I’ve personally never been a fan of clean eating – anything remotely healthy, or green and leafy just turns me off.
But just by scrolling through Vannessa Lee’s Instagram page, I’m not surprised if I ever turn vegan one day.
She just has the penchant to make healthy food look so good. And all of these are homemade nosh, mind you – not some store-bought fare from some hipster café.
With her apparent love for healthy food, I guess it was a natural progression for the 25-year-old to delve into F&B.
Together with her younger brother Joey Lee, 23, they co-founded the group Tandem Collective in June 2016.
“We founded Tandem Collective with aspirations to make a mark on the local F&B scene in our way, with our individually unique perspectives on the industry,” said Joey.
Starting Up A Poké Theory
The first food concept they rolled out under Tandem Collective was A Poké Theory.
It specialises in Hawaiian poké (pronounced ‘poh-kay’) – which is pretty similar to Japanese chirashi don, where fresh sashimi is served on top of a bed of sushi rice.
Customers can customise their poké bowl by choosing their preferred base, flavour and toppings. Other offerings include superfood smoothie bowls, cold-pressed juices, T2 tea infusions and healthy snacks.
“I first tasted poké during my internship in Los Angeles, at this little shack on Venice Beach. I was immediately taken aback by how tasty yet simple the dish was. It was literally just marinated tuna on rice, which led me to go crazy with thoughts on how much we could jazz up this dish accordingly to our local palate,” said Joey.
Moreover, barely anyone in Singapore was well-acquainted with poké back then.
So when he returned to Singapore, he was determined to set up a poké shop. But since he had to enlist in National Service, it inevitably delayed his business plans, but he still made the most out of his time there.
In the army, he worked on research and development – conducting taste tests with his friends, and figuring out what system to adopt to cope with the potential massive traffic.
The store finally opened its doors in July last year, and the response was simply overwhelming.
Long queues formed even before opening hours, as well as during lunchtime, which made it hard for them to keep up with the demand.
“We sold out in two hours on the first day, which led to people queuing outside our store at 10.30am to ensure that they got their poké bowl for lunch on that second day. We still sold out in three hours then, and struggled to feed the demand throughout the week,” said Vannessa.
“We were supposed to open on Saturday as well, but decided to stay closed for the day while we took a hard look at our operations to try to maximise processes and space in order to keep up with the demand and tap into our maximum potential revenue.”
This positive reception is all thanks to her teaser campaign, which kicked off approximately two weeks before the store launch, to help build the hype.
Vannessa formerly led the social media content team at Havas Media, where she clinched 11 awards during her two-year stint there. She had also been approached to join the Google content team, though that didn’t work out eventually.
Harnessing all her previous work experiences, Vannessa is undeniably the “creative force” behind Tandem Collective, and is now in charge of the company’s branding.
Alter Ego, The Evil Twin
Just four months after launching A Poké Theory, the duo set up another F&B joint at Esplanade called Alter Ego.
“Esplanade had wanted us to open a second store, but needed us to serve alcohol – which was against the brand’s mantra of healthy eating. Hence we flipped it around into an “evil twin” persona where it was healthy by day, and indulgent by night. That way, we could still serve our specialty poké and also hit the alcohol requirements,” she explained.
In other words, Alter Ego serves poké bowls till the evening, while the indulgent grub runs till late.
Their star dish is the sinful pizza fries, which is slathered in three rich melted cheeses and crowned with smoky pepperoni.
“At Alter Ego, you’d be looking at dainty, plated poké bowls versus generous servings of pizza fries, buttery grilled cheeses and sinful Juicy Lucy burgers – the stuff you can only attribute to a #foodporn hashtag.”
This ‘evil twin’ concept also reflects their contrasting eating habits because unlike Vannessa, Joey is not health-conscious and is known for his “indulgent creations”.
With his wealth of experience in the food industry (he was previously a food journalist, and also worked as a part-time chef at a commercial kitchen in Seattle), Joey is now the man behind the food ideas and he works hand-in-hand with the head chefs to execute it.
Besides the menu, the ‘evil twin’ persona is also reflected in the interior decor of the stores.
