Lobster was once a small luxury that Singaporeans had to shell out hefty prices for, to get just a fleeting taste of it at upscale seafood restaurants.
Such exorbitant meals don’t happen that often.
Until a year ago, when a pair of entrepreneurs Leonard Koh and Chris Toh changed the game by opening Singapore’s first affordable lobster shack.
“I have always loved seafood, especially lobsters,” 37-year-old Leonard shares, to no surprise.
He continues: “But lobster was much harder to come by when I was younger. It was far from affordable, so I really savoured the few special occasions [whenever] I had the opportunity to try it.”
Since co-founding Chunky Lobsters, he has brought the delectable shellfish within reach for the masses, dishing out lobster rolls packed with 90 grams of meat at just $16 a piece.
Like any new and novel F&B concept that arrives to break the monotony, Chunky Lobsters exploded with hype in the beginning.
But hype is notoriously known to be short-lived, often leaving once-viral businesses deserted and quiet in a matter of months. More than a year later, how has their humble lobster shack held up?
Not Just Jumping On An Impulse
The idea first surfaced when Chris returned from New York in 2014, excited to tell Leonard about the famous Luke’s Lobster, which he tried during his trip.
The close friends had known each other since they were both working at Manulife in 2007.
With Leonard as a financial services manager and Chris’ expertise in IT sales consulting, they were far from equipped to throw themselves into the deep end of running an F&B business.
The first time this inspiration had struck them, Leonard was doing well as a team lead at insurance firm AXA, and the time just wasn’t right.
“Breaking off and pursuing a new business idea in a field completely foreign to me, whilst maintaining my career responsibilities, was nothing more than a fever dream at that point,” he says.
So with caution, they let the idea fester, and the passing of three years eventually shed new light on the possibility of starting their own lobster shack.
In 2017, Leonard was yearning to try something new after being “in [his] line of work for nearly a decade” and feeling that life had gotten too monotonous.
I felt like I had been presented the opportunity of an untapped market, and each day delaying was a day wasted.
It also encouraged them that Luke’s Lobster had expanded to Japan with much success since then.
To them, this was “an affirmation that such a niche business model was possible and profitable” in Asia too.
This time, ready to strike while the iron was hot again, Leonard and Chris wasted no time to visit Japan and gather research, followed by flying to Qingdao, China to attend the World Seafood Expo.
After six months of R&D, they opened Chunky Lobsters at Oxley Tower in April 2018.
“Starting Was Easily The Hardest Part”
It was a good thing Chris had some culinary training under his belt, but it still wasn’t enough to prepare them for all the roles they’d have to play.
“Going from [working in] insurance to [becoming] a full-fledged business owner meant that there were no longer other departments that we could delegate [jobs] to,” Leonard says.
“Suddenly we were the finance department, the R&D department, and the marketing team rolled into one. We also handled the down and dirty aspects ourselves. We were the electricians and the plumbers when there were short circuits and blocked pipes.”
The sheer breadth of things that had to be handled by two people was staggering.
Friends and family were worried that the pair was “being foolhardy”, because they understood that F&B businesses suffer from high attrition rates and low chances of success, not to mention that seafood was an expensive ingredient.
On top of that, Leonard also admits he grew up sheltered.
In an earlier interview with STYLEGUIDE, he shared that he never had to do much household work, and running Chunky Lobsters was the first time he got his hands dirty in 30 years.
He decided not to leave his insurance job yet, juggling both “in case the endeavour failed”.
But this didn’t mean the founders were halfhearted about making Chunky Lobsters work.
Aside from putting in a six-figure investment to open the shack, they spent time, energy and even a bit of their dignity just to make their presence known.
“I carried a portable billboard on my back, gave out fliers and yelled in the middle of the CBD for hours on end,” Leonard tells us.
When it comes to working together, he says “humility [was] paramount” for them to foster a communicative business relationship.
After all, in a two-man team, any differences they clashed upon would mean that “half the company disagrees with [them]”.
Hype Isn’t All It’s Made Out To Be
“When Chunky Lobsters first came to light, we were covered extensively by food blogs and trendy news aggregators, and that created a huge wave of hype,” Leonard says.
Ironically, the initial wave of hype was a big hindrance to our operations.
He explains that, while they were thankful to be known, over-hyping actually brought adverse effects to the small business that wasn’t ready to handle such intense demand.
“We were overwhelmed and chronically plagued with issues coping with the crowds. We were selling out day after day and had to close early because we simply ran out of lobsters or buns.”
Knowing that it was just an initial wave, they refrained from burning their limited resources procuring additional stock or hiring more staff just to get through this time.
“It wasn’t a great start and we had our fair share of disgruntled customers, but we knew it would eventually stabilise,” he says.
We usually think businesses wither when hype dies out, but it was contrary for Chunky Lobsters.
They found a “steady stream of regular customers” after the trend-seekers fell away, and have been able to serve them “much more effectively”.
Currently, Leonard says they’re selling about 10,000 lobster rolls every month, and making “enough [revenue] to warrant continued expansion”.
3 Outlets In A Year, No Worries About Competitors
As a testament that the business hasn’t waned with trends, Chunky Lobsters continued to open in two new locations, The Cathay and VivoCity, as they rounded up their first year in operation.
Leonard says hitting three outlets in the span of a year is their proudest achievement till date.
“Just a little more than a year ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt that we’d progress this much,” he says.
They aren’t worried about competitors copying their concept, even though they do think more eateries specialising in lobsters have emerged since they opened.
In Leonard’s opinion, these businesses don’t pose direct competition as they either use premium pricing or take a full-restaurant approach with a wider range of items.
On the other hand, Chunky Lobsters maintains its affordability and lean offerings as a simple buy-and-go shack.
Further expansion and even merchandising opportunities are in their plans, once they’re confident of their standing at their newest VivoCity outlet.
Every day we get requests to go to Yishun, to Bishan, to Changi, and every other location you can think of. We definitely hope to continue expanding islandwide.
“We also have a few regional expansion plans up our sleeves. We’ve been in talks with potential business partners overseas,” he adds.
A year ago, when STYLEGUIDE asked Leonard if he would continue juggling two jobs, he answered: “When you’re comfortable, you don’t want to do anything that jeopardises it. But it’s not easy to multitask. Eventually, you have to choose.”
Today, Leonard lets on that he’s “already spending way more time on Chunky Lobsters than [his] original job”.
And soon, he believes he will end up going full-time to put all his time, energy and effort into continuing Chunky Lobsters’ growth.
Featured Image Credit: Chunky Lobsters