Jimi Tan is the boss of two very different businesses – he owns Swatow Seafood Chain Pte Ltd, a restaurant business, as well as Kenko Holdings Pte Ltd, which is known for its wellness, massage and fish spas.
The Swatow Seafood Chain has two massive restaurants renowned for its Teochew cuisine, four cafes quaintly called Bao Today (包今天, which is a play on the name of the historical figure known as a beacon of jurisprudence, Justice Bao or 包青天) and are like a marriage of
Singapore’s Toast Box and the cha chaan tang or cafes of Hong Kong, the Peak Bistro, a modern restaurant called the Peak Bistro at the Senior Police Officers’ Mess, and Fortunate, which are dim sum outlets at Food Republic food courts in ION Orchard and Nex Serangoon.
Kenko Holdings, meanwhile, has six outlets in town offering foot reflexology, massage and fish spas.
While Jimi’s businesses are very different, the principles by which he runs the two are very similar: He wants his staff to put their passion, their soul into the work, and for clients to see the difference.
So whether it is delivering a massage at any one of his six Kenko outlets, preparing a humble plate of wanton mee at the new Bao Today outlet at HDB Hub or whipping up an elaborate Teochew meal at his Swatow Seafood Restaurant in Toa Payoh, Jimi insists that his staff do their work with passion.
Authentic Teochew cuisine
And he takes pride in the authentic Teochew cuisine served at his outlets.
“What we have, Teochew cuisine, is original and we do it the traditional way,” he says at our meeting in Swatow Seafood Restaurant in Toa Payoh. “For example, we do our braised duck very differently from what is available, and we don’t have it with chilli. Very often you will see people eat braised duck with lots of chilli, and then they say, ‘Oh, it’s nice.’ But it is the chilli that’s nice. With my lor ah (braised duck) I seldom put chilli. Our dishes are very unique and even though they may have similar dishes outside, we do ours differently,” he says. Yes, making a difference is very important to Jimi, who is also proudly Teochew.
“I am a Teochew, my grandmother made all these dishes when I was young and they cooked all these types of food also,” he explains.
He learned to cook by watching his grandmother in the kitchen.
“When I was young, I learned very fast. Now, not so fast,” he concedes, though it has not stopped his urge for learning. “My mother was a laksa hawker, that’s why we do very good laksa also in our restaurants,” he adds.
“You must ask and learn these things. I am always asking and learning. I learn a lot from the shi fu (master chefs) also – this one, how to cook? Personally, I know how to cook. I can cook pepper crab chilli crab, I know how to cook to make it taste good,” he says with humility.
“My cousin was in the seafood restaurant for more than 40 years, and every time we would also ask very famous chefs, so we ask them how they do it, and when I go out and I like the taste of something I have eaten, I will learn, even in other countries, even when I go to Swatow, China. I will learn,” he says.
“I have many chefs, top chefs, award winning chefs of global competitions. Two of my chefs are also judges in these competitions. One is a dim sum chef and the other is a seafood chef. One was from Hong Kong but is now Singaporean, another one was from Penang, also a Singaporean now, he learned from the old Teochew masters,” he says with pride about his valued staff.
Effort, heart and passion
“They put in a lot of effort. I love people who put in the effort when they cook. They use their heart. If you don’t use your heart to cook, you better don’t cook. No feeling. You have to do it with your passion,” he says.
“Just like massage also. When I do massage, I must use my effort, my passion, everything goes into it. I have been in this massage line for 30 years.
“I help a lot of people’s problems, and I can cure a lot of people’s issues. I help a lot of stroke patients, and those with migraine. Until today, I never miss a case of migraine. A lot of them come in with migraine, and leave cured.
“I believe it is mostly from stress. Tension My massage is like TCM massage where we can relieve your stress and tension, to help you to feel better. There’s shoulder, neck and head massage, there’s eye massage and ear massage, also – it is from head to toe.
“When I apply my massage technique on somebody, they will realise it is different. A true massage is one that is done with feeling. You must use your body and soul to help the person you are massaging. You have the power and energy to help them,” he explains.
“Passion is the difference,” he says, switching from the business of massage to cuisine almost seamlessly.
“For instance, a char kway teow – one person may fry the kway teow so well, then another guy comes and fries the same kway teow, the same thing, the same ingredients, the same wok, but not it’s not nice. Why? It is the heart. The feeling is very important.
“Sometimes there is no effort in making a dish. Take the making of bak kut teh, for instance – when the meat is cold, they simply pour the soup over it and serve. Because they want it done fast. That should not be that way. We must make everything hot,You pour the soup that is hot and it is served hot, then it’s nice. If the meat is cold, you pour the soup over it, the soup would turn cold, too. It may just be a few degrees cooler, like 95 or 96 deg C instead of 100 deg C, but it will spoil the taste of the soup.
“It’s the same with frying an egg also. The same egg and the same oil – one person can fry it so nicely and the other, not. Because one uses his heart. And that is very important,” he insists.
In his quest for knowledge, he finds himself eating and getting massages whenever he travels.
