They had an appetite for the dining scene, opening first a casual diner and then gourmet burger joint Wolf Burgers. Six years later, Ho Song En and Serene Chua are still doing what they love while making plans to take their brand forward
When the “circuit breaker’’ was announced from April to June last year, many turned to food delivery online. We at Options did just that for a virtual meeting and ordered from an unfamiliar place (to us, at least) called Wolf Burgers.
We later learned that it is a home-grown brand with a menu to rival any of the international big burger joints to have settled in Singapore.
By now, we are all experts when it comes to food deliveries and know what type of food travels well. We are glad to report that the burger arrived snug in its paper wrapping and is still warm. Instead of a milkshake, we chose a bubble tea and it complemented the fries and patty.
Fast forward to a year and a few more deliveries later, Options meets up with the brand’s two founders. Finance professionals and friends Serene Chua and Ho Song En have put their love for gourmet burgers to the test when they set up Wolf Burgers back in 2015 (its name inspired by the phrase ‘hungry like a wolf’). As Chua explains: “The wolf is highly intelligent, caring, playful, intuitive and independent. Yet, it is also social, loyal, devoted to family and hunts in packs. Which brings us to our tagline — Feed the Pack”.
Wolf Burgers opened at Pasar Bella Suntec City in January 2016. It is not their first foray into the fickle world of F&B, where restaurants mushroom overnight only to close when its popularity wanes. The pair started Carvers & Co in 2014, on the encouragement of a friend who is a chef. Chua says: “It was a childhood dream for me to have a ‘F&B empire’, comprising a casual dining place serving ice- cream and coffee.”
Carvers & Co is a casual diner that serves up delicious meat platters, truffle eggs on toast and pastas. On the menu was the General Burger that cost about $25, and to their surprise, it was a crowd favourite. “We spotted an opportunity to start gourmet burgers at affordable price points, and that was how Wolf Burgers began its journey in 2015,” says Chua.
The pair agree that there is something very comforting and satiating about sinking your teeth into a pillowy soft bun and a delicious juicy patty. The idea was to have hand-made burger patties and sauces — made with the freshest ingredients — sold at an affordable average price of $9.90.
But it is not all about burgers these days. Ho recently told us that with the advent of technology and Covid-19 speeding up the adoption and usage of technology, consumers want products and services delivered to them via their preferred platform, not the provider’s platform.
He likens it to the way movies and content are consumed has changed, being delivered on-demand across multiple devices in multiple locations versus the only option having to head to the cinema to catch a movie. He plans to drive the in-store experience, there is still a need for physical spaces, as we are after all-analog beings living in a digital world.
Taking a page out of Disney (where content is consumed digitally but everyone still wants to go to Disneyland), Ho adds: “We have relooked at our physical spaces to make them more experiential. It was challenging balancing experiential and practical but it was a pivot which we feel needs to be done”.
For an upcoming project, Song and Chua have roped in Shen Tan, the private dining celebrity chef who is known for her modern Singapore repertoire, and they plan to open a Nasi lemak stall at Newton Food Centre in July — again with the idea of bringing delicious and affordable food to the masses. Ho also hopes to take Wolf Burgers overseas to markets like New Zealand and Japan.
Speaking to the pair, it is clear they have mutual respect for each other. When asked about the qualities that they admire about each other, Chua says it is Ho’s never-give-up attitude and always keeping an open mind when it comes to experimenting with new products and ideas and “he is intelligent, just like the wolf”.
Meanwhile, Ho says that Chua is sassy, smart, stylish, bold and supportive. “She is a good sounding block for marketing and business ideas. She is also a passionate foodie and full of energy,” he adds.
As Ho goes off to do what he does best — formulating ideas for the brand and more — Chua answers the questions from Options about surviving Covid-19 and what is next for these two hungry entrepreneurs.
You both came from a banking and finance background, how did F&B come into the picture?
We saw a market opportunity for gourmet burgers at affordable price points in 2015, so we decided to venture into the F&B arena. Being avid foodies and growing up in families where we were passionate about good food, it was a natural inclination towards starting a food-related business. Our finance backgrounds would then come in handy when it comes to budgeting, structuring, risk control and managing cash flows, and more.
The challenge when we first started was finding the right suppliers for high-quality and fresh ingredients. Also hiring the right staff and aligning them with the same vision and dream as we were a start-up. There was a lot of uncertainty but we decided to give it our best in making our dreams come true.
There are more burger joints in Singapore now. Why did you take up the challenge?
This only proves that there is a market for burgers and we were right in venturing into this area. We haven’t given up hope despite the more challenging landscape and with Covid-19 in the picture. We will continue to strive, evolve and bring the best burgers in Singapore to everyone.
How is Wolf Burgers different from the competition?
