competition’s very fierce. You can’t possibly be half-hearted and still expect to be keeping up with everybody else. Some of the chefs are so immersed in it, their whole lives revolves around their restaurants. If you don’t keep up with the trends, or with what the industry is like, you might be in for a rude shock.