Long-distance relationships aren’t easy, and Johnathan Quek can easily vouch for that.
He met his Korean girlfriend (now wife) in 2009 and they dated for a good year, albeit being 4,699 kilometres apart.
And eight years ago, technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now, which made the dating game even harder for them.
“It was very tough because back then, there wasn’t any mobile messaging apps such as Kakao Talk or WhatsApp. I had a mobile phone, but it was still running on first-gen tech. I only had MSN messenger, which is not mobile-optimised. Even at work, I was not allowed to chat on the work computer. So [phone bills] was costly as we made regular phone calls and texted all the time,” he lamented.
He ended up flying to Seoul, Korea almost every month to see his then-girlfriend. The traveling expenses ended up draining his salary, and soon he ran out of annual leave and started taking no-pay leave.
The time and financial constraints continued to take a toll on him, before Johnathan finally made up his mind to up and move to Korea the following year.
This also meant quitting his job as a hotel executive under the Hotel 81 Group.
The Group was growing rapidly at that time with the expansion of Value Hotel and V Hotel, as well as the then-upcoming launch of Hotel Boss; so “there were plenty of opportunities for career progression” for him.
Despite the good prospects, Johnathan insists that he has never regretted his decision to leave the job.
Starting Anew In Korea
…even if that meant being jobless for seven months in a foreign land.
He lived off his savings and when that dried up, he started racking up credit card debts.
It was financially taxing, but it wasn’t easy securing a job in Seoul either.
A lot of factors interplay here: the language barrier (he spoke zero Korean), the poor job market, and the discriminating fact that he’s a foreigner.
Johnathan said that he sent out dozens of applications for positions in the local hospitality sector, but hardly got any replies.
“Very few companies responded because I only sent out my resumés in English. I didn’t want to send it out in Korean and portray myself as proficient in the Korean language – that would just waste both parties’ time when I actually meet them for an interview,” he said.
This propelled him to brush up on his language skills so he took up Korean classes at the language institute at Seoul National University.
He then started going door-to-door with his CV, specifically hotels in Seoul that were rated three stars and above. Companies outrightly rejected him, and only two five-star hotels offered him a role as a Front Office Manager.
However, due to visa issues, the contract didn’t work out and he was left jobless again in the end.
Then in early 2011, Johnathan had to return to Singapore to clear his IPPT test.
And when he least expected it, he received an offer for a regional director role from a Korean barbecue franchise – “they were looking to expand to Southeast Asia and wanted me to help spearhead their entry into the region.”
“I worked extra hard to pass the IPPT and flew back to Korea the next day after I passed.”
“The company put me through a crash training period, during which I learnt everything about the business – from washing dishes, doing kitchen-related work, to business operations and management,” he said.
It was a tough yet fulfilling experience, and it taught him the ropes of running a F&B business. This very stint was also what sparked his journey to be an F&B entrepreneur.
Being The Boss Of His Own Restaurant
That very year in 2011, Johnathan forked out 150 million won (~S$181,000) to start up Aunt Piggy with the help of his girlfriend.
Aunt Piggy was a 70-seater restaurant, located at Seoul National University.
It was a no-frills concept aimed at the student population, but it was also very competitive as there were 6 other Korean BBQ outlets in the vicinity.
But he didn’t sweat it, and easily edged out the competition by intentionally under-cutting their prices.
“The idea was to go in for the longer haul and take a lesser margin approach to kill off the competition, then raise the prices slightly,” explained Johnathan.
“Pricing was our winning factor. At 6,800 won (about S$8) for each portion of meat, I killed off my competition. Except for the big franchise name, the other individually-owned barbecue restaurants closed down within two years.”
The strategy worked like magic, and Aunt Piggy soon became a hit with the budget-conscious student crowd. Sales was so good that by the second year, the restaurant broke even.
Motivated by the profitability, Johnathan decided to expand the business and spent another 200,000 million won (~S$241,000) to start up a new Korean BBQ restaurant in October 2015.
Called On The Grill, the restaurant is located in the Myeongdong shopping district, and targets both the office crowd and tourists in the area.
Out With The Old, In With The New
But a few months later, in 2016, Johnathan decided to sell Aunt Piggy to a local barbecue franchise.
The area had suffered about 30% student population loss due to the removal of bar examinations for law at Seoul National University, which inadvertently affected the business.
“The restaurant itself was in need of an overhaul as the interior and kitchen was quite well-used. I could not justify spending more money to do so as I also needed more funds for On The Grill,” said Johnathan.
So all he wanted then was to “get a takeover fee (50 million won) and make an exit”. He also received a rental deposit of 40 million won from the shop’s landlord.
With the acquisition of 90 million won, Johnathan was ready to give On The Grill his all.
This time round, he stepped away from his tried-and-tested low-price strategy and experimented instead with new menu offerings.
“To cater to the tourists in the area, as well as to spark interest from the locals, I decided that our menu will feature fusion Korean food coming in at a slightly lower price point as compared to other BBQ restaurants in the area. We are currently still the only fusion Korean BBQ restaurant in the area – this remains our best selling point,” said Johnathan.
Back at Aunt Piggy, Johnathan attempted to jazz up the Korean BBQ by fusing local sauces. He introduced new marinades with a local twist such as Curry Samgyeopsal (pork belly) and Satay Samgyeopsal.
“These were first tested with my group of Singaporean friends and a local chef – all of them really liked it! But when I tested them on my regular local customers, nobody gave any positive feedback. The general consensus was that I should not mess around too much with a Korean staple. Looking back, I do agree with them to a certain extent. I mean, Singaporeans also probably won’t enjoy chicken rice if it doesn’t taste like one right?”
But as he conceptualised On The Grill, he took another look at the eating habits of Koreans and felt that they were more open to Western flavours, so he decided to incorporate those flavours instead with a herb mix with black pepper sauce, and honey with garlic sauce.
“I made a bold decision to maintain some Singaporean influence as I feel very strongly about our unique food culture. I had decided to include a range of dipping sauces that include Singaporean flavours featuring Singapore Chicken Rice Chilli, Chicken Rice Ginger and later a Curry Powder mix.”
“Things have worked out pretty well!”
The 56-seater joint fills an average of 30 tables a day and rakes in a five-figure monthly revenue in US dollars.
In fact, the restaurant just broke even last month; and this is no mean feat considering the high rental prices and the stiff competition.
From Seoul To Singapore
With the success of On The Grill, Johnathan has decided to bring the venture back to Singapore.
He has been in talks with three individual investors from Singapore since March, and has since found a venue for the restaurant, though he declined to reveal further details on it.
“We will be modifying the concept for Singapore. On The Grill will be a fusion Korean grill restaurant – please wait to check out what we have in store! We plan to open by late November as the handover of the unit is slated to be in October. At this point, I cannot reveal the name of the mall as we have yet to sign on the dotted line.”
“We are also exploring other countries in the region that On The Grill could be a success in. Currently, Bangkok, Thailand, is on the agenda,” he added.
Looking back at his journey as an entrepreneur venturing overseas, Johnathan said that it had forced him to grow and learn to deal with different situations very quickly as the exposure he gets is on a bigger scale than back home.
“The entrepreneur journey in itself is not an easy one, much less having to do so in an unfamiliar environment. It feels like war sometimes. That back-to-the-wall feeling keeps me on my toes and forces me to think faster, see further, and react calmly.”
“Every entrepreneur should never lose touch with the ground. They should never be afraid to step back into the firing line, back to where it all begin. Losing sense of the ground will ultimately cause you and your company to lose its sense of direction and flavour,” he advised.
Featured Image Credit: Johnathan Quek / On The Grill