Our meat patties and special Wolf sauces are freshly made everyday. They don’t contain any artificial fillers and we also have a very accessible price point. As we are a locally grown brand, we also offer seasonal localised products such as beef rendang which we tied up with Shen Tan on and the Homage burger, which was actually created by one of our staff during the lockdown last year and is based on his craving for his hometown’s family burger. We also have a power combo of bubble tea sets that are offered to customers. Healthy options are also available for consumers who prefer organic or plant-based ingredients.
Wolf Burgers was one of the launch partners for both beyond and impossible meat and we continue to carry both. For example the “Naked Burger” replaces the bun with a lettuce wrap and that was introduced in 2019.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the F&B scene. What did you do when it hit?
We found ourselves in a better position to adapt. First, we started with online deliveries back in 2016 and we started experimenting with a beta cloud kitchen in 2017 with one of the delivery platforms. I believe it was the second cloud kitchen in Singapore, which was a great learning curve for us.
We had just started with a vendor to have our own online website for ordering and third-party logistics three months before Covid-19 became an issue. Sometimes being ahead of the curve isn’t always a bad thing. At least we had the infrastructure there but Covid-19 accelerated it.
That said, Wolf Burgers has always stayed on top of global trends and embraced the changing tastes of consumers. With the launch of the Funan outlet in 2019, we had already taken a 100% “tech” automation or self-service slant — from ordering to paying to waiting for and picking up the food.
We still have service ambassadors who meet-and-greet customers and check in with customers to see if any assistance can be rendered.
We also have a strong view that technology is there to free colleagues up to better interact and engage with the customers. We feel that it’s still necessary to have the human touch in creating a special and memorable integrated experience. Despite an increasingly digital world.
Cloud kitchens have also been the trend as well since a couple of years back. Wolf Burgers and Carvers & Co both have had their own virtual brands in cloud kitchens at Deliveroo Editions since 2018. We started a virtual brand with Grab Kitchen (cloud kitchen) at Lam Soon Industrial Building in December 2019.
We will have more virtual brands coming up on these platforms down the road. This enables us to test our new brands and products online, achieve economies of scale, have the benefits of a centralised kitchen, and do online deliveries. All without the risks and costs of setting up a full-fledged restaurant.
For now, we have Funan mall and Suntec City physical outlets and four cloud kitchens at Hillview, Tampines, Gambas and Aljunied.
The challenge now is also to sustain the businesses in light of the pandemic, that has really taken the world by storm. More are choosing to stay home and many are working from home with business continuity planning.
The business model has to adapt to shifting more resources towards online ordering and delivering, instead of the traditional eating out.
Wolf Burgers has its own ordering app with a self-pick-up option at any outlet. We also do deliveries and catering for parties or meetings — be it sliders and milkshakes for a kids party, or sweet and savoury canapés for events. We also deliver burgers, fries, and drinks for an office meeting or birthday party.
A customer can order food from both Wolf Burgers and Carvers & Co via Grab Kitchens and Deliveroo Editions if it’s the standard fare. Or customers can get in touch with us if it’s a party with a carving station for roast beef and chicken, fish skewers, beef sliders, and fries, pasta, sausages, and mash, and also cakes for desserts.
What lessons have you learned from the pandemic?
We need to be nimble, agile, flexible in adapting to the new normal and to see new ways of doing business and looking for opportunities as they come.
To survive in the F&B scene, one must really possess passion, creativity, resourcefulness, courage, drive, determination, tenacity, open-mindedness, leadership, and the ability to inspire teamwork in the same direction.
We think it is important to inspire the team and set the right direction, to delegate the execution as good teamwork is important to the success of a business. Also important is to foster the right eco-system that adds quality, value, innovation, speed to the customer experience.
Don’t give up as there are bound to be numerous obstacles along the way. Learning and improving with valuable feedback from staff and customers. Shifting and adapting with the changing food and consumer trends, staying resilient and engaging effectively with the target audience.
What advice will you give home cooks that want to take their cuisine from their kitchen to a cafe?
That passion for cooking is one thing, but producing food on a commercial scale is another level.
We understand that there were plans to take your brand abroad. Are they shelved for now?
Physical plans for expansion are in a holding pattern for now, but we are excited to activate our virtual plans. We are currently exploring launching our very own digital Wolf Burgers platform overseas.
Moving forward, what plans do you have for the rest of this year?
Last year, we added four cloud kitchens (Hillview, Tampines, Gambas, and Aljunied) to our two physical outlets (Funan and Suntec City). We are looking at opening more physical outlets this year.
We are also working with celebrity chef Shen Tan to launch a new Nasi lemak brand that will bring together Wolf Burgers’ online to offline strategy. In addition, we are in the midst of bringing together traditional hawkers and technology — the aim is to collaborate, create and elevate the brand experience for everyone.
Photos Wolf Burgers