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Restaurateur Karen Cheng on food trucks, and the current Covid situation

Charting her journey from food truck owner to partner at multiple restaurants – including Sushi Kimura and Gyu Bar.

Karen Cheng didn’t wake up one day and decide to go into the restaurant business. She might have had her first taste of sashimi at the age of six and had parents who exposed her to different travel and eating experiences while she was growing up, but her first career was actually in the luxury goods industry. She was head of marketing communications for the Asia Pacific region for a well known champagne and fashion house, and would have probably stayed on happily if serendipity didn’t get in her way.

The big fan of food trucks happened to meet a chef who was looking to set up such a business and before she knew it, she became the owner of The Travelling C.O.W (Chef on Wheels) – a quirky cow-shaped truck that was the first of its kind in Singapore in 2012. After getting her feet wet in the F&B business, serendipity nudged her again and she found herself partnering with sushi chef Tomoo Kimura, who would eventually lead Sushi Kimura to one Michelin-starred status. Now, Ms Cheng, 44, is co-owner of several restaurants including The Gyu Bar and Ichigo Ichie. The Japanese connection is a coincidence, because, like her previous ventures, it all came about because of the right timing, partners and concept. Although the F&B industry is facing its toughest challenge yet as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc across the world, it’s the path of an entrepreneur to navigate through both good and bad, and as far as she is concerned, there’s no getting off this exhilarating rollercoaster ride.

 

(Related: Dr Martin Bem on running a mini F&B empire, and the current Covid 19 situation)

 

Why the fascination with food trucks and how has that business evolved?

I have always been a fan, especially on my travels. It’s not just about the food but the whole social experience. One of my first memories of eating from a food truck is visiting a friend in Cambridge when, after attending a ball, we lined up in the cold in our formal gowns and six-inch heels just for chips and mayo. This simple dish has never tasted better and the image of that evening still remains vivid in my mind 25 years later. So, when I came back to Singapore for a break after living abroad for many years, I realised that amidst the vibrant and diversified food scene, there were no food trucks. At the same time, I was introduced to a chef who was looking to start up the business and that was how we launched The Travelling C.O.W.

It has since evolved into an events and catering company but it’s been heavily impacted by the cancellation of all public and catering events for an indefinite period. So we’re trying to work out our next steps. With the new lockdown measures, we are hoping to see if we can work with the authorities to bring affordable fresh food to the doorsteps of some residential/public housing areas where there may be limited access to food.

 

That was your first taste of entrepreneurship. And you subsequently went on to open other restaurants. What has the journey been like since?

It definitely has been an exhilarating experience and I have learnt many valuable lessons. One key lesson is to expect the unexpected… from small issues such as running out of ingredients an hour into a five hour event, to having to evacuate the whole restaurant due to a fire sprinkler issue, there is never a dull moment.

On a more personal level, it is still a work in progress for me to learn not to take things too personally. It has been hard as we are in a human business and it’s very easy to let emotions take over. Being an entrepreneur sounds fun but it comes with a lot more responsibility as I’m no longer responsible for myself but for the livelihood of many others. Every decision made should not be taken lightly especially during this challenging period. We look for different experiences at different stages of our lives, and I definitely have no regrets so far.

 

When did you start to feel the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on your business and what challenges are you facing as a result?

Business is generally slow after the Lunar New Year so I don’t know we can attribute it to Covid-19. But it was inevitable that when the world started to lock down borders and limit air travel that our business would be affected. Dealing with the logistical impact on food, deluge of last minute cancellations and enforcing social distancing measures were just a handful of fires we had to deal with daily. Now, the new restriction on dining in is another challenge because our business model is based on omakase – which is a dining experience that is all about seasonality and personal interaction with the chefs. So, contingency planning is one of our most time-consuming activities because we have to anticipate many scenarios that were not even fathomable just a couple of months ago.

Still, even with all the negativity floating around, I am extremely impressed by our team spirit. Everyone is staying positive and supportive and keeping focused to be ready when the time comes for ”normal” operations.

 

(Related: Covid-19: Here’s what restaurants are doing to stay afloat)

 

Have the government measures helped?

We are definitely grateful to be in Singapore now. The wage support and property tax rebates are very practical and the proposed new legislation for temporary relief for the inability to meet contractual obligations will help give healthy business models time to bring revenues back to a healthy state once the dine-in restrictions are lifted.

Sure there will be some naysayers, but compared to most countries the government has offered measures that go above and beyond to ensure the sustainability for not only businesses but the livelihood of Singaporeans.

In any case, all measures given help, but survival will depend on all stakeholders sacrificing and working together to support each other. Ultimate survival is not just about how much support the Singapore government offers but rather the global environment and how long it will take for the world to return to some normalcy.

 

How are you coping? Both as a restaurateur and personally?

It has been a daily battle for me and my alter ego – the rational versus the emotional side. For the business, we have to make sure that there is a business continuity plan but we have to be fair to our team too. On a personal level, I would love to support the businesses out there but yet I have to balance that with the responsibility of social distancing. There is definitely a contradiction between the two, however, there is no doubt that when push comes to shove, human lives will always be valuable than economic wealth or personal fulfilment.

 

Do you see any light at the end of this tunnel?

I have always had a positive outlook on life even when things seem unfavorable as we see in today’s climate. Part of the equation is surrounding yourself with positivity. We can take this down time to re-focus on things that may have been taken for granted such as bonding with family, friends and also time to ourselves. It’s difficult but if we can just drum up a little more positive attitude from each one of us, it will help everyone get through this difficult period.

 

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

 

(Related: Takeaway is the new fine dining)