Nicholas Lim and Tommy Pang are wonderful hosts.
The young cousins — Lim is 20, while Pang is 23 — give us full rein in their Serangoon Gardens eatery to move the tables and chairs around for the interview. As we set up, Lim quietly brings over mugs of iced mango cordial.
To be honest, it was a little surprising to learn that the owners of Nic & Tom Eatery are so young. I mean, what were you doing in your 20s? Not running a food establishment, probably.
Wanting to strike out on their own
In a way, you can say that being an entrepreneur is in their blood. Pang's parents are the founders of the popular Bai Nian Yong Tau Foo chain which started out as a lone hawker stall at Albert Food Centre in 2013.
Watching them slog as hawkers working 19-hour days clearly made an impression on Pang who used to help out whenever he could. The many hours spent at the stall sparked an interest to "do something with [his] hands".
For Lim, who used to help out with the cashiering and making prawn paste at his uncle's second stall at Clementi, it was seeing the smiles of satisfied Bai Nian customers that inspired him to pursue a career in the food and beverage industry.
Seeing the success that Pang's parents had from selling one dish — yong tau foo — also made the boys question if they could do more, and "serve a wider variety, at affordable prices, in a comfortable environment".
Perhaps it was the privilege of having a front row seat to the difficulties of a mid-career pivot into the food and beverage industry (the Pang seniors were in the timber industry before they started Bai Nian), but both Pang and Lim were adamant that they should start their business while they were young.
"I do not want to have any regrets...An idea came came about and I want to know whether I really can start something of our own...I think, in a way, it was to prove myself."
Finding the right fit for the eatery
Aside from borrowing a tidy sum from their parents (to the tune of S$200,000, we learn), the pair could draw on their family's experience in running the Bai Nian stalls. But operating an eatery is quite a different ball game.
For instance, says Pang, restaurants have more to fuss around with because they have a front-end of the house to manage.
"At that point, it was actually something very new to us, and also very new to our parents because our parents don't run restaurants. They run hawker stalls and coffeeshop stalls. So we had to do our research on our own."
The boys went around observing how other restaurants made use of technology in their operations. Some had iPads and Quick Response (QR) codes for customers to place their orders. Others had a queue system where customers pick up their own orders instead of being served.
Such technology go a long way in helping food and beverage companies cope with the perpetual manpower crunch but Pang and Lim decided that it wasn't for them.
The pair are amusingly old-school when it comes to serving their customers. Aside from flipping the (very extensive) menu, customers don't need to lift a finger.
"I hope to deliver customer service to them, to have a personal touch, you know, like coming home, to eat. So there was why we adopted a system that fits what we wanted, where we help the customer to order and we also serve them as well."
A naming blunder — Fu Er Dai
The pair opened the eatery in 2019, offering a smorgasbord of dishes — think fried chicken wings, cheesy seafood noodles, pig intestine mee sua, and pig-trotter rice — that they personally love.
Somewhat naively as well, they decided to name the eatery Fu Er Dai (富二代), which translates into Rich Second Generation.
Popularised in China, the term 富二代 carries a negative connotation, describing young, rich, and typically lazy folks who live on the wealth accumulated by their parents.
Of course, that wasn't what the pair was gunning for, says Lim:
"We were trying to show people that we can actually become rich with our own hands, through hard work and dedication."
The two are acutely aware that they have the privilege of being financially backed by their parents. But they hoped that a successful eatery business would be proof that they can make something of their own, despite their youth.
Laughed at by neighbouring business
Unfortunately the business didn't kick off the way they expected it to. Six months in, the eatery was serving a paltry 30 tables daily — 40 on good days. It was bleeding money by the buckets.
Disheartened, the pair contemplated closing the restaurant. In fact, they would have wound up the business if not for a particular incident, says Pang.
He recalls how an owner of an F&B business along the same street came over one day during lunch.
It was peak hour but Fu Er Dai had only two customers.
The owner peeked in, saw the largely empty eatery, and laughed out loud before heading back to his place which was enjoying brisk business.
"I witnessed the whole situation and it really broke my heart."
Turning the business around by giving away free food
Determined to make sure that the eatery succeeds, Pang went back to his parents and asked to borrow another S$50,000 and six months to turn the business around.
A small portion of the money went into rebranding the eatery with new furniture and decor. The restaurant reopened as Nic & Tom Eatery in January 2020, complete with a huge exterior signboard with their faces.
The two also started to do their own marketing outreach.
Having no money to spend on marketing the eatery, Pang decided to give vouchers for his signature dish — cheese bee hoon — to Instagrammers with at least 1,000 followers.
"So I'd DM them and say, like, Hi, so-and-so, here's a voucher for free cheese bee hoon — totally free. You come in, you can just eat, and then you can walk out. You don't have to take Instagram story, you don't have to do a post for me. I just want to invite you sincerely over to the restaurant to try our dish. You eat already, you can just walk out."
It was a gamble, but Pang and Lim were confident about their food.
"We knew that when they see the food, they cannot help it but take a photo and post online," laughs Pang.
It is true. My first reaction upon seeing this bowl of Abalone Cheese Bee Hoon was to snap a photo of the abalone and forward it to my family, exclaiming, "Wah, very dua liap (big)."
The food is indeed very good. You can read our review of the eatery here; I recommend the Pig Intestine Mee Sua.
The pair's influencer outreach worked. More and more customers started turning up at the eatery. By February, they were serving 60 tables daily. All seemed to be going well — until the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Overwhelmed during Circuit Breaker
Like many other food and beverage outlets, Nic & Tom Eatery could not accept walk-in customers during the Circuit Breaker in April 2020. Left to depend on deliveries, the cousins feared that all their efforts in turning the business around would go down the drain.
They scrambled to set up their WhatsApp business account and braced themselves for the inevitable. Best case scenario? 10 orders per day, says Lim.
"So on the first day, we had a lot of orders. Over 400 plus. People keep calling in because we weren't ready for so many orders. So it was very, very messy."
Why the unexpected jump in orders? Probably because the eatery promised free delivery islandwide for orders that were as low as S$15 — a "mistake" says Pang, that is understandably attributable to their lack of experience.
The cousins subsequently increased the minimum spending for free delivery and set a cap on orders so that they would not be overwhelmed.
During the Circuit Breaker, the eatery managed to deliver a respectable 120 orders per day on average thanks in part by a group of taxi drivers.
In return for delivering food, Pang and Lim paid these drivers S$5.50 per trip and provided them with three meals a day. Pang says that it was the eatery's way of helping out fellow Singaporeans who were also struggling during the pandemic.
Fast forward to the present, Nic & Tom Eatery is still going strong, seeing huge crowds every weekend.
The pair also started a Telegram group so that they can speak to their customers directly, blasting out new promotions every now and then (the current one is a 1-for-1 offer for Fried Prawn Cheese Bee Hoon).
Yes, the business is indeed picking up, says Pang, but there's still some time to go before they can start pocketing their earnings — 100 per cent of their profit today goes into repaying the loans they took from their parents. In the mean time, his goal is quite simple:
"You know, regardless, whether today there are only 10 customers that walk in, I want to serve the best quality dish that I can to make these 10 people happy. Even now, with a bigger crowd, you know, that's also our duty."
Nic & Tom Eatery
Address: 55 Serangoon Garden Way, Singapore 555951 (map)
Operating Hours: 10am to 10pm, daily
Contact: 6789 9696 / 8410 4122 (WhatsApp for delivery services)
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