Entrepreneur

This S'pore Millennial Helms Multiple Bar Businesses But COVID-19 Didn't Ruin His 'Spirits'

Since he was 14, Roger Yip has been taking on part-time jobs in the F&B industry.

He worked as a banquet server, restaurant assistant and barback at various establishments before finally stepping into the bar as a bartender.

My interest in bartending started close to the point where I was legal for drinking. Initially it was just the parties, but then I got exposed to cocktails and the sophistication behind it.

I started visiting cocktail bars and trying out different cocktails and eventually found myself making drinks at home for friends quite often. I eventually found myself a job at a cocktail bar and fell in love with it.

– Roger Yip, founder of Mixes from Mars

When the 29-year-old was a rookie bartender, he often had conversations over drinks with his friends to set up their own bar together.

That was just a dream at that point of time. When he was doing his National Service, he was introduced to a local craft cocktail bar called Bar Stories. He fell in love with the place and immediately asked for a job there.

Little did he know, that very place was where he met his future business partners.

An Accidental Business Opportunity

roger yip mixes from mars hopscotch bar
Roger Yip / Image Credit: The Dining Collective

On one occasion, his manager asked him to bartend at a friend’s private party.

Roger roped in his friend Mike, and together they wowed the party guests with their skills in crafting bespoke drinks.

Guests were so impressed that they even asked for their contact details, opening up doors to more bartending gig opportunities.

Realising the demand and the lack of mobile bartending companies in Singapore, the duo decided to form one in 2013 called Mixes from Mars.

The quirky name highlighted their ambition to create drinks that are “out of this world”, and it also incorporated the acronym of their names (Mike and Roger, hence Mars).

But he was only 22 when he set up the business, so how did Roger acquire the capital?

A mobile bar business does not require much money. We already had the bartending tools and equipment to begin with as I was a bartender, and the only cost to us back then was the alcohol and fresh ingredients, which was still quite manageable cost-wise even as a student.

To save money, we designed the website on our own and did as many things on our own as possible.

– Roger Yip, founder of Mixes from Mars

They invested around S$5,000 to get Mixes from Mars off the ground, and operated it right out of Roger’s bedroom.

When asked about business challenges, Roger said that craft cocktails require “intricate preparation” such as juicing fresh fruits, preparing herbs, fruits and garnishes. A lot of manual labour goes into it, and they have to be prepared in advance so that they can serve the drinks faster.

Setting up a mobile bar also requires a lot of logistics like tables, glasses, a range of spirits, ice and plenty of fresh ingredients. In the early days, the duo often prepared and stored all these from Roger’s house and his parents often complained about all the “mess”.

Despite these difficulties, the company quickly took flight as they began landing more bookings.

At this point in time, both Roger and Mike were just starting school at Singapore Management University (SMU) so they had to rope in another business partner to help cope with operations.

However, even in school, Roger’s passion for bartending is clear to see. He joined a bartending club at SMU, where he took up the role of a programs director.

Forced To Take S$500 Salaries

Towards the end of 2013, the trio stumbled upon yet another business opportunity.

One of their event clients, who is the owner of the now-defunct Duxton Hotel, offered them a chance to run a pop-up physical bar.

“(He) wanted more activity going on within his hotel before it was renovated, and offered us a low share-based rent that was too hard to pass on,” said Roger, recounting their business meeting with the hotel owner.

“We (also) didn’t have to renovate at all as the bar was already existent. We simply had to move in.”

With little overhead costs, they saw no reason to decline the offer.

Moreover, the cocktail scene was still in its infant stages back then so it was easy for them to stand out from the crowd with their Singapore-fusion drinks.

mars bar duxton hotel singapore
Mars Bar / Image Credit: SG Magazine

They set up Mars Bar with very little knowledge and experience in running a business.

After the first month of support from family and friends, they quickly exhausted their customer base.

Roger’s original partner left the business, and they were unable to even take a salary due to poor sales. During the first three months, they only took a S$500 salary to sustain their cashflow and even then, they struggled to make a profit.

We soon realised that running a bar was a different ball game. (As) operations personnel, we were only concerned with how our customers feel and how our drinks came out.

We knew nothing about the other aspects of business such as marketing and PR, which we soon grew to value as one of the more important aspects of business.

– Roger Yip, founder of Mixes from Mars

Roger wanted to turn things around and took the bull by its horns. He reached out to media companies, picked up photography to design his own menu, and even developed his own website.

He did everything himself because they had to cut costs to remain sustainable.

“As I was studying for my accounting degree then, I got to put firsthand practice of that skillset into the business. We continued to be very cash conservative and survived with little debts,” he said.

The press kits they sent out paid off as they promptly received media attention for their local-themed drinks.

That served as a turning point for the business, but it was short-lived as Mars Bars was only a pop-up project so it ceased operations in mid-2015.

Hopping Over To Hopscotch

While running Mars Bars, Roger was approached to run another pop-up bar at Red Dot Traffic Building, which was previously located along Maxwell Road.

Seizing the opportunity, he took a gap year from school in 2014 and approached two of his former Bar Stories colleagues to set up this bar together.

Called Hopscotch, it mimics the same menu concept as Mars Bars, specialising in craft cocktails with a local twist.

Being more experienced this time round, Hopscotch did well but it also had its fair share of challenges. One of his partners left the business, and Hopscotch faced labour shortage problems.

It remains a well-known fact that F&B staff are rather hard to find, and it’s hard to blame anyone for it. Jobs in the F&B or retail industries are generally amongst the lowest paying because of expensive rental prices.

