AN EX-STEWARDESS walks into a bar . . . Turns out she's 28-year-old Gan Guo Yi and the boss of the place. Ms Gan set up cocktail bar Jigger and Pony with her 29-year-old then-boyfriend now-fiance Indra Kantono in May last year. They named the place after the double-coned devices "jiggers" and "ponies" used to measure ingredients in 19th century cocktail recipes.
Being newcomers to the scene, both of them were surprised to find that people in the industry were very willing to offer their help. Bartenders and bar owners they befriended would give them advice, from regulations like how high up toilets needed to be tiled, to interior design such as where to place speakers to best "bounce" music - this despite them being their supposed competition.
Ms Gan says this could be due to the emerging cocktail trend which started here about a year-and-a-half ago, thus putting all the players on the same side, rather than competitors pitted against one another. "Cocktail is still very recent and very niche. We're all still trying to convince people to switch from beer and wine to try cocktail," she says.
Mr Kantono agrees: "People whom you might call competitors in a way surprisingly became our biggest supporters and we really appreciate that. Competition in this industry is quite friendly. The industry is very supportive, almost like a community. When we tell bartenders we're thinking of opening our own place, they'll suggest people we should talk to and places we should check out."
Ms Gan started looking for a career change late in 2010 when the Indonesia-born Mr Kantono casually asked her what she would attempt if she were assured success at anything she tried. Having fallen out of love with her five-year flying career at that time, although still fond of working in the hospitality line, she told him, "Maybe open my own bar," and his response was: "Well, why not?"
What followed was 18 months of intense research into the bar and cocktail scene, locally and overseas. The couple started learning the craft of bartending from local bartenders and bar owners, as well as from books, blogs, and YouTube videos. And since Ms Gan was still flying with the airline, Mr Kantono would give her a list of cocktail bars to check out at every destination. The duo made copious notes on optimal venue sizes for bars, bar decor, and lighting, as well as cocktail ingredients.
Jigger and Pony finally opened last year in an 1,800-square-foot unit along Amoy Street, after a seven-month search for a suitable space. In its first two months of business, Ms Gan says it was unnerving how quiet traffic was some nights, particularly the Mondays and Tuesdays. Rental might be cheaper at Amoy Street, but being away from other established bars at Clarke Quay, Raffles Place, and Club Street meant it was slow to gain the attention of the bar-going crowd.
Luckily, word slowly spread, and not without help from other bar owners who generously recommended their own customers to check out the couple's new bar. Jigger and Pony soon amassed its own crowd of regulars.
Mr Kantono, who looks after the bar's finances - apt since his day job sees him managing investments at a private equity firm - says "about half a million" dollars was invested in Jigger and Pony, which is "probably more than is typical for this size". "This is our first product. We wanted to make sure that it is something we can be proud of. We took a lot of effort to make the place relatively customised," he explains.
Taking up the biggest portion of their start-up costs were - the bar itself as the centre stage of the place; the stock of 180 different products in the back bar; as well as renovation costs. They had ripped the place apart, changing its entire flooring and all its furniture when they took over the former art gallery space.
Mr Kantono says the investment in the bar came mostly from the couple's own savings. Some of his long-time business friends also came onboard as silent partners. "We decided not to fund it completely, because this is our first outlet and if we want to open a second one, we need to have some dry powder (cash reserves). And also we thought there'd be benefit in taking on some other investors to give us some advice." The bar has managed to hit its monthly targets, he says.
Asked when he thinks it will break even, Mr Kantono says he prefers not to dwell on that too much and instead focus on improving the business since "we want the bar to be open for another 20 years". Rental and staff costs continue to be its biggest overheads. The bar currently employs nine full-timers, including four bartenders, and four part-timers.
Although the couple plans to add one more outlet, they are shelving their plans for a later date, given the current manpower crunch in the hospitality industry. The couple realised from interviews that many people are reluctant to join the food and beverage industry because they don't consider it a viable career. So they hope that besides increasing revenue, opening another outlet would also allow their current employees to step up to more managerial roles and advance in their respective careers.
Certainly, says Mr Kantono, the recently announced Wage Credit Scheme at this year's Budget is welcome news. "It is already in our plan to upgrade the skills of our staff continuously and promote them to higher roles and pay scale as they gain new skills," he says.
Ms Gan adds: "We want to make sure that we nurture them with the right opportunities for them to turn this into a real career. As our company grows, they should be able to grow together with us." It's not just employees too that she makes it a point to build good relationships with, but every business partner she has - contractors and plumbers included.
In fact, she is on such good terms with them that they sometimes come by for a drink or a chat when in the vicinity. In return, they willingly help her out in times of emergency - such as the night a few tipsy customers verbