The F&B world is an exciting one. It conjures up images of bespoke cocktails, innovative superfoods and every conceivable epicurean experience. However, what it does not bring to mind, is institutional catering – feeding large groups of people through company canteens. This food service is a necessary sub-sector of Singapore’s F&B industry, and an area that Alfred Chua has cornered with The Wok People, a catering company that runs more than 60 staff cafeterias in Singapore, and is about to begin its expansion into the rest of Asia. We speak with its co-founder and Managing Director, who is also the recipient of the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award (F&B category, 2014) to get his thoughts about the changing face of institutional catering, and how the next generation of entrepreneurs can gear up for success.
Do employees expect more from workplace canteens today?
Yes, compared to when we first started in 2009, companies now want “staff cafeterias” instead of “canteens”, that offer high-quality service and food. Companies look for staff cafeterias to provide healthier food options as more people want to eat better. They want dishes that are low-carb, low-sugar, or plant-based. Furthermore, with hybrid working arrangements in the “new normal”, some employees want to pre-order their food for the days that they will be in the office. These behavioural changes are forcing us to think of new solutions in order to remain relevant and be of real service.
Any particular innovations and developments you feel will soon become a mainstay in workplace cafeterias?
Sustainability will be a key focus in this time of green recovery, and I believe companies will want their cafeteria operations to reduce food wastage as much as possible. We’re exploring a new technology that uses artificial intelligence in bins to identify what is being thrown away in the kitchen, and then direct this food waste into another system that converts it into fertilizer and water. I foresee this system would be implemented widely. What will also be popular are developments that help people to save time, such as self-serve systems that allow staff to check out in a matter of seconds.
Speaking of cafes, a lot of people aspire to open their own F&B establishments. You also run a cafe at Biopolis. Any pitfalls to warn us about?
The cafe business always looks fun from the outside. Sometimes, people think it’s a success because they see it doing well at dinnertime or on weekends. What about business at lunchtime, or on weekdays? You should check out the crowd at those times, too, and then do a proper risk assessment.
Entrepreneurship is a sexy idea today. If your child told you she or he would like to launch a business straight after graduation, what would your advice be, having done it yourself?
Good question. I would say, work for a few years in a corporate environment first. You will be exposed to work politics, get to study formal processes and maybe learn about industry best practises. That knowledge can help you when you finally run your own business. Also, I’ve noticed a lot of young entrepreneurs today are not hungry; they are greedy. Because of that, they have unrealistic expectations and plans. It falls on my generation and beyond to ensure our children have the right values in life and are not motivated to do a business only because of money. If you’re embarking on an entrepreneurial journey today, remember that dollars and cents are not the only measure of success. If you do something that impacts people’s lives, to me, you have achieved success.