PS.Cafe has been an iconic brunch spot in Singapore, known for its chic interior with lush greeneries, and signature truffle fries.
But unbeknownst to many, it actually started off as a humble outlet in a clothing store almost two decades ago.
The homegrown fashion label Projectshop, which evolved into PS.Cafe, was helmed by three co-founders – Peter Teo (53), Philip Chin (56), and Richard Chamberlain (53).
Philip had studied law in the United Kingdom; but both Peter and Richard took up art and fashion at another university there.
With their fashion background, it’s no surprise why the duo is in charge of the business’ design aspects. But Peter wears multiple hats – he’s also in charge of the food together with Philip.
The Early Days Of Projectshop
After graduating from university, Peter went on to work in clothing firms in Paris and London for several years, as well as a designer for children’s wear and luggage at a lifestyle company in New York.
When Peter was 17, he was diagnosed as having a tumour in his spine; and he constantly suffered from back pains in his late teenage years.
Despite undergoing surgery, the pain recurred and this forced him to go for another operation.
During several months of recovery, Peter started sketching colourful T-shirts, which propagated the birth of his own clothing line in 1990.
Called Projectshop, the label was started by Peter and Philip, and was later joined by Richard about six months later.
They each invested $5,000 and an undisclosed loan amount to kickstart the business, Peter told The Straits Times.
Projectshop’s portfolio soon expanded to include more menswear; and the business later grew to 15 outlets and counters in Singapore and other regional countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, at its peak.
Spurred by the success, the trio started to also design bags and accessories.
Diversifying From Fashion To Food
Both Peter and Philip had always been keen on the idea of opening up a cafe since their days living in London.
“Back then, it was the fashionable thing to do – to have a cafe within a fashion store – like how there was DKNY cafe. It was trendy to have the fashion-lifestyle element then, [so] we were ‘of its time’,” Peter told The Business Times.
In 1999, they made their first foray into F&B with the launch of Blood Cafe, which was housed within their Projectshop outlet at Paragon shopping centre.
“We wanted to to offer customers a different kind of experience, one combining fashion and food. We [also] wanted to diversify our fashion label and make it more of a lifestyle experience. Food and drinks came naturally to us,” said Peter in a separate interview with Honeycombers.
“The fashion side of the business [also] allowed us the luxury of opening a cafe without worrying if it would make money.”
Unfortunately, their business was adversely impacted due to the Asian financial crisis.
Recalling the hardship, Peter described the feeling as “the sky falling down”.
Their bank had threatened to withdraw their credit facilities, and it demanded payment of more than $100,000 upfront.
It was a financially taxing period for them, but they overcame the crisis by managing their cash flow through various means, such as by asking suppliers to extend their credit.
Over time, they realised that it was “too much to do both food and fashion”, so they decided to give up on their fashion business.
“Fashion in Singapore was getting too hard to maintain, with [high] rental and [stiff] competition,” said Philip in an interview with Underscore Magazine.
Moreover, they felt that it was “more rewarding” to be in the F&B sector, particularly when customers compliment on their food.
“Also, the three of us wanted something that we can grow old doing, and it was more food than fashion,” he added.
Diversifying their business and making the leap from fashion to food in their 40s may be a risky move, notably because they have zero experience in the F&B sector.
But Peter insisted that it was impossible for them to compete with retail giants who had lower price points, so this shift was pretty much necessary.
Nonetheless, the trio never imagined that their cafe business would move to the forefront to be their “main business”.
We’re Not A “Chain” Of Cafes
After Blood Cafe, they opened PS.Cafe at Harding Road in 2005.
Inspired by Australian cafes, the flagship outlet received very good response at launch, causing it to get “booked for months”.
“When we launched our second outlet at Harding, we already had a loyal pool of customers. People thought we were crazy to open there as the area is scarcely occupied, and we had to build the café from scratch,” Peter told Underscore Magazine.
“However, the only alfresco dining options there then were seafood restaurants, hawker centres, and the ‘satay’ club. So when we opened, it was radically different and immediately successful.”
A few years later, they opened their second PS.Cafe outlet at Palais Renaissance. That very same outlet was also where they first introduced truffle fries in Singapore.
Fast forward to today, PS.Cafe now boasts eight outlets in Singapore.
Its latest additions include the Raffles City outlet, and another at Fullerton One.
These two outlets were opened within the span of less than six months. Some might think of this rapid expansion as ambitious, but Peter refuted that they were just being “opportunistic”.
“We came across the One Fullerton site and saw the possibilities, so we created an indoor dining space, a private room, a bar, and an open-air terrace that overlooks Marina Bay,” Teo told The Business Times.
“Our location at Raffles City is on the third level atrium space, and it is a great location. So it is just good timing that we got these two spots.”
In addition to its string of PS.Cafe outlets, the trio also runs two Chopsuey outlets in Singapore.
Unlike its sister cafe, Chopsuey serves Chinese food with a Western influence.
Despite running 10 F&B outlets in Singapore, Peter kindly rejects the idea of labelling his group of restaurants as a “chain” of cafes.
“A chain suggests a link chain – boring, repetitious. We don’t see ourselves as a chain. Every outlet is a unique outlet, an urban escape,” he told The Straits Times.
“We always say, ‘same same but different'”.
Secret To Success: Be Consistent, While Continually Evolving
Peter admits that their fashion business had given them a leverage by providing them with a strong customer base.
“I think if we didn’t have the fashion store and started with the cafe instead, we would have needed to hype it up,” he told The Business Times.
While a ready pool of customers helped, maintaining the success of their business is also critical.
Peter humbly attributes it to two factors: “consistent management” and “a strong company culture”.
He added that this has helped give the impression of “stability” to both employees and customers.
With over 200 staff under their wings, the trio makes it a point to take care of their workers.
“We have a fantastic team. We wouldn’t be where we are without our wonderful staff.”
With such a strong rapport with their staff, it is clear how they’ve managed to retain their staff. In fact, 18 of their staff members have stayed with the company for over 10 years.
Peter also advocates the idea of “consistency” and insists that this is what makes customers keep coming back for more.
“But while being consistent, we are also constantly evolving. Things may feel the same, but we are always tweaking things,” said Peter.
Richard credits Peter for always making an effort to “keep things fresh” and “instigate change” in order to elevate the business.
As they both come from a discipline where there’s constant change, they are especially aware of the need to stimulate people’s eyes, minds, and palates.
“As designers, our instincts and perspectives are quite different from … a chef-owner,” shared Peter with Honeycombers.
With a knack for discovering beautiful spaces, he is often the one who scouts for new locations for their outlets.
“Our Harding Road one is by far the favourite with customers. It is our best-performing outlet, and it has the most “wow” factor, with the lush greenery all around it. This outlet gets featured in foreign magazines a lot, and has become a destination even for tourists to go to,” said Peter.
He also makes it a point to constantly refresh their menu. Although their cafes serve classics such as fish and chips, burgers and fries, they also try to introduce new dishes with every new outlet.
For instance, as their One Fullerton outlet is located at a waterfront, their menu features more seafood dishes like chargrilled skate.
Sharing future business plans, Peter revealed that they intend to launch their first overseas outlet in Manila this year.
“We also have plans to open in the east of Singapore. It seems that many of our customers live in the East, and have been asking us to open on that side of the island,” he told The Business Times.
When asked to share a piece of advice for aspiring cafe owners, he encouraged them to take a brave step forward and “just do it”.
“If you don’t try, you will never know. We didn’t have any special advantage but we have done it, and you can do it too.”
Featured Image Credit: Honeycombers / Great New Places