My life in 7 years
Disclaimer: This is a personal reflection of the owner - the 'I' in the article - and does not express the official views of the business.
We are small in this very complex business environment with so many factors working against the business, but we survived. 7 years ago on 11th Dec 2010, we did a soft launch for our family and friends. One week later 0n 17th Dec 2010, we opened our doors to the public. Four months later, we took over the adjacent space when the ex-tenant shifted out, which then become our pet-friendly side, and started our pet-friendly business. We often read from blogs that we are one of the earliest and longest lasting pet-friendly cafes in Singapore. We are not sure about that, as there has never been official statistics - this industry is too unprofitable to warrant separate reporting by the government. But when people asked us how we lasted so many years, our standard reply was always, crudely and succinctly, "ah buay si" (hokkien for "have not died yet"). And when customers or interviewers ask me, the owner, why I started this cafe, my answer was always "stupidity".
Here is our story, peppered with episodes of how we struggled, what we learnt and our curious findings about the Singapore consumer behavior. I have written it down so that there is more than me who knew the Sun Ray story.
So in Dec 2010, we started our journey at 79 Brighton Crescent. To create a hype, we printed ZoCard that were well-designed postcards available for free at various locations around the island. We offered a 79% discount if you showed up with the card during opening month, and took pictures with our first customers.
We had a big logo on our wall and a metal sculpture of a series of increasingly more defined shapes of cyclists mounted slanted across the logo. This display epitomised our journey these seven years, from a formless and soulless establishment to a clearer shape of what we wanted to do. As a reminder of how we evolved, we retained it through our series of four renovations, at the same position. Our two swing chairs, blue one from Ikea at the non-pet side and rattan one from Johor Bahru at the pet side, were iconic, and remained with us until our 2013 renovation.
The main reason for our selection of this space was purely coincidental and somewhat ridiculous. Story goes that I brought my pet to a pet clinic, named "Pet Clinic" and noticed the difference in address on their name cards. I found out that they were shifting soon and asked for the owner's contact since I was looking for a space to set up a cafe. That was 79 Brighton Crescent and where we are today. Without experience, without training, without analysis, and being a vegetarian, I signed the contract for this 150 square metre space to set up a cafe. Like most F&B owners, I thought how wonderful and romantic it would be to own a cafe, and how easy it would be since "who doesn't know how to cook and make a drink?" What stupidity!
Everything started sweet and exciting! Our first menu, printed and laminated on one page, with separate food and drinks menus, had the usual fare - mushroom soup, aglio olio, carbonara, you name it - food that perhaps most people could cook at home themselves. In other words, it was nothing special. And in the hurting words of an online comment, "I am not impressed." In fact, I already had a taste of this sourness during one of our internal tasting session when one of the invited friends said unreservedly, "This kind of food... you will be closing very soon." True to the curse, we never saw our first customers. In fact, after five or six years, customers starting telling us that they had in fact visited us during our initial months, and expected us to close anytime soon then.
There is indeed a secret and unspoken neighbourhood betting among Serangoon "Gardeners". It is like fun to to watch, but super disheartening when you are the one being watched. When we see a new shop open, we will visit just to place a bet in our hearts how long it could sustain, especially when they are located at "cursed" positions that always saw shops closing prematurely. After that first visit, if they deemed it doomed, they will not visit again, but will observe the shop from afar just to test the bet. "Three months? Half a year? At most one year?" Sun Ray Cafe belongs to this cursed group.
Neighbours and customers alike looked down on us. This was when I learnt an important lesson in the business: Bad food cannot be forgiven. Nevermind we were very sincere and trying very hard; nobody wanted to give us a chance. Bad business is an eyesore, a good riddance to bad rubbish. On one particular night, I knew that one particular table of new customers was very unhappy with our food. In an attempt to save the situation, I opened a bottle of Moscato d'Asti and offered it to the table. While I introduced myself to be the boss and offered the glasses, the table of three adults did not even want to look at me, and continued talking amongst themselves as if I was transparent. I have to resort to placing the wine glasses on the table since nobody wanted to receive the glasses from me. I was an outright beggar living a deplorable existence. I tried to be friendly and asked again when they were footing the bill whether everything was ok. One of them replied, "Yes, it's ok." True to typical keyboard warrior style, early next morning when I was doing my daily purchase at Sheng Siong Serangoon, I was shocked to read from a particular review site that we had two one-star reviews, both coming from that table, and both were their first reviews on that site. This means the two customers (and subsequently I found out that they were husband and wife) hated us so much they have to create two new accounts to trash us twice on that site, so as to whack the greatest possible impact on our very new and fragile rating. (And Singaporeans depended heavily on ratings to decide dining choices.) I learnt the very harsh reality that if we gave bad food, we became enemies - public enemies. But credit was still given when due. In both their reviews of about 50 words each, a line stood out: "The drinks were nice though." I guessed they were referring to the free wine.
Our cafe started with two chefs. It was unfortunate that I had to fire them on New Year's Eve 2010. That night, the PM was invited to come to Serangoon Gardens for a countdown, as 2011 was election year and this GRC was risky ground. This was the first time we saw so many potential customers passing by our shop, on foot, which meant they need not worry about parking lots (a perpetual complaint about visiting our cafe). We needed to 'net' them and tell them our offerings. So we did, and the cafe was full house for the first time. It was past midnight and people were looking for a drink more than food. The bar was very busy and the kitchen had no order. I asked the two chefs whether they could help by washing the plates (which was done by floor staff) so that everyone could knock off early together. They refused adamantly, saying, "chefs do not wash plates." So off they go immediately that night.
