Do you believe in second chances?
Perhaps not everyone does, but for Enoch Teo (27), a Singaporean chef and co-founder of the Garcons casual French cuisine chain, a second chance was what saved him from a life of delinquency.
From a life fuelled with drugs and other vices, Enoch found his calling – and saving grace – in cooking, and it all started at a humble tze char stall.
From ‘Insecure And Aimless’ Teen To F&B Entrepreneur
A self-professed “insecure and aimless” teenager, Enoch dropped out of school right after his Secondary 2 exams.
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“I hung around with bad company, got myself involved with a street gang, and eventually got into drugs, stealing, and other vices.”
Then 16-years-old, he started thinking that this was the life he was going to lead.
But this all changed after a car-breaking incident.
“[The incident] got me arrested, and I was sentenced to a one year programme at the drug rehabilitation centre, [where I] met many older drug offenders who had been convicted multiple times.”
“Many spent more than 15 years behind bars and have lost almost everything – their youth, ability to work, family members, and friends.”
It really shook me and made me start to think and take my life more seriously.
After release, he still went back to his old friends and vices occasionally, but eventually got out of it “with the constant support from family and a few key mentors”.
“It wasn’t easy,” he admits.
Most significantly, it was his passion for cooking that steered him back to the right track.
And it all stemmed from his mother’s tough love – cutting off his allowance when he was 15, and challenging him to get a job to support himself.
“The job [at a tze char store] occupied 12 – 14 hours of my day, and back then, we only got 2 off days in a month. This kept me out of a lot of trouble as I couldn’t hang out with my friends as much.”
Cooking also gave him a sense of pride – especially because he could work alongside older, more experienced colleagues, and do the same tasks as they did.
For a boy that didn’t do well in school, working in the kitchen made me feel confident of myself.
Rejected By 2 Culinary Schools
The aspiring chef wanted to learn more, and applied for 2 culinary schools a few months before he finished his National Service.
However, he was rejected by both.
“I felt very discouraged, and questioned the equality of the system as I personally knew many friends who were not as serious about the culinary arts but got into school because they met the minimum requirements.”
But that setback wasn’t going to bring him down, and he continued to build his career, sans culinary school.
“[Eventually] I went on to land a job in Absinthe working under chef Francois Mermiliod who eventually wrote me a recommendation to culinary school.”
His culinary experience then took him to the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Andre in the year 2010, where he had his internship.
This was also where he serendipitously met Immanuel Tee (31), who eventually became the co-founder of Garcons.
“We talked about our individual businesses very often and realised we both had different strengths that could complement each other. That was when we decided to partner up to start Garcons.”
At the end of 2017, Immanuel left the company on a mutual agreement, but the duo still remain good friends to date.
$1.2M In Gross Revenue In The First Year Of Opening
With an investment of $40,000, Enoch and Immanuel opened the first Garcons outlet at Essen@The Pinnacle in August 2015.
Enoch reveals that “business was very good since the start”, and to keep up with the crowds, the team had to work 16-hour shifts, 7 days a week, for the first 2 months.
In just the first year, they also expanded to 3 outlets, and earned a very impressive $1.2 million in gross revenue and about $150,000 in net revenue.
We have been consistently maintaining our revenue and net profit margin of 7-10%.
“It’s not easy to take it much higher as we don’t charge high prices, but yet have to bear the same costs like any other establishments.”
French cuisine isn’t known to be the cheapest out there, given the ingredients (many premium) used, so how does Garcons keep the prices affordable?
Explains Enoch, “The reason why we are able to do lower prices is due to our ‘quick serve’ business model where we rent smaller stalls or kiosk-like units, pay lower rental, and keep a leaner manpower structure.”
“Therefore, customers who dine at Garcons can expect bistro-worthy dishes at 30-40% [below the normal price].”
Currently, there are 4 Garcons outlets islandwide, and they’ve also ventured into providing catering for events.
But his culinary journey all wasn’t that smooth-sailing, Enoch shares.
“I’ve faced many challenges. Cashflow problems, labour issues, and failed ventures are the main problems.”
It isn’t a fairy tale as some may think of it to be – I have had expansions that were not successful too.
“But I always believe that business is a journey of learning, and sometimes failure comes with a price. We always have to pick ourselves up and move on.”
“Not All People Who Have Made Mistakes Are Bad People”
Meaning ‘boys’ in French, Garcons was set up not just an F&B business promising affordable French fare – it also has a strong social mission.
“Our mission is to impact youth-at-risk and ex-offenders by providing them not just employment, but training in French cuisine as well. [This is] so that they can pursue careers in F&B – either at Garcons or [anywhere else].”
Does that also mean that female youth-at-risk can’t join the Garcons kitchen?
Not at all.
“Our beneficiaries are not selected by gender, but most of them are usually boys.”
When asked about memorable ex-staff, Enoch recalls that one is now the head chef of a restaurant in a hotel, and another successfully expanded his family’s mee hoon kuey business.
“Both of them joined us back then with very little prior culinary experience. I am extremely proud of both of them.”
Not all people who have made mistakes are bad people. A lot of times, they were just in bad situations which caused them to make bad decisions.
“Also, these youths or ex-offenders are a group of people to watch, as many of them actually work doubly hard to redeem themselves for the past mistakes they have made.”
“If they focus and put their heart and mind to it, one day they will be successful and honourable people in the society as well.”
Everybody deserves a second chance, and I think it should be a joint effort of everyone in the community to help them instead of rejecting them. After all, it is always better to have one less criminal on the street.
One can’t help but compare him to well-known restauranteur Chef Benny Se Teo of Eighteen Chefs, a chain that also has the mission to help troubled youth and ex-offenders via F&B.
“To be honest, I only heard of Benny Se Teo and Eighteen Chefs after I started my social enterprise,” admitted Enoch.
“I actually never really knew what a social enterprise was until I ran one. I have great respect for him and what he has done, though!”
“Chase Your Passion”
As an ending note, I asked Enoch about the advice he would give youth who might currently be as “aimless” as he was back then.
I would like to advice youth to explore as much as they can when they are 15 – 23.
“Even when in school, do as many part-time jobs in your free time [as you can]. It may not be something that you pursue as a career but there are definitely a lot of things that you can learn from the experience that could be applied.”
“Also, chase your passion. Work will never feel like work if you love what you do!”
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