Everyone recognises fish and chips as a British meal.
In Singapore, just a handful of players really specialise in it.
Sometimes, the search for a good plate of fish and chips leads you to restaurants and cafes on the higher end, where the dish gets overshadowed by a long list of choices on the menu.
For the founders of Big Fish Small Fish, they’ve created a fun concept where this classic dish swims front and centre, and they want their brand to be known with a Singaporean identity too.
“We’re proud to tell people it is a local brand, and we want to bring it all over the world,” shares 50-year-old Tham Kok Yun.
Gather Round, There’s Fish For All
You may have first heard of them as a quirky little eatery along Punggol East Container Park when they launched in 2017.
With their friendly yellow and blue decor, Big Fish Small Fish quickly became a favourite at the new ‘hipster’ dining spot.
As a resident of the Northeast side of Singapore, I ventured down to get a taste of the hype back then, but I was told the wait would be at least two and a half hours, so I resigned to coming back another time.
Diners were flocking in for their affordable fish, ranging from $7.90 for Alaskan pollock to $15.90 for haddock, with more options like sea bass and salmon in between.
They also made a memorable impression with unique choices like serving their fish in paper cones and providing a free-flow sauce station.
But these were more than just to reel in eyeballs. Kok Yun shares that they wanted to create a “communal dining experience” at Big Fish Small Fish.
With their cone packaging and rolls of dining paper that you can help yourself to, diners can feel at home to pour their food out onto the table.
“They would then be able to freely share food and conversations without boundaries,” Kok Yun says.
Finding Their Hook In The F&B Scene
Before they created Big Fish Small Fish, Kok Yun and his fellow co-founder, 34-year-old Ong Wei Sheng, had their share of ups and downs fishing for success.
When they first decided to go into business together, the two had already been working in F&B for more than 10 years, at an American-style seafood chain.
“We felt that it was time for us to strike it out on our own,” says Kok Yun.
The conditions were favourable too: They were seasoned in managing F&B operations, knew their own suppliers, and on top of that, they had an opportunity to take over an empty restaurant unit in Punggol.
With this starting ground, they set up their own ‘cha chan ting‘.
However, things were far from smooth sailing from that point, and their venture turned out to become a three-year struggle.
Perhaps, Hong Kong-style meals of maggi mee and luncheon meat weren’t something Singaporeans would be keen to pay for in a restaurant.
So when their lease was up, the founders decided to take a different approach and start afresh—by going back to their roots with fish and chips.
It was actually an idea they “toyed with” for a long time, Kok Yun tells us. But if they were going to do it, they wanted to be different from their competitors.
“Instead of fish and chips, we offered fish and crisps, [with] thinly sliced fresh potato chips prepared [fresh] in our kitchen,” he says.
Their plan was also to offer a variety of fish, and add more “depth” to the dish by letting customers pair it with a range of sauces, from the tried-and-tested tartar, to the more unusual curry, cheese, and salted egg sauces.
Lots of experimenting was needed for them to successfully switch things up. For example, Kok Yun tells us they tried around 30 different varieties of potato before finding the right fit for their crisps.
From time to time, they also continue to expand their menu and introduce new local flavours like rendang fish and har cheong gai fish nuggets.
Good Marketing Reels In The Crowd
This time, when they were offered a vacancy along the Punggol East container stretch, they dived in again and invested $300,000 to open the outlet, armed with a better understanding of the area’s demographic from their past failure.
They learned that Punggol was just at the beginning of its development—there weren’t many food options around yet, and it was set to be a “vibrant” spot that would attract a young crowd.
Their strategy for Big Fish Small Fish greatly involved marketing, to draw people to enjoy the “Instgrammable” features of their eatery and its location.
Results were definitely positive, so much so that it also turned into a new challenge, with the founders and their team scrambling to manage an overwhelming stream of patrons.
After the first week of operations, we had to reconfigure the entire kitchen. What we planned on paper could not support the overwhelming demand, [so] we changed the flow of operations and invested in more equipment.
“Giving out free flow sauces was also quite a big move for us as we had to be prepared that it may incur wastage and additional expenses,” says Kok Yun.
Even though some customers do abuse this service and make wastage a valid concern, they’ve stuck to their decision to keep this feature so people can still enjoy it, but to monitor it closely.
Looking back, Kok Yun says investing in marketing was one of the key factors that helped the business break even smoothly within its first year.
5 Stores On The Island And Swimming Beyond
By the time they hit their two-and-a-half-year mark, Big Fish Small Fish is no longer just a novel concept limited to a trendy location.
The business has grown into a chain of five outlets across Singapore, and also launched their first overseas eatery in Kuala Lumpur.
Altogether, they’re serving around 30,000 sets of fish and crisps and netting more than $500,000 in revenue each month, Kok Yun says.
While things are looking swell, a larger headcount of 60 staff comes with new responsibilities and challenges to handle.
As the company grows, the founders noticed they have less time to spend with individual employees, which now leads them to “open up [their] communication channels” to make sure directions are well understood.
“We are building core values in our company, determining what we want to achieve, and how we can communicate this to staff.”
Kok Yun shares that there will always be new hurdles to cross.
I don’t think there is a single toughest period [in entrepreneurship]. Everyday is a challenge.
For them at this point, it’s about taking on larger management decisions and overseeing many more functions than before.
However, they’re still excited for greater things as they continue on their path guided by the wisdom that “if you don’t try, you will never know what’s the outcome”.
They have ambitions to go even further beyond our shores and bring Big Fish Small Fish out to Asia, possibly eyeing markets like Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam by 2021, and Korea, Japan and India by 2023.
Featured Image Credit: Big Fish Small Fish