Eldwin Chua doesn’t take no for an answer.
With what little experience gleaned from part-time jobs at fast-food and seafood restaurants, the property agent quit his job, depleted his savings of $10,000, took over his grandfather’s coffee shop in Defu Lane in 2002, and eventually manned its zichar (Chinese cooked food) stall when the owner quit.
“I was young and had nothing to lose. I thought I’d just try it out,” says the 37-year-old. He is the second of four children born to a lorry-driver father and baby-sitter mother.
Slogging behind stoves and combing wet markets for ingredients, he cooked, served and washed dishes every day. When there weren’t many patrons in the evening at the quiet industrial area, he introduced value set meals. By 2004, diners were flocking to his stall Seafood Paradise for dishes like his now-famous creamy butter crabs, which led to him converting the entire coffee shop into a 400-seat restaurant.
But it was still “just a coffee shop”, says the former kopi kia (Hokkien for chaps who took drink orders at a coffee shop), recalling a friend’s remark in those early years. “It’s nothing compared to the big, fancy restaurants out there.”
This teasing would set the wheels in motion for a burgeoning restaurant empire that is today’s Paradise Group. Revenue this year is expected to hit over $100 million.
“I don’t like being told that I can’t accomplish certain things. If it’s not beyond me, I want to prove them wrong,” says Chua, who is married with one son.
Convinced that veteran hotel chef Fung Chi Keong could deliver his idea of an upmarket restaurant after being introduced by friends, Chua “stalked” him for over a month, showing up at the former’s then workplace Pine Court restaurant at Meritus Mandarin Singapore, and bombarding him with text messages. At one point, Chua even showed Fung his bank statement to assure him that he was serious.
Chua’s persistence paid off. Fung relented and agreed to head Chua’s first high-end Chinese restaurant Taste Paradise in Chinatown in 2006.
And the rest, they say, is history. Fung is currently his group executive chef.
Over the next three years, Chua would open a second Seafood Paradise outlet, form a holding company for his restaurant operations and launch casual diner Paradise Inn which serves home-style Cantonese fare.
His proudest – and riskiest – moment, however, was opening a second Taste Paradise in Ion Orchard in 2009.
Fuelled by what he calls the “prestige” of owning a restaurant in town, he turned a deaf ear to mentors who advised him that existing competition in Orchard Road was too strong. He was confident that the people visiting the new luxury shopping mall had spending power and would be curious to try a new restaurant.
He exhausted his resources to put together $4 million for the project. “But, if I had failed then, there would be no Paradise Group today.”
Not every risk has paid off. Chua shares that he lost millions in a recent project which he declines to elaborate. “Committing to high rent, rushing to start operations when the backend is not ready… I have learnt to be more calm and conservative in my decisions. I was naive then, but I know now that not everybody can be trusted.”
Paradise Group has over 30 restaurants in Singapore and 10 in Asia, including Hong Kong and Thailand. Chua aims to open 20 to 30 more over the next two years, especially in Hong Kong and China, and to eventually own a high-end restaurant in London, where he is already operating food truck Haochii which serves Asian food.
“To me, being able to expand the business is about fulfilment and satisfaction. It’s like seeing your baby grow – you feel such warmth on the inside.”