The F&B business isn’t easy, whether you’re a man or woman. But industry veteran Sandra Sim, 40, feels it’s even tougher for women in a typically male-dominated kitchen.
“It’s very fast-paced,” says the CEO of F&B group Coterie Concepts. “Stress levels are especially high on a big Friday or Saturday night. Men in the kitchen will shout at anyone to work faster. Women often choose the softer approach, saying to someone: ‘Come, let me help you.’ But that doesn’t change the fact that you must be able to withstand the aggressive environment. Otherwise you won’t get very far.”
Sandra launched Coterie Concepts in 2014. She had previously owned and managed restaurants in Shanghai for seven years before returning home to Singapore to manage Sauce Bar under the Butter Factory Group.
In under five years, Coterie has opened four concept bars, namely Cantonese tapas bar Sum Yi Tai, cocktail backroom Mona Lounge, Shanghai-inspired bar and club Eliza, and mod-sushi and highball bar Chi Kinjo – all located within walking distance of each other in the Central Business District.
Sandra co-founded the company with her elder sister Sharon, 42, who offers strategic advice while holding a senior position at Citi. The third partner is Tay Eu-Yen, who formerly helmed the popular lifestyle brand Butter Factory Group as co-founder and executive chairman.
Eu-Yen says: “F&B is very, very male-dominated in its leadership strata. It may be condescending to talk in terms of women versus men, but the reality is that there are indeed very few women here. And women do struggle to gain the kind of equality and respect among their peers who are mostly men.”
What else holds women back from joining the industry?
Essentially, it’s the long hours. For example, “I have two small children,” says Eu-Yen. “I have to be able to wake up at 6:30 every morning no matter what happens the night before. I have mummy duties to perform.”
One reason why the three women work so well together is that they are sympathetic to these challenges. Sharon says: “As friends, sisters and women, we don’t bat an eyelid when one of us says she has to leave the bar to pick up her kids (Sharon also has two children). The F&B business is filled with difficulties and challenges, but when you have partners who are supportive of you and your life outside of work, you can weather the worst.”
Sandra and Sharon met Eu-Yen when the three were studying at Raffles Girls’ School. Sandra and Eu-Yen were peers, while Sharon was two grades ahead. After university, the Sim sisters worked and lived together in Hong Kong. They spent many evenings at the legendary hotspot Lan Kwai Fong – with over 90 restaurants and bars – and wondered why Singapore didn’t have a sprawling party district like that.
Meanwhile, Eu-Yen was busy running the popular Butter Factory nightclub for nine years. But when it started winding down its operations in 2014/2015, she needed to find her next venture. The three women got together and decided to launch an F&B group focusing on bars serving Asian food.
“We started out simply wanting to eat Asian food at a bar,” Sandra says. “Typically, one finds fries, chicken wings and standard Western fare at a bar. But why couldn’t one have, say, carrot cake with cocktails? Canto bar bites became the concept of our first bar, Sum Yi Tai.”
Playing to their strengths
Sum Yi Tai (which means “Third Wife” in Cantonese) proved popular among local barflies, thanks to its signature XO carrot cake and Asian-infused drinks. The bar’s success spurred the women to launch the three others, as well as Coterie’s own social media branding arm Postman.
When it comes to work division, the women are clear about their strengths: Eu-Yen, a former litigation lawyer, takes care of business development, corporate structuring and management oversight. Sandra, a keen chef and designer, oversees the food design and kitchen operations, as well as all of Coterie Concept’s visual branding and interior design. Sharon, a senior private banker with her own investment portfolio of F&B startups, tech platforms and real estate consultancies, provides strategic advice.
Sharon says: “We work well together and complement each other’s strengths. For Sandra and me, we’ve gotten closer since we started the business together.”
Sum Yi Tai and Mona Lounge are at 25 Boon Tat Street. Eliza is at 113 Telok Ayer Street while Chi Kinjo is located on 29 Stanley Street.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.