In 2016, William moved to Hong Kong to become the Executive Chef for Accor Group after working for some time as a station chef with AccorHotels Qantas Singapore Lounge. While in Hong Kong, he connected with an old army buddy, Wei Kwan, and his wife, who expressed an interest in starting up a health food business there.
Eventually, William co-founded Fete Up with the husband-wife duo on 1 July 2017. Fete Up initially started with one store in Sheung Wan, on Hong Kong island, with just the three of them and another three employees.
Providing A Healthier Alternative For The Working Class
The idea behind Fete Up was to provide working class Hong Kongers with a healthier alternative to the usually highly processed foods that were available to them.
While this was the goal, William and his team found out the hard way that things do not always go to plan. Initially, their customers were mainly the expat community and gym regulars.
The Fete Up team tweaked their menu to include more food variety that regular Hong Kongers were used to. They cooked in a different style and added more cooked vegetables and protein, as well as a well-controlled/no-carb diet option.
More than 85% of Fete Up’s food is also handmade. This is not only because they wanted to prepare their food well, but also a function of what was very commonly available – the highly processed foods that they wanted to cut out. While this was tedious to do, it also allowed Fete Up to differentiate itself by controlling the nutritional value and quality of their food.
Appealing to more locals after that, the fledgling restaurant quickly gained traction. Today, Fete Up has 3 outlets and a central kitchen – where William is typically based. The central kitchen is also the innovation hub, where new food flavours and concepts are tested, and market research is done with all 3 co-founders.
For fun, William also founded a Singapore Food Club in Hong Kong where everyone gets together to prepare Singaporean food to try and to have fun. To him, it’s like a piece of home away from home.
COVID-19: Both A Struggle And A Window Into Possible Future Food Consumption Habits
During COVID-19, William, like many business owners, faced multiple challenges. This ranged from having to adhere to strict government restrictions at the restaurant, manpower issues, a rapid change in eating habits which resulted in a plunge in sales, increasing food ingredient costs and many more.
Having worked closely with his team, William was very grateful when staff volunteered to take no-pay leave and stood behind the business during its most uncertain periods. Now, normalcy is slowly returning.
However, Fete Up is not resting on it laurels. COVID-19 was both a struggle and provided a window into the future of what food consumption habits is likely to head towards. Adapting quickly even while combating the downturn, Fete Up even snagged an award from Deliveroo for “Best Take Out”.
During our interview with William, he also said that the Fete Up team was working on a line of ready to eat meal for everyone for consumption at home. This is to tie in with quickly evolving food consumption and working-from-home arrangements in the corporate world.
The team has learned greatly from the downturn. And one of the most rewarding thing was to see the Fete Up family sticking together during COVID-19 and planning to grow together after learning of its mistakes.
During the interview with William, we also asked him 5 personal questions to better understand his entrepreneurship journey and the challenges and rewards of starting up for the first time in a foreign country.
Dinesh: You chose to start up your first business overseas. What are some unique challenges and advantages of starting your business in Hong Kong?
William: I think the work culture is quite unique. We have to adapt and make some small behavior and mental adjustment to fit in better.
Advantage (also exist in) the bigger market they have here. People here are very open to taking risks. Everything is so much more intense and fast. It is chaos but controlled.
Do I think of going back Singapore? Yes, I do want to go back to Singapore eventually, only when the business is self-sustaining and stable (especially) after the pandemic.
Dinesh: You have always been passionate about food (even when we met each year during reservist). But passion alone may not make your business successful. What was the biggest change you noticed in yourself after starting your own restaurant?
William: That is a very good question! I believe most aspiring Chefs-to-be start with a passion for the cuisine that they (prepare). Cuisine is like a religion that they will religiously commit to, honing their skills to be better and pushing the boundaries of their craft.
It is a bonus if the business is aligned with the chef’s passion. I love fine food but if the business model and numbers don’t add up, it might not end well. Compromise and adapting to demand is important. At the end of the day, (understanding) the market demand is key to making a business work, especially in mass production operation.
Dinesh: For many Singaporeans, it may be a common dream or aspiration of owning our own café / bakery / bistro – mostly because it sounds fun and looks chilled. What does your typical day look like?
William: I myself wanted to open a small diner when I semi-retire but business is never chill unless it is your own small business with no other stakeholders involved and a strong financial savings in your golden years. That’s what I believe. If you can achieve it, you are very lucky. The reality is different in a city like Hong Kong with expensive rent, high labour cost, typhoons, changing political events and huge competition.
My day usually starts with a cup of coffee followed by checking the logistic for our daily delivery in the morning then resolving any complaints and issues from the day before from all the outlets and central kitchen. Checking the price change of all my product, as food prices change throughout the season. Menu planning, recipe development and admin. I also have to interview if we are hiring for a new position.
Dinesh: You started your business with another Co-Founder. What are some pros and cons of running your business with another person?
William: I think it really depends on who you get to work with. I am grateful both my partners are very open minded and amazing people. We are very transparent and we resolve any issues together.
Dinesh: It’s great to see another business owner flying Singapore’s flag high overseas. What is one advice you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start their business overseas?
William: Do your research on local laws, regulations and especially property, do not rush to sign a deal, the options are many (in Hong kong).
Talk to other Singaporeans in the same industry for advice, recommendation and contacts for providers you need as it will save you a lot of trouble and extra cost. The Singapore community in Hong Kong is quite big.
It is better to learn from someone else’s mistake and experience so ask, ask, and ask. Don’t be shy.
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