We’ve heard of many instances where entrepreneurs tap on skills they acquired in their previous jobs for their new business ventures, but Cheng Hsin Yao (34), founder of Omakase Burger, has taken that definition to a whole new level.
During an interview with Vulcan Post, he revealed that he actually used statistical analysis and excel sheets during his search for the best blend of meats for Omakase Burger’s signature patty!
But more importantly, how did he go from mincing numbers to different cuts of meat from all around the world?
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Classics from the University of Chicago, Hsin Yao started his career as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs.
Doing Mergers & Acquisitions, he shared that “100-hour workweeks were common”, with workdays starting at 9am and ending at 3am.
As “painful” as the gruelling schedules were, Hsin Yao still maintained that he remains grateful for having been through it.
“Everything I learned about work ethics, determination, commitment and camaraderie came from enduring this special form of education.”
When ‘Major Cravings’ Led To The Search For The Perfect Patty
Hsin Yao’s love for burgers stem from childhood.
Describing himself as a “moody, grumpy little fellow” growing up, his mother would hand chop beef she bought from the market to make him a cheeseburger in an attempt to cheer him up.
Eating them brought him a lot of happiness, not just because they were delicious – they were also a reminder of her unconditional love.
No one taught her, and she didn’t know she was unknowingly doing them the best way possible – with fresh, good quality ingredients and with simple execution.
“[More importantly,] they were a labour of love, as most of the truly magical things in our lives are. They inspired me to continue that legacy in all other aspects of my life.”
Hsin Yao’s passion for a good burger deepened in the mid-2000s when he was based in the US, during the boom of the ‘gourmet burger’.
“I fell in love with them there,” he recalled. “After returning to Singapore, I had major cravings for an equivalent burger!”
With nowhere to satisfy his cravings, he decided to buy some beef and hand-make his own burger.
His experiment, albeit satisfying his craving, left much more to be desired.
147 Different Combinations Of Burger Meat Blends
There’s more to making a gourmet burger patty than mincing up beef, Hsin Yao explained.
Burger ‘blending’, he elaborated, refers to “the idea of applying the steakhouse approach to burgers, of utilising different cuts of beef for different tastes, textures, and aromas”.
It was the potential of making the “perfect burger” that sparked a fire in him, and he became “pretty obsessed with the idea”, spending every week procuring different types of beef and trying different combinations of blends.
There were certainly no illusions of grandeur about making a business back then! It was just this strange, slightly neurotic little fellow with his weird hobby.
Determined to find the “absolute best blend”, he expanded his search to procure beef from every country possible – “American, Australian, New Zealand, Brazilian, Argentinian, Irish, Korean, Japanese…I got my hands on them all.”
He even went to trade shows and “begged” suppliers to spare him some meat even though he wasn’t a restauranteur.
To keep track of the ‘Frankenstein’ patties that he was making every week, Hsin Yao then “did what every good investment banker would do” – he started an Excel spreadsheet tracking “all combinations and permutations”.
Clearly if you’ve gone that far, you need to apply some statistical analysis to your data to assess which is the best!
Using his family as guinea pigs for his creations, it took him over a year to end up with 147 different combinations.
“I have to say my family were real troopers about it,” he said.
“When you’re on your 12th burger testing in a week and everyone’s still chowing down dutifully, that’s when you sit back and realise it’s true love.”
It was around then that he realised that the burgers he made were “getting pretty good”, and that there was definitely a space for him in the local burger scene that he could contribute to.
With “surfeit of delusion and deficit of common sense”, he left his investment banking job at Goldman Sachs to start Omakase Burger.
“I Trust You”
The term ‘omakase’ typically brings up images of a sushi restaurant, so I was curious to find out why Hsin Yao chose to name his new burger joint as such.
“[My brother and I] wanted our guests to put their trust in us, that we would always use the best ingredients, prepare it in the best way and give them the best experience that we could. And the word ‘omakase’ literally means in Japanese that ‘I trust you’,” he explained.
“That stuck with us and I kept the name. So trust us, and we’ll deliver.”
Fortunately for the brothers, finding a space to open their first outlet coincided with the opening of The Grandstand at Turf Club Road.
