I was once a student at Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Design, and one thing we all agreed on was that our canteen was home to the best stalls on campus.
Lunchtime was a daily battle with perpetually snaking queues from the western food and ‘nasi padang’ stalls that had been adored for ages.
One relatively newer stall also received a fair share of love from students—a vegetarian stall called Greendot.
As someone who usually appreciates meat in my diet, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed their vegetarian mixed rice and soya burgers.
I returned years later as an alumni to find that the canteen stall had since been replaced.
But now, many others know of Greendot as it has found success as a casual restaurant chain, with 10 outlets in shopping malls around Singapore.
Behind this idea and its expansion were two friends on a mission to promote a healthy meat-free diet, 29-year-olds Fu Yong Hong and Justin Chou.
Putting Vegetarian On Trial
Yong Hong and Justin were classmates in secondary school.
As a vegetarian all his life, Justin experienced the difficulty of buying his meals in school canteens. He often had to bring his own food, or sometimes skipped meals because he couldn’t find vegetarian options.
His struggle turned into determination to make things better for other students like himself.
Thus, our aim then was very simple. We just wanted to have a vegetarian option for the vegetarian students in school.
However, they made sure not to just focus on appealing to vegetarians alone, but also aimed to attract non-vegetarians with well-balanced, homely meals.
While he was still in his second year at National University of Singapore, Yong Hong wasted no time creating a meatless bento brand.
With 7 partners who started out together, they pitched to several Singapore universities to buy their bento boxes for orientation camps, encouraging them to “go meat-free for one of their meals”.
They managed to sell 4000 bento boxes in that experiment, and used the results to secure a tasting session with Temasek Polytechnic.
“Eventually, we got the stall and we officially started our first stall in November 2011.”
Partners Dwindled, Challenges Rose
Despite starting out with 7 partners, they were already down to 4 before the opening of their first stall.
Now, only Yong Hong and Justin remain taking care of the business.
For Yong Hong, he says, “It wasn’t easy juggling studies and work, as I had to pack my modules into 2 days and work the rest of the week.”
Thankfully, their time and effort was not in vain, as the stall began to attract queues and regular customers.
What students didn’t see was that the crew would be back almost every weekend to solve problems in the stall.
“Because of our inexperience, our kitchen operations were not very efficient. Almost every week we [came] back on Saturday to shift our equipment here and there,” says Yong Hong.
In 2012, they opened their second stall in Chung Cheng High School (Main)’s canteen.
New obstacles awaited them—one of the walls even collapsed under the heat from their steamer the day before opening.
All they could do was clear the debris, cover the broken wall with a sheet of metal, and proceed to open the stall the next day with a positive attitude.
Ambition For Overseas Expansion
Their ambition to bring Greendot overseas was what pushed Yong Hong and Justin towards opening restaurants, so that they could build public awareness of the brand.
They decided to adopt a franchise model as a means to test and fine tune their training system.
“If we are able to train franchisees to run our outlets successfully, then we should have a better chance of succeeding overseas,” Yong Hong believes.
After pulling out of the schools, they opened the first Greendot casual restaurant at Paya Lebar Square in December 2014.
Just like opening a canteen stall for the first time, they had no prior experience to prepare them for franchising too.
They recount a whole host of challenges that stood before them— “money, people, operations, doubts, fear”.
“When we first opened our flagship outlet at Paya Lebar Square, we only had 5 staff [although] we needed about 8 to 10 per shift,” Yong Hong says.
The first weekend we closed at 7pm because we had no food. We did our best—I even started work at 6am and skipped meals, but we just couldn’t catch up with the orders.
Eventually overcoming the lack of manpower and other issues, Yong Hong and Justin subsequently began franchising, and even opened 3 outlets in 3 months in 2016.
With 10 outlets across Singapore now, each serving about 300 meals per day, Greendot is expecting to exceed $10 million in sales in 2018.
Yong Hong also shares that they’re beginning to look into new places to source higher quality fresh vegetables and ingredients from, aside from their current suppliers in Malaysia, China, and Taiwan.
From 2 Stalls To 4 Brands
Along the way, Yong Hong and Justin came to know new partners, some of whom are the owners of Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant, a vegetarian buffet located in Quality Hotel Marlow.
Lotus has been in business for 15 years, serving over 100 Asian delicacies in their own meatless variations.
Last year, Yong Hong worked with them to open an a la carte dining option, Lotus Kitchen, and merged the Lotus and Greendot brands under one roof.
They also extended their brands into the heartlands by opening Vairy at an NTUC Foodfare outlet in Woodlands.
Coming from a once simple goal of providing a vegetarian option in schools, Yong Hong and Justin have since gone even further in making meat-free meals accessible and appealing to the masses.
However, they do miss the students they once served from time to time.
Our pioneer staff always tell us how much they miss the schools [and] the adorable students [who were] very appreciative of our food.
Listening And Learning From 100 Staff
Now the CEO of Greendot Group, overlooking more than 100 employees, Yong Hong still stays close to his staff on the ground.
Often sharing sentiments and stories on Greendot’s blog, he once explained that he hires mostly elderly staff because he treasures their value and significance in society.
“Introducing our most ‘senior’ staff,” he writes in a Facebook post, “72 years old and still as fit as a fiddle.”
It’s not your age that defines you. It’s your heart that defines your age.
Through carefully listening, Yong Hong gained plenty of insight and feedback from staff and franchisees that helped him learn and improve operations despite his lack of experience in the early days.
Beyond cooking nutritious meals packed with fresh greens, Greendot also shows that they care about all-rounded health by encouraging their staff to do morning exercises together.
One thing that comes as a surprise is that after all this time, Yong Hong only started going fully vegetarian this year.
“A large part of the reason [I’ve finally chosen to go vegetarian] is due to compassion,” he says, “but also, I started to understand more about diet [and learned that] the human body actually doesn’t require meat to function.”
“Lastly, it’s because I want practice what I preach and be in line with my brand’s beliefs, [in order to] lead the brand to greater heights.”
60 Paya Lebar Road, Paya Lebar Square, #02-15/16/17
For the rest of their outlets, visit Greendot’s website here.
Featured Image Credit: Greendot