That was an inauspicious start to the new year, which gave an inkling to the subsequent fate of the cafe and of myself. Just 17 days after opening, we were left without chefs. There was no way we could open on New Year's Day 2011, a big loss to us as holidays always brought good business. Fortunately, we had recipes and menus (which described the ingredients). I closed the cafe that day, went into the kitchen and turned on the stove. Spurred on by my rotten character that I shall not be played out or beaten, I cooked my first Aglio Olio which was the easiest dish. Pampered by years of domestic help at home, cooking was an electric shock to me. Honestly, I did not even know how to cook a soft boiled egg. It was decades of karma coming down on me all at once. And so I became the chef, the only chef, and a vegetarian one, cooking meat for our customers.
Steak was the last dish I served, and it remained as 'item 86' (kitchen lingo for 'Out of Stock') until I understood about doneness. I have never tasted beef in my life, so I drew a chart with information from Google about cooking time and cooking temperature, and tested it with my friends. I have no idea whether I cooked correctly, and it was always nerve-wracking to watch customers' reaction. The mental stress further weakened my already exhausted body. More than once, customers have caught me peeping at them from my kitchen window. When customers asked me about the taste of the meats, I gave them Google answers. Nobody knew I was vegetarian then. Seven years later, the truth is out. For survivability, I had put my head on the chopping board.
Our business volume did not justify for bulk delivery. We could not meet any suppliers' minimum ordering quantity (MOQ) for delivery. So I decided to go to the nearby Serangoon market to buy the raw ingredients instead, in small quantities, daily. Maybe that would be fresher and food would taste nicer? Nevermind I was again loading on myself to wake up early to do this, as long as the cafe can survive. Then I found out that the Pasir Panjang vegetable wholesale market sold vegetables at cheaper rates and it opened after midnight. It suited our needs, and I could go after the cafe closed, although the further extension to my working hours were not exactly what my overworked body could handle. Nevertheless, I persevered and purchased vegetables from there, at least once a week, driving a 25 minutes' distance after the cafe closed for the day.
When the fresh vegetables came back to the cafe, I had to keep them in the fridge so that they stayed fresh. However, FIFO (First In First Out) principle dictated that I have to first take out the old vegetables, remove the new vegetables from the carton boxes and put them into tupperwares (because carton boxes are dirty and should not go into the fridge), and then put them behind the tupperwares of old vegetables. I was already squeezing my last ounce of energy to do this, often alone, and by the time this was done, it was usually 3 to 4 am. Sometimes by then, my adrenaline would have pumped up so much I continued to clear the grease trap. Yes, as the boss, I cleared the grease trap (a $2,000 metal box of nauseating and fermenting matter under the kitchen sink which separated the oil and waste from the wastewater entering the public sewerage) because I cannot risk driving away my young part timers by asking them to do this dirty job when I already found great difficulty employing them in the first place. When I first cleared it, I took 45 minutes. After seven months in the kitchen, I got so numb but proficient I could clear it in 15 minutes.
I saved money by reducing staff. There was only one staff in the day - me - running both inside the kitchen and outside on the floor, and I had a part timer who came to work at night after her day job. In the day, I relied on customers to tell me other customers have entered the shop. How I managed to survive was a mystery, and I would have despised my own shop if I were those customer. At night when the part timer came, a relative who frequented the cafe unfortunately did not like her and complained non-stop to me at every possible opportunity, when what I needed was peace and quiet, after back-breaking work and heart wrenching sales results. But I had to hear non-stop senseless complaint once I stepped out of the kitchen hoping to breathe fresh air, so much so I went to the back lane to hide instead. I could only cry inner tears.
That was 2011, and we were losing money. I needed to find a unique selling point. We tried to capitalise on any available holidays and offered special set dinners, in our usual very amateurish style. We also did buffet events, and I still remembered sitting outside the cafe with two other friends discussing our first big event, what to offer, the price, whether I could cook that amount, the way to layout the buffet line, the seating arrangement and the disposable wares to buy. It sort of overwhelmed me, but because my mind could take a lot of abuse and torture, I learnt fast and before long, we did quite a few buffets, even had set buffet menus and did out-catering. Till today, I could not believe I did all those events.
Since nobody came in the day, maybe they would visit us at night! And so I decided to close when the last guest leaves. What an absurd business strategy! It was pure stupidity that drove me to keep resorting to my own effort to sustain the cafe. We took other extreme measures, like set lunch that was cheaper than hawker centre, or opening as usual over the Chinese New Year (CNY) holidays. In fact it was only three years ago that we could afford not to open during CNY. I was at my wit's end, and had totally no idea what to do to save the cafe. Who can I ask for help? How do I explain myself in the first place to ask for help? What help could I ask for beside asking for money? How degrading that was, and how could I bring myself to do that when I was relatively successful before I opened the cafe?
I shifted to the second floor of the cafe so that I can live in the workplace. I had some success in the extended opening hours. I made a mocha at 1 am, and subsequently chanced upon a group of polytechnics students looking for another place to party after their nights out at Chomp Chomp. Our private room was the perfect location and they came continuously for a few times. The most memorable was a steak I cooked at 3 am. They stayed till dawn usually and the latest they left was 7.30 am. I was often so tired I went to bed without showering still wearing my chef's black uniform. Although we closed late, we still have to open on time. Sometimes I overslept, and there was one time, a customer called the cafe line, which was also connected to the phone in my bedroom, when she arrived and saw the cafe still not open. I jumped out of bed at once, changed to working attire just like during a BMT turnout, and went to work immediately without brushing my teeth.