Entrepreneur

This Millennial Chef Used To Run A HDB Diner - Now His S$28 Granola Jars Sell Out In 2 Mins

[Article has been updated on 2 October 2020, 3:45pm]

33-year-old Christopher Kong started dabbling in cooking at a tender age of 13 when he represented his high school in United States at cooking competitions.

His team won and they went on to represent the state — clinching the national champion title for three consecutive years.

However, it never really occurred for the San Francisco-born lad to turn his passion into reality even though he was working at his parents’ Italian restaurant in Seattle since he was 15.

He then experienced a special event when he turned 19. A customer had asked Christopher to “cook them the best meal they had” for his marriage proposal.

Since then, Christopher realised that cooking can be a special way to contribute to someone’s life.

From Zi Char To French And American Cuisines

After graduating from Western Washington University with a business degree in 2010, he decided to reconnect with his Asian roots.

He bought himself a one-way ticket and flew to Malaysia to work for three months at a zi char restaurant owned by his father’s friend.

In the same year, the American moved on to work at a seafood restaurant in Kuala Lumpur where he familiarised himself with Asian cooking methods.

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I lived as a migrant worker in Malaysia 10 years ago. I came from a much more privileged background. Didn’t have to work to send money home. Didn’t have a family back home that relied on me for income. Still, I didn’t have much money and I needed to make a living to continue living in Malaysia. Opportunity came in the form of working at a Chinese seafood restaurant. These days, I don’t talk about my time there often because I mentioned it once, and the media pounced on it like a fleshy T-bone in a lion’s den. It was a convenient headline: "Small town hawker to Michelin fine dining kitchens", as though one was better than the other, like I should be prouder of one experience. What I can tell you is this: I learned more about life, brotherhood and responsibility in 3 months than I ever did growing up in middle-class America. We lived in dorm rooms. Woke up each morning and stood our mattresses up on the wall so we had space to move. If you showered in the day, the heat from the sun would heat the rain water tanks and you may have been lucky enough to have a sort-of warm shower. Clothes were washed by hand and if we needed our uniforms to dry faster, we’d hang them over the steamers in the kitchen. I learned about where they came from, why they were there. Everyone had a slightly different story but the common thread was always that they came for a better life. Maybe not a better life for themselves but a better life for their families back home, so that their children might have a brighter future than their own. Even though everyone had different cultures and spoke different languages, everyone helped each other. We communicated through hand gestures, broken any common language and laughing – lot of laughing. Our days off were spent playing sports, eating and walking around town. We ate and introduced each other to the food that we missed from back home and honestly, a lot of the time, we ended up shopping for SIM cards so that we could talk to our friends and family. I wanted the experience, but for everyone else, it was life. *Continued in comments*

A post shared by Christopher Kong (@chrisgkong) on

Subsequently, he worked in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants in Singapore and New York — gaining a string of credentials to his portfolio.

From 2012 to 2014, he served French dining at Guy Savoy Singapore, named after the three-star Michelin French chef.

In 2014, he stepped up to the teppan grills at Tetsuya Wakuda’s two-Michelin-starred Waku Ghin for a year.

Christopher Kong
Christopher Kong / Image Credit: HSBC Jade

He didn’t just stop there — he flew back to the States and was sous chef for NoMad, a one-Michelin-starred contemporary restaurant in New York for two years. 

It was a memorable experience for him there as he had an idol he looked up to — Daniel Humm, co-owner and Head Chef of NoMad.

nomad new york
Image Credit: Christopher Kong

Eventually, he settled in Singapore with his wife, who had just moved back from New York for her job in 2018.

Whipping Up Michelin-Style Dishes From His Apartment

In the following year, he started Dearborn Supper Club, a private dining experience, where he whipped up Michelin-style meals from his cosy HDB flat in Bedok.

Christopher Kong
Christopher Kong / Image Credit: CNBC

I decided to start Dearborn Supper Club because I didn’t want to open a restaurant and start from scratch, I wanted to build a community that would come on a journey with me.

– Christopher Kong, founder of Dearborn

When they moved into their new production space, he invested about S$15,000 in equipment and the business has been fully self-funded since the start.

