For most partygoers in Singapore, Prinsep Street stands out as a hotspot due to its bustling nightlife scene. Lined with rows of lively bars and entertainment venues, the street draws in diverse crowds, including students, professionals, and tourists.
Tucked among these bars, however, is an unexpected sight — a traditional, void-deck mama shop. Its presence seems somewhat out of sync with the surrounding modern nightlife.
The mama shop’s weathered facade immediately transports you to the yesteryears. Its shelves are decked with all sorts of nostalgic goods, ranging from childhood candies to toys and even old-school magazines.
Unbeknownst to most, though, what’s hiding behind this facade of a mama shop is speakeasy bar Mama Diam. Founded by 32-year-old Sebastian Ang, the restaurant-bar aims to disrupt Singapore’s F&B industry by providing “a unique and culturally rich F&B experience” for its patrons.
He lost S$20,000 in failed attempt to pivot a pub
Prior to starting up Mama Diam in 2021, Sebastian worked in the nightlife industry for eight years. “I started out as a server and eventually rose up the ranks to become a manager, and then a personal secretary to my ex-boss,” he said.
Venturing into the F&B industry was something he had never considered at the time, despite his affinity for the culinary arts. He constantly prepared various dishes for his family and friends, honing his skills behind the stove.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and he lost his job, Sebastian decided to follow his passion by making a plunge into the F&B industry.
In August 2020, Sebastian took over his friend’s karaoke pub along Neil Road. Due to the lockdown restrictions at the time, the nightlife business needed to quickly pivot and introduce food offerings to stay afloat, so he rebranded it to “A Sticky Situation” — a restaurant-bar that served Asian fusion skewers and dishes.
But as the city-state transitioned through multiple lockdown phases during COVID-19, it faced significant challenges and setbacks. When establishments in Singapore were prohibited from serving dine-in customers, for instance, the restaurant struggled tremendously as the food it served did not “travel well”.
Ultimately, this led to the business closure, causing Sebastian to incur a substantial financial setback, with losses amounting to S$20,000.
Turning adversity into an opportunity
Despite the setbacks and the demoralisation that followed, Sebastian remained steadfast in his F&B journey.
When the chance arose to take over a space that would become present-day Mama Diam, he quickly snatched up the opportunity to establish a hidden bar. Together with his business partners, they invested S$300,000 to bring the concept to life.
Through Mama Diam, I wanted to offer something truly unique to the community, and pay homage to Singapore’s cultural heritage at the same time.
Mama Diam is more than just a speakeasy bar. It’s a portal to Singapore’s cultural heritage, where patrons can relish a modern take on beloved local dishes while revelling in an ambiance that evokes a sense of nostalgia.– Sebastian Ang, founder of Mama Diam
The speakeasy bar was quick to see success as well, with Mama Diam managing to breakeven in just seven months since inception. Sebastian attributes this rapid success to the resonance of Mama Diam’s cultural twist with its customers.
Beyond its nostalgic ambiance, the restaurant’s menu puts a modern twist on iconic local favourites like Mama Diam’s signature Crab Kueh Pie Tee and kaya churros. With each and every one of its offerings infused with local ingredients, even down to its alcoholic drinks like The OG Kopi and the coco bandung cocktails, the establishment had managed to pull in a steady flow of customers from the outset.
Today, as Singapore heads into a post-pandemic economic environment, the restaurant-bar has also become a hotspot for tourist who look to experience the city-state’s rich cultural heritage.
Mama Diam’s efforts in championing Singapore’s heritage haven’t gone unnoticed. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has recognised its role in promoting the city-state’s rich cultural heritage by featuring Mama Diam in its promotional videos, leading the brand to earn further recognition by collaborating with stars like Jackson Wang.
“It’s really heartening to see Mama Diam become a popular choice for both locals and tourists. The support from our patrons has been instrumental in our success,” says Sebastian.
Mama Diam earned S$200,000 in first few months despite “bare minimum” capital
Despite its success, Sebastian admitted that Mama Diam opened with “the bare minimum”. Looking back on his entrepreneurial journey, he recalls that financing was a major hurdle for the business at the start.
Convincing investors and business partners to believe in Mama Diam’s concept and provide the necessary capital during uncertain economic times was a significant challenge. I didn’t have enough funds and I realised I couldn’t do it by myself.– Sebastian Ang, founder of Mama Diam
Armed with a comprehensive business proposal, Sebastian went “knocking on doors” to secure funding for Mama Diam.
Aside from this, he also convinced the former tenant of present-day Mama Diam (who is now his business partner) to waive the takeover fees in exchange for equity shares in the company — a deal which Sebastian says turned out to be instrumental in Mama Diam’s funding strategy, playing a crucial role in getting Mama Diam off the ground.