“My job is hard – every day I have to go for massage and to eat, it’s very hard! But I need to learn. Everywhere I travel, it is my job. We must know techniques and developments – about massage and also food – why does he cook it so well? What did he do to make it so good? I need to find out all these things,” says Jimi. He has also learned from chefs in restaurants in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand during his travels just so he can come up with the best Teochew dishes.
And for him, one of the biggest challenges is getting the right people in his staff: the right manager, the right chef and the right wait staff.
Why competition is good
“They must have the heart, not just to pass time. Some people just take money but don’t work, they have no ambition for improvement. For us, every day we have to improve,” he says.
He also feels that competition among restaurants is good, and he hopes that even his rivals keep their standards high, because it will mean creating an ecosystem where Teochew food can be enjoyed by all.
“Everybody must make sure they do a good job,” says Jimi. “If people selling Teochew food don’t do a good job, then what if somebody who has not tried Teochew food – sway sway (vernacular for unfortunate) walks into the restaurant, tastes the lousy food and decides, ‘Aiyah, Teochew food is so lousy, next time don’t go already.’ If standards are not held then the good name of Teochew food will be spoiled. You know? Once bitten twice shy? When they taste a bad one, they might not want ever to try it again,” he says.
And it is the same thing with massage.
“We want people to do a good job, whether it is massage or reflexology. If you do it badly and a first-time client comes in and leaves, saying, ‘So painful, I don’t ever want to come again.’ It’s not good for my business also. That is why we have a massage academy where we are happy even to teach the staff of our rivals.
“For me, we need to have standards. If the massage is no good, don’t pay. If the food is lousy, don’t pay. If the siew mai is not up to standard, don’t sell it. Sell good things only. What for you sell bad things? Do it properly, make something you are proud of and sell it.”
Jimi, who loves a good plate of wanton mee, fried carrot cake and soups like bak kut teh or pig’s stomach soup, enjoys taking walks as a form of leisure.
He enjoys travelling, too, even though it means having to see more restaurants and go for massages.
He enjoys gatherings with family and friends, and would sometimes enjoy a karaoke session because he likes music and singing.
And he meditates, too, believing it gives him good energy.
“I travel for both work and leisure, and when it comes to leisure, it is really about relaxing. No need to set yourself so many targets or places to see when you are on holiday. Taste the food, enjoy the country and don’t give yourself so much stress.
“Also, if you are eating on your travels, don’t overdo it. Enjoy it and take care of your health,” he advises the father of two – a 25-year-old son studying in Sydney, and a 21-year-old daughter studying in Paris. Will they join him in his business?
“I let them do what they want to,” he says. “If they do, they will join me as trainees for two years first, or maybe work outside to gain some experience for two years and then join me.”
Advice to new entrepreneurs
His advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “Don’t gasak buta (go in blindly, in Malay). Don’t anyhow do – focus on what you want. And who you are.
“If you are not a businessman and you just want to be a boss and managing director and a big name card, no point. You use ask yourself, are you earning money?” he says.
He has seen people going into business because they think it’s easy, so they go in without the know-how and experience, and get burnt.
“George Quek (BreadTalk and Food Republic boss) once told me he wanted to go into the business of selling bread. He said he wanted to do loh tee (bread). I said, you’re siao (mad). I reasoned: All my friends who started loh tee tiam (bakeries) never made any money. So many of them went into debt, owing so much money they had to go into hiding.
“George Quek’s reply: See who do. And I believed only when I saw him doing it. There were queues everywhere in all his BreadTalk outlets. He did a different kind of bread. People would sell their buns for 30 cents but BreadTalk’s buns were sold at a starting price of $1.50. That was 10 to 20 years ago when you could get nasi lemak at $1.50 for a meal. Who would want to buy a bread for $1.50, for just a snack?
“But George wanted to do the best bread. It was expensive but still affordable. If you want to do, concentrate the whole day and night until your product is ready, and then step out,” he explains.
He has seen staff of his massage outlets leaving to set up their own spa business, then failing and coming back to work for him.
“Some workers open their own shop because they think that if their boss can do good, so can they. Then they engage people to do the work they did. Problem is. they don’t focus on details, they don’t emphasise enough on training, which is why they end up failing.
“Even as a boss, I have to work hard. We make sure people are loyal and who help us make money get a share of the profits. You cannot always think for yourself. Because it is their hard work that contributes to the success of the company.
“For 30 years I worked very hard, I know how to do business so my job is business. I know how to set up and I know the skills and the know-how. If you can manage then you manage, or cooking or logistics, not everybody does the same thing. As a boss, you need to pull all these together. You need to know how to get the business running.”
The beloved boss
He takes us a short walk away to a month-old Bao Today outlet at HDB Hub. The staff appear delighted to see him, and the chef is extremely eager for the boss to try his wanton mee.
“You saw how happy they were to see me? I give them the confidence to do well. We have had Bao Today, which is about fresh food (noodles, buns, dim sum cooked freshly on the same day) for 10 years. We made sure it was stable before setting up two new outlets. We are always doing our research and development of products, we take out time to test them and we se how people respond to them,” he says.
“There are so many things that go into the business: Apart from making good, fresh food, we need to think about things like how the chairs and tables are arranged, how the cutlery is placed, how many workers you need so the food goes out hot to the customer,” he explains.
“It is hard work.”
Indeed. But done with great passion.