“[The landlords] were open to new ideas and the local neighbourhood suited our customer profile well, so we took a chance on it!”
Other than that, however, Hsin Yao recalled how “the first 3 months were brutal”.
“The idea of gourmet burgers wasn’t mainstream (in Singapore) back then and guests were shocked at how our prices were double that of fast food.”
In spite of pressures to lower how much they charged, they stubbornly stuck with the price tag (burgers go from $14.90 and up), convinced that “good quality burgers were delicious and worth paying for”.
Another challenge they faced was sourcing the ingredients (from the beef to the cheese, and even the buns) that go into their burger.
For one, the cuts of beef they used in their patty were “so unknown in Singapore that many suppliers did not even import them”.
“We could make special orders but that would involve shipping 6 tonnes of beef at one go for a restaurant that didn’t even exist at the time.”
Regardless, Hsin Yao pushed on with a strategy – to “sell everyone a vision”.
“Many turned it down but I found those that believed, that felt motivated to help me achieve that. And that’s how you really know you’ve found a true partner in life or business – someone who feels what you feel for your shared vision and works with you towards it.”
Their big break finally came when local magazine 8 Days wrote a positive review about their burgers, giving them the mainstream recognition they needed.
“People finally were curious enough to give it a try, and when they did, they experienced for themselves the difference in quality and decided for themselves that it was worth paying for.”
“And the rest is history.”
1.4 Million Burgers Served From 2012
In 2014, an opportunity to expand their operations came.
“The then-General Manager of Wisma Atria had finished golf with some local bigwigs at Tanah Merah, and when he asked them what they wanted for lunch, they surprised him by saying it was burgers at an obscure restaurant in a mall he had never heard of. They came down and we fed them a great lunch,” Hsin Yao recalled.
Two days later, the same GM was in Hong Kong, and met with the regional director of Ralph Lauren who “spontaneously declared how he loved this new ‘Omakase Burger’ in Singapore”.
With these two endorsements, he approached Hsin Yao and his brother and invited them to open a store in Wisma Atria.
To date, they have served up over 1.4 million burgers to foodies in Singapore.
3 years back, Hsin Yao went beyond just selling burgers and opened beautiful garden-themed multi-cuisine space Picnic, located on the 3rd floor of Wisma Atria.
“No matter how much you enjoy something yourself, it’s always magnified when you share it. Picnic was built as my homage to that experience of communal dining,” he quipped.
“I wanted to create a space where large groups of families and friends could gather easily and share delicious food from around the world.”
“It’s the magic of bringing [comfort food from around the world] together under one roof and sharing it with your loved ones that makes Picnic a unique and meaningful experience.”
Doing The ‘Impossible’ And Plans For The Future
Recently, they have also worked with Impossible Foods to create new plant-based patties.
But wait – doesn’t that go against the grain (pun intended) of all those painstaking hours put into create Omakase Burger’s ‘perfect patty’?
“Omakase Burger was founded on the idea of giving the gift of great tasting burgers to as many people as possible, and there were certain demographics that just couldn’t try them: vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, some Buddhists and observant Muslims,” Hsin Yao explained.
“Impossible Foods offers us the chance to create an awesome burger for these guests without any compromise in terms of taste and texture.”
True to his commitment to creating a unique patty that can’t be find elsewhere, the Omakase x Impossible patty is a blend of original Impossible meat and additional plant-based ingredients that “ramps up the beefiness factor by 10”.
“The secret to this is glutamate and guanylate, which combine to give you that ‘meaty’ sensation in your mouth,” he revealed.
Omakase Burger has enjoyed steady growth since launch, but Hsin Yao has a simple plan for the future – to continue “pushing out the best tasting American smashburgers”.
Having opened a satellite kitchen in the one-north area recently to serve foodies in the West, he revealed that they are also looking to open a few more so that more can get to try their burgers.
“We’re also always innovating and having new developments [in] cooking. We’re very excited to share them with all our guests when the time comes!”
We’d like to thank Hsin Yao for his time!
Omakase Burger @ Picnic Food Park
435 Orchard Road, #03-15
Wisma Atria, Singapore 238877
Contact: +65 6734 8352