Five years as a Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight attendant taught Gan Guoyi a lot about the art of hospitality. “When I think back to my training at SIA, I realise that hospitality is not about telling staff what to do, but inspiring them so they want to deliver that experience for the customer,” she shares.
For instance, as a trainee, she was taught to greet everyone she saw at the SIA Training Centre, from the security guard to the lunch lady. These days, she instructs her staff at cocktail bar Jigger & Pony to greet each and every customer when they arrive, and bid them farewell when they leave. “Creating that connection with the customer starts from the moment you first catch their eye and give them a warm welcome. All these little things are intangible but they make a difference.”
Changing The Way We Unwind
That sense of connection is key to the kind of experience she wants her customers to have. Jigger & Pony opened in 2012, and Guoyi and her husband Indra Kantono have since followed that first endeavour with rum-and-nosh joint Sugarhall, vintage-style cocktail bar Gibson, whisky and cocktail bar The Flagship and seafood restaurant Humpback. What unites all these concepts is the couple’s aspiration to create “places in the community where people can find comfort, forge friendships and share happiness”, she says.
“The bar industry in Singapore has grown so
quickly because everybody is working together... We are all very good friends,
and competition is healthy," muses Gan.
Establishing this mini empire of food and beverage establishments has not always been smooth sailing. Less than a year after starting Jigger & Pony, Guoyi found herself “breaking down and crying in a park”, telling Indra that she did not want to do this anymore. “It was much harder than I expected,” she says. “I’ve never managed people before, and I was really burnt out.” Her husband was supportive, telling her they could always opt to not renew the lease for the bar. What kept her going was the thought of her small but dogged team of staff.
“When someone agrees to work for you, they are putting their trust in you that you will do what it takes to keep this company alive. The staff were really committed and they had sacrificed a lot for us, so if I had given up, I would not just be giving up on myself.”
So she took a deep breath, and decided to soldier on, this time with a new plan for manpower management. The F&B industry in Singapore is notorious for its high turnover rate, with staff tending to stay with one establishment for about six months to a year. By implementing a system focused on performance reviews, mentorship, external courses and career progression, Guoyi has been able to improve those numbers for her businesses, where staff now stay on for up to four years.
“We have professional development goals for everyone and help people to structure their learning. That’s pretty much absent in our industry, unless you work for a hotel, and even then it can be quite stagnant,” she explains. “Twice a year, we sit down for hours to figure out what each person needs to learn in the next cycle of his or her time here. It takes up a lot of our time, but we believe investment in our people is an investment in our business.”
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That investment has paid off handsomely. Her establishments have built up a loyal clientele of appreciative regulars, and this year, Jigger & Pony, Gibson and Sugarhall made it to the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars. This marked all three bars’ second consecutive appearance in this prestigious ranking. “That’s the result of amazing work from our team!” Guoyi says proudly.
"The staff were really committed and they had sacrificed
a lot for us, so if I had given up, I would not just be giving up on myself,” shares Gan.
She is equally proud of the fact that a total of 13 Singapore bars made the cut for Asia’s 50 Best Bars this year. “That speaks a lot for our industry. When we first opened, there were very few bars focusing on high-quality, high-craft cocktails, and our regulars had to teach taxi drivers how to get to Jigger & Pony in Amoy Street. Now Amoy Street has become a destination, with so many hip restaurants and bars where you can hang out,” she enthuses. “The bar industry in Singapore has grown so quickly because everybody is working together, and each establishment has its own style of doing things. We are all very good friends, and competition is healthy. It makes everyone better.”