With tight funds, Sebastian practically “did everything by himself” and made “Mama Diam happen with the least he could afford”.
“I was in charge of food, HR, accounts and even marketing. The R&D for the menu was also done at home,” he says. Sebastian was also actively involved during the initial phases of the establishment’s renovation, carrying out some of the carpentry measurements by himself.
Even as business picked up and Mama Diam started seeing a steady stream of customers, the establishment faced challenges when it came to “assembling the right team”.
Finding individuals who shared the same passion and commitment to our vision for Mama Diam was essential but not always easy. It took time and effort to build a cohesive and dedicated team that could deliver the level of service and quality we aimed for.– Sebastian Ang, founder of Mama Diam
Despite these challenges, Sebastian shared that the restaurant-bar managed to maintain a monthly sales revenue of around S$200,000 during the first few months of its launch.
Launching a TCM-inspired speakeasy bar
Riding on the waves of success, Sebastian, together with a number of shareholders, invested S$1 million to launch another locally-inspired speakeasy bar earlier this year.
Called Synthesis, this clandestine bar nestled in Suntec City is cleverly concealed behind the facade of an old-school traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shopfront.
When asked about the inspiration behind it, the entrepreneur revealed that the concept was born out of his fond childhood memories.
I spent my childhood in the vicinity of Kampong Kayu Road, where my grandmother worked in a TCM hall. My childhood memories of spending time at the TCM hall inspired us to encapsulate the essence of traditional Chinese medicine [in Synthesis], which blends the bests qualities of various ingredients to boost overall wellbeing.– Sebastian Ang, founder, Mama Diam
Synthesis serves an array of TCM-inspired food and beverages, such as the Ginseng Spiced Wine and drunken chicken roll, which are both infused with traditional herbs.
While the bar sees a steady increase in customer footfall today, Sebastian admitted that foot traffic was initially low during its “soft launch” as passersby mistook Synthesis for a TCM clinic due to the shopfront facade. “However, after the grand opening, we saw a significant increase in visitors, and since then, we’ve been consistently busy,” says Sebastian.
Unlike Mama Diam, Synthesis’ larger capacity and prime location has also allowed it to double down as an ideal events space. Since its launch in March, the bar has successfully hosted a wide range of corporate events.
Remaining steadfast in the face of criticism
Sebastian’s aspirations to reinvent and revolutionise Singapore’s F&B industry by interlacing gastronomy with local heritage doesn’t just stop with Mama Diam and Synthesis.
The entrepreneur’s latest venture is Lou Shang, a HDB-themed cafe by day and cocktail bar by night. Launched in August, Lou Shang — which directly translates to “upstairs” — is located on the floor above Mama Diam.
Lou Shang is a unique concept that builds on the legacy of Mama Diam. It pays tribute to our housing estates and the nostalgia associated with HDB void decks, creating a cozy cafe experience.
The idea behind this HDB-themed cafe is to showcase our local culture and memories, providing a nostalgic space for locals and an intriguing scene for our foreign friends.– Sebastian Ang, founder of Mama Diam
The cafe is reminiscent of older HDB estates, adorned with nostalgic elements like bamboo poles, electrical meter boxes and even rustic metal house gates. While the goal of Lou Shang was to offer “a warm and welcoming ambiance” and “serve as a gathering spot for those who appreciate the charm of Singapore’s housing estates”, the concept did not exactly resonate positively with some Singaporeans.
Some found the cafe to be mocking the lifestyles of “poor people”, while some have said that there was nothing “old school” about Lou Shang, given that a majority of Singaporeans still currently reside in HDB estates.
Despite these criticisms, Sebastian remains steadfast in his vision behind the cafe-bar’s concept. “My belief in the genuine intention behind Lou Shang and my pride in the environment I grew up in remains unwavering,” he says.
Currently, Sebastian shares that Lou Shang is still finding its footing, three months post-launch. However, the concept has “generally been well-received”, seeing “steady growth in customer engagement and patronage”.
Creating unique F&B experiences inspired by local heritage
The F&B landscape in the city-state remains as competitive as ever. However, Sebastian believes that opportunities for disruption lie in the ability to “integrate technology” and “create unique and sustainable dining experiences that cater to the evolving consumer preferences in Singapore.”
Although Sebastian does not currently have any concrete plans for expansion, he expressed enthusiasm to explore opportunities for new concepts and outlets, both locally and overseas.
For now, the entrepreneur remains committed to providing “quality food and beverages that resonate with Singaporeans”.
One thing’s for sure, thoug — I love the local heritage scene and I want to continue to create unique and memorable experiences for our customers while preserving our local culture.– Sebastian Ang, founder of Mama Diam
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Featured Image Credit: Mama Diam