• Theri B

From pop-up to full fledged restaurant: How FIN grew on 100% self-funding and 200% grit

FIN started in 2017 as a humble pop-up stall in Publika serving poké bowls. Within four years, founders Joel Foong, Michelle Liu and John Foong have successfully made the step-by-step transition from pop-up to shared space and now finally settling into a well deserved space of their own - and on 100% self-funding, we might add! All three founders are hands-on with their involvement in the business. Setting foot in the all-new FIN you'll find that the interior is welcoming and reflects the Founders' personalities - note that the table numbers and cake display were handmade by John. On any given day, Michelle can be spotted behind the counter serving and talking to customers while Joel stays in the kitchen overseeing the food prep at all of their four stations. 

“We don't take it all onto ourselves individually. Patience. Numbers. Marketing. Those would be the words to sum us up as partners, which works out well.” Joel adds. 

The incredibly down to earth and genuine Joel and Michelle take us through their journey through the grit and the grime, sharing some of the elements to look for if you're about to level-up your business. 

Below are some key points from the interview. For full article, read more here

Tell us more about your milestones

We started as a pop-up on Art Row, an initiative by Publika. They were really supportive of startups in general. Every day, it was the same routine from the set up to the pack up - furniture, food, prep - we set up the same way and have to pack everything home daily. Even if there were no sales, you’ve still got to weather it out. 

Our business picked up and exceeded expectations. We also became friends with another pop-up startup that serves coffee, Room 203, and in December 2018, both of us had plans to take up a brick and mortar lot. So we got to talking one night and literally decided to move into a proper brick and mortar lot together.

Our shared space opened in March 2018 and two years later, we moved into our own space.  Everything is funded and sourced for on our own. We designed the table with the supplier, 3D rendered the thing, handmade the cake display and here we are!  

The essence of F&B is about making people feel good. Not just the customers but also our team - it's all very cyclical.

Did the pandemic and lockdowns affect your initial plans for opening this space?

The lease for the lot was signed in November last year (2019). When MCO (Movement Control Order) hit, we did have one very long discussion about this and Joel was steadfast about it, he’ll say, “Of course. We're going to do this.”

A lot of people questioned us as well about why we were so confident during a pandemic. Life has to move on. Just because there's a pandemic, it doesn't mean we should be crippled by it. But of course, we have to be careful and take the necessary precautionary steps.

People still want normalcy in their lives and food is something that we find a lot of comfort in. 

So, we figured, yes, it's a risk, but also at the end of the day, doing this helps give us some sense of normalcy. We have been planning this for a long time (even at our shared space) and it's something that the whole team was looking forward to.

What are the aspects that a business owner should consider when they want to expand or level-up in their business?

Back of House 

So, the way we operated back then was very linear, more like a kiosk. Now we have a proper kitchen with different stations. During our trial night, it was a mess! Everyone was running everywhere and doing everything at once because it was how it was back in a smaller space. It was like, three people were making a smoothie while no one’s clearing tables or serving; stuff like that. 

Our friend, Yi Jun (founder of Asian food podcast, Take a Bao) who was there during the trial saw how we were operating and guided us through it. He was like, “You guys need to have stations. Each one needs to be responsible for the station. And then there's the person who's at the counter coordinating traffic.”

Read more about how Yi Jun launched Take a Bao, an Asian food podcast

When we heard that, it was like a switch flipped. We needed to operate as a restaurant! The next day, we detailed and orchestrated everything. We had stations that each person was responsible for, we mapped out how much to make per day, and the handover for the next person, the next day, stuff like that. We have four stations now - broth, breakfast, salad, rice, and we have counters and runners.

Front of House 

The expectations of people are much higher. People expect the full works from you now that you are an independent space. 

When it was in the Art Row and shared space, people were much more relaxed, forgiving and they didn't have such high expectations.

This new space of ours looks and operates like a proper restaurant or cafe and people enter with a frame of mind of how things should be - they walk into a space and expect it to fit their expectations.

Whereas, we think that people should be open-minded to new experiences, right? With anything you do, like watching a movie you know nothing about or eating something new, you don't expect the experience to be what you think it is. So, we're not going to do something just because everywhere else does it, you should come to FIN with an open mind and be excited about a new experience - this is what we are trying to do.

What is your business health indicator? 

We have targets for three different scenarios: 

Scenario 1: bare minimum - before breaking even

Scenario 2: breakeven - where we make a close to marginal profit 

Scenario 3: profit-making 

The starting point is from the food cost, followed by costs that are consistent such as rental, salaries etc. From there, we input the sales data from Year 1 onwards, which would give an estimation of our projected sales. And then from that, we’ll break it down to scenarios where my fluctuating operating costs will be based on a percentage of my total food costs.  With all these factors scaled in, we would have our breakeven benchmark and understand which sales target we need to meet in a day.  And referring to Scenario 3, my target goals would be where everyone gets their increments, and business is doing well.

In order for this place to work, we need to know how much the percentage growth is and whether it’s worthwhile to continue on with this or start planning for staff increments. It gives us an indication of where we are financially.

What advice would you give for those looking to take a chance at this period of time? 

It is always challenging to put up a new brand, but even more so during this time. 

And there's a lot of rules and limitations that you're supposed to abide by. The fact that your seating capacity is cut to half, so your whole business plan needs to be reworked. But then for those who are already established, you have to be very confident in what people want. As far as established brands go, I think you're pretty safe so long as you've done your homework and run your numbers properly. When you know what you’re getting into, you’re probably going to be alright. Then again, they probably have more experience than us anyway. 

In the end, seeing the customer and generally how people like the space definitely helps to keep us going.


Any interesting stories to share from COVID-19? 

Throughout this whole period, we've gotten so much help and encouragement from people, it’s really touching. That people actually care about us! There’s a pharmacist that comes here every day who gave us masks. Customers would send messages like, “I'm so sorry. I'm not able to come and support you guys and hope everything is fine.” or “I just hope everything is ok and you don't close. We'll come when you’re open again.”

There's definitely a togetherness. More so than before. People might not take their local eateries for granted so much anymore. You see empathy and compassion because you know they're local and you, the customer, want them to do well.
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