Vannessa describes the store space of Alter Ego as “more grown up” in comparison to A Poké Theory. The space is a mix of rusty steel, cement and wood, with lots of natural light in the day.
At night, UV lights highlight messages scrawled on a wall mural in glowing red, and the space transforms into a darker, edgier space.
When asked about the rapid expansion, Vannessa said that it was an unplanned move – “it was more of an opportunity”.
“Upon opening A Poké Theory, we had different malls approaching us for tenancy within our first week, and investors coming to the shop looking for us (the owners) to pass us their name cards, being keen on funding our next expansion. Esplanade was one of the malls that offered a space to us, and we negotiated a deal where we saw the potential for it to do well,” she explained.
Surviving The Tough F&B Industry
The F&B industry is rather competitive in Singapore.
There are many eateries popping up, just as there are as many stores that have closed down. So how exactly are they planning to last in this tough industry?
As a former food journalist, Joey said that he “went through some sort of accelerated learning on F&B”.
He used to critique the dining experience and also constantly kept track of the cafes and restaurants that were thriving, asking owners and PR executives on the reasons why some concepts failed.
And since the tables have now turned, Joey is applying these gained knowledge to his business instead.
He added that “branding” is also an important factor that should not be overlooked. Their long queues at launch is a testament to how important advertising is.
But Vannessa recounts an incident where some have shunned their efforts and attributed their good business to sheer luck.
“A particular moment that stuck out to me was when we were invited to be part of a speakers’ panel at a SMU Eagle Inc‘s event. One of the speakers referred to us as a “one in a million exception” who were “very very lucky” to have queues out the door in our first few days, while they struggled with spreading word about their brand in the early days.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t a conscious jibe at us, but I actually did take offence at that,” she said, laughing it off.
Vannessa emphasised that they put in concerted effort into launching a brand before the opening, then followed it up with a series of other social media strategies that led it to go viral on Instagram.
“That isn’t pure luck. That’s undermining our strategies both in branding, marketing, and even business operations.”
Having A Sibling As A Business Partner
When the Lee siblings first announced their business plan to their parents, they were extremely supportive about their ambitions – probably because their parents are also entrepreneurs themselves.
Interestingly, Tandem Collective is not the duo’s first business venture together.
“During my studies, my sister and I tested our own little cookie business from our one oven at home, moving from small orders from our friends to wedding orders in the span of a year and a half, and that was where I practiced our costings and our chemistry working together with my sister in a business,” said Joey.
But there’s a group of people who thinks that you should never do business with a family member because conflicts are bound to arise and relationships might get strained.
When asked to comment on this, Vannessa said that both of them have always been incredibly close growing up.
“Our parent’s divorce alongside other things, drew us closer rather than further apart. We bicker like your regular pair of siblings, but we do have a very deep, unspoken bond between the both of us that we innately know to never wreck – no matter how tough the business gets.”
“Of course, we have had heated arguments and shed many tears, but we’ve also learnt to celebrate every little triumph – whether it’s a new sales record, or having our faces plastered on the front page of Lianhe Zaobao (A Chinese-medium newspaper). At the end of the day, if we had to choose between business or family, we both know we would choose family in a heartbeat. And I think that’s a major driving force and strength in our relationship in the business.”
Currently, Vannessa is based in Melbourne where she is busy making plans for her upcoming wedding.
As such, Joey is taking over all operations-related matters such as quality control, logistics, store management and external events.
Meanwhile, Vannessa will take up roles that allow her to work from a distance such as handling HR matters and branding, while still overseeing the shops through CCTV cameras.
However, she will still be shuttling back to attend major meetings.
In terms of business expansion, Joey said that they are currently in talks with possible franchisees for A Poké Theory, both locally and overseas.
“As always, it boils down to whether they have the same vision as us, and if we believe that they are the right hands to entrust our brand with.”
“As for new concepts, we’re always on the watch for the right time and place, and that will be the defining moment as to when we make our next move. Till then, we’ll just have to wait and see!”
Featured Image Credit: Gerald Tan