Entrepreneur

From A One-Man Hawker Stall, This S’porean Built An F&B Empire By Serving Affordable Western Food

  • Founder Aston Soon, 47, opened a coffeeshop stall selling Western food along East Coast Road in 2005 
  • Called Astons Specialties, he invested $35,000 in it and broke even in just 6 months
  • In 2009, Astons raked in an annual turnover of $12 million in just four years
  • Astons has also diversified beyond serving just affordable steaks — it is now a global group with 11 F&B brands under its name

On days when we want to eat high SES food but have a low SES budget to adhere to, Astons is typically a go-to dining option among Singaporeans.

At Astons, you can tuck into a Prime Sirloin or Prime Ribeye steak for under $20, which is a fraction of the price compared to other steakhouses in Singapore.

Although Astons has established itself as a household name in the local F&B industry today with over 35 outlets worldwide, it has very humble beginnings.

From Kopitiam Stall To Global F&B Empire 

aston soon
Aston Soon, 47, founder of Astons / Image Credit: BiTES

Founder Aston Soon’s experience in the F&B industry started when he worked at the now-defunct American chain Ponderosa, which was known for its salad bar.

During his stint there, he took on multiple roles and “worked as a waiter, broiler-cook, dishwasher, everything“. Over time, he rose through the ranks and eventually became a manager.

His time at Ponderosa presented him with the opportunity to learn things from scratch and experiment with various Western cuisines, including cooking steaks.

He was later inspired to strike out on his own, so he invested $35,000 to set up Astons Specialities.

It was a humble coffeeshop stall along East Coast Road, which serves quality Western cuisine at pocket-friendly prices.

But running a business alone was extremely tough, lamented the 47-year-old.

I was a one-man stall and was working 18 hours per day, even with the help of several family members. With such long working hours, family time [also had to be] sacrificed.

In a separate interview, he said that he often squeezed in power naps during non-peak hours behind the kopitiam.

He would squat by the drain and shut his eyes for a rest, and what was supposed to be a 10-minute nap would turn into an hour-long nap if he is extremely exhausted.

Although it was physically tiring, business did extremely well.

The value-for-money steaks, coupled with good service, kept people coming back for more.

Soon enough, the stall gained a huge following and media interest so it comes as no surprise that Astons broke even in just six months.

Earned $12 Million In Just Four Years 

astons specialties
Long queue forming outside Astons Specialties / Image Credit: Flickr

To cater to the growing demand, Astons Specialities moved into a proper restaurant space a few doors down the following year.

The bigger space meant more staff headcount. Aston hired ten staff, but he still continued to do most of the cooking.

As the business continued to thrive, Aston eventually converted the adjacent unit to expand the space from a 33-seater to a 90-seater restaurant.

In 2007, he opened a second outlet in Serangoon Gardens in partnership with a long-time friend, who has helped him out since his kopitiam days.

As an act of gratitude, Aston eventually gave him ownership of the store and opened a third outlet in Joo Chiat shortly after.

With the exception of his first kopitiam stall, the startup costs of his subsequent outlets were all purely derived from the revenue of his F&B business.

To further highlight the success of Astons, the chain raked in an annual turnover of $12 million in just four years.

Despite the high revenue, Astons insisted that their profit margin is “lean” because their “prices are not marked high”.

“Our business model works when there is a large customer volume. We are able to keep prices low because we order food in bulk and enjoy economies of scale,” he explained.

11 F&B Brands Under Astons To Date

astons express
Astons Express / Image Credit: Javin Tham

Today, Astons restaurants are divided into four categories — Astons Steak & Salad, Astons Specialities, Astons Express, and Andes by Astons.

Beyond serving affordable steaks, Aston has branched out to other F&B businesses like Japanese cuisine and a fried chicken joint.

astons wagyu steakhouse
Astons’ new Japanese wagyu steakhouse / Image Credit: 8days

Astons is now a global F&B group with 11 brands under its name, such as Aji Ichi, Bizen Wagyu Steakhouse, Chic-a-boo Fried Chicken, East Treasure Chinese Restaurant, Javier’s Rotisserie & Salad, Man Le (hotpot buffet), Sedap Mania, and The Ranch Steakhouse.

Regardless of the cuisine, Aston said that the end goal for him is to always offer value-for money and quality food.

“I still come up with new ideas and recipes with the team. Although I’m not a chef by profession, I have a very big interest in cooking,” he said.

He added that he does not keep any trade secrets from his staff. He imparts all his cooking knowledge to his kitchen heads so they can help maintain a consistent standard in terms of taste and quality.

Besides serving consistent quality food, Astons said that a “high-performing team” is one key factor that has helped contribute to the growth and success of Astons.

When asked about future business plans, he shared that the company has acquired their own premise, which is slated to be ready in another 2 to 3 years’ time.

“This new facility [serves] as our headquarters and prepare us to be able to diversify our businesses.”

We [also] plan to increase our international footprint, bringing our brands to more countries either through franchise, joint venture or other strategic alliances. Locally, you can look forward to seeing more concepts and brands created by us, but what will remain the same is our belief in providing value for money and delicious food.

Featured Image Credit: Claire Zheng / Astons

 

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