(This) is why many F&B businesses look towards foreign labour, which also faces another issue of meeting the necessary quota requirements and servicing the costly foreign worker levy. 

– Roger Yip, founder of Mixes from Mars

Due to manpower constraints, Roger and partners make an effort to be more active in the business operations.

“The moment we are unable to find part-timers to work, we ourselves will fill in the positions on the floor. Even till today, I’m still helping out with the operations at Hopscotch during the weekends,” added Roger.

hopscotch bar cocktails singapore
Image Credit: Hopscotch

Additionally, the craft cocktails industry was also getting increasingly saturated, which makes the scene more competitive. The rise in alcohol tax in Singapore didn’t help matters.

These varying factors took a huge toll on the business, but regular patrons made it easier.

“I think we have differentiated ourselves and stood out quite strongly on this point. Finding a niche in local themed drinks, Hopscotch really went all in,” said Roger.

“We continually innovate and ensure that our drinks menu is changed regularly so that customers don’t get bored of our drinks that quickly.”

But like Mars Bars, Hopscotch was only a pop-up project so the premise at Red Dot was only temporary, and they ceased operations in April 2017.

hopscotch gillman barracks
Hopscotch at Gillman Barracks / Image Credit: Burpple

By the end of 2017, Hopscotch secured a new and permanent location at Gillman Barracks. Although they had to start from scratch, the revamped Hopscotch sees great traction with their new cocktail menu.

This year, Hopscotch was even named the ‘Best Cocktail Bar’ — an award voted by the public — by SG Magazine.

Bar Closures Means Zero Income

COVID-19 however, has proved to be a a huge stumbling block.

Bars, nightlife and other entertainment venues in Singapore have been forced to close down since end March following the government’s COVID-19 advisory.

It’s been an undoubtedly difficult time for these businesses as the cease in operations meant no income while still having to bear overhead costs.

The toughest hurdle is uncertainty — they have no idea how long they will be able to float when there’s no guarantee when they will be able to reopen.

COVID-19 is an absolute scare. We are currently at the stage where each operating segment was netting similar revenues.

Even since February, we were beginning to see a significant drop in our event revenue, and it was absolute zero from March onwards. When we went into circuit breaker, we got another bigger scare as Hopscotch had to be closed.

– Roger Yip, founder of Mixes from Mars

The future of his bar businesses was rather bleak, but Roger and his partners figured that they had to do something to keep them afloat.

hopscotch bar team singapore
Hopscotch team / Image Credit: Hopscotch

“At that point, us directors went out to work to preserve the company’s cashflow. One of us went to be a packer, one a delivery driver, and another and myself at a late night assembly line,” said Roger.

Moreover, they had moved into a larger office space in January and incurred significant renovation costs on it.

“Fortunately, the government grants were quite helpful in helping defray some of these ongoing costs, and now we are glad we can finally operate Hopscotch again,” surmised Roger.

Entering The Digital Marketing Arena

Mixes from Mars was an extension of Hopscotch per se and has been operating from there since 2014. However, as they expanded their operations, Mixes from Mars had to secure a dedicated office in 2016.

At that time, they expanded their concept from solely providing bespoke cocktails to creating themed cocktail menus for events to facilitate faster production.

They offered molecular cocktails to cater to more upscale events, as well as cocktail pick and mix, where guests can craft their own cocktails by picking from table of ingredients.

After garnering much digital marketing experience from his string of businesses, Roger embarked on yet another business venture.

This time round, it has nothing to do with bartending.

Roger, along with four of his former school friends, co-founded Story Box Collective — an agency dedicated to branding, content creation and digital marketing — in mid-2016.

It generates content for SMEs and helps them boost their social media presence at “less than the cost of hiring a full-time social media manager, a position which many SMEs are unable to budget for,” explained Roger.

However, running the business was no walk in the park — three out of five initial business partners left due to a “rocky start”.

When asked to elaborate on this, Roger said that back then, they didn’t even know where they would secure customers from.

Marketing for an F&B business and an agency is totally different,” he added.

Not giving up, Roger and his only other remaining partner continued to propel Story Box Collective forward.

As of 2018, it managed a portfolio of more than 15 accounts, and have also expanded into providing photography and videography services for events and production alike.

Today, they service a couple of retainer clients and many other ad-hoc contracts.

Reflections Of A Serial Entrepreneur

roger yip mixes from mars hopscotch bar
Serial entrepreneur Roger Yip / Image Credit: Roger Yip

It’s not an understatement to say that Roger is a serial entrepreneurial. So what has he learnt so far from his various business ventures, be it successful or failed ones?

I guess few people know about this, but back in 2017, we tried to operate a tuition centre, and it failed drastically within four months.

The key lesson there was working with the right partners. Working with the right people is also the reason the other businesses are still alive today. For me, it would be impossible to run these businesses alone.

– Roger Yip, founder of Mixes from Mars

So how then do you know when someone would make a ‘right’ business partner?

Roger acknowledged it as a “very tough question”, but he believes that it varies for every business and individual.

Personally, he would choose someone whom he can click with, shares the same passion as he does, possess skillsets that he is lacking in, and most importantly, shares the same values system as he does.

When asked about his future business plans, Roger said that he foresees that the events industry will continue to be held off at least till the next year.

“(For now), we have repurposed most of our events team to operate at Hopscotch, while doing some virtual cocktail workshop events at the mean time.”

As a self-professed “foodie”, Roger also plans to open more F&B concepts — this is in line with his business mantra: “make sure your business is something you enjoy, and you will definitely put in your all for it.”

Featured Image Credit: The Dining Collective / Hopscotch

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