A private dining experience in a HDB flat
A private dining experience in a HDB flat / Image Credit: Dearborn

A modern American, fine-casual concept, Dearborn Supper Club sourced local and regional produce focusing on greens, grains and sustainable seafood. 

With his experience working in larger kitchens, he saw large amounts of food wastage as there was always surplus ingredients from perfecting dishes.

Dearborn
Tomato and Watermelon / Image Credit: Dearborn

Charging S$138 nett per head, he served a six-course modern American dinner for five to six in a party.

It was lucrative, but it hadn’t been smooth-sailing from the start.

The first challenge was adjusting to being a one-man show. In New York City, I worked in a team of 40 people where everything was as close to perfect as it could be and you had everything that you needed to succeed.

Starting on my own was overwhelming. I had to be chef, cleaner, accountant, purchaser, marketer, dishwasher, laundry, repair man… Trying to balance that while still trying to have time for myself took a while to get used to. 

– Christopher Kong, founder of Dearborn

Despite the challenges, he finally had the freedom to cook whatever he wanted in his own space.

“I could test what worked and what didn’t, build relationships with farmers and purveyors and figure out all the little details,” added Christopher.

Tagietelle
Tagietelle / Image Credit: Dearborn

He was able to meet his guests face-to-face, hang out with them in the kitchen while he cooked and spend the evening with them.

It is “a shared experience that you can’t replicate in a restaurant”, he noted.

Sells 800 Granola Jars A Month

Christopher shared that Dearborn Supper Club was was a low-risk way for him to develop a brand, find his cooking style and meet investors before opening a brick and mortar restaurant.

He was actively looking for a restaurant space in the beginning of the year, but Covid-19 thwarted his plans. Luckily, he didn’t commit to anything.

Christopher Kong
Image Credit: Dearborn

To be honest, when the circuit breaker happened, I was thinking ‘what can we do to survive?’

When we were running Dearborn Supper Club, we made granola for guests to take home for breakfast the next day. We had so many guests request to sell them more but I didn’t want to, at that time.

But when we couldn’t do the supper club anymore, I thought why not just give it a go?

– Christopher Kong, founder of Dearborn 

When they first posted, their granola took about 30 minutes to sell out and now it mostly takes less than two minutes.

Due to high demand, they have a limited number of jars available each week.

Seeded Cranberry Granola
Seeded Cranberry Granola / Image Credit: Dearborn

What caught my attention was the price — he sells them at S$28 a jar. That led me to ask him what makes Dearborn’s granola different?

“What I think sets us apart are the ingredients that we use. I approach making the granola as I would if I were creating a dish. I try to create flavours that are recognisable and enjoyable,” explained Christopher.

“I look out for high quality ingredients, organic where I can, and I keep to our ethos and make sure we are getting ingredients from responsible, fair trade and sustainable sources.”

Coconut and Cranberry Granola
Coconut and Cranberry Granola / Image Credit: Dearborn

The business did so well that it moved into a production kitchen in the CBD to “scale up”.

Christopher shares that they sell about 800 granola jars a month.

Granola production kitchen
Christopher Kong in an almost-completed granola production kitchen / Image Credit: Dearborn

“Things have been moving in a very positive direction. I believe that there are still opportunities during this time — different opportunities for sure, but opportunities all the same.”

Know Your Numbers Right From The Start

The margins in F&B are already quite slim, and the pandemic has shown how vulnerable the industry is, which has seen a slew of closures locally and globally.

As a result, it is imperative for F&B brands to think about different avenues of income including e-commerce, and not solely rely on a storefront or in-dining outlets, noted Christopher.

During the circuit breaker, he observed many new home-based businesses popping up.

I think this is a pretty exciting thing to have come out of these tough times but I would encourage new F&B businesses, especially those with little to no industry experience, to get their numbers straight from the beginning if they want to scale up.

Definitely assign a dollar value to the time and experience it takes to make a product instead of only looking at food costs.

– Christopher Kong, founder of Dearborn 

Featured Image Credit: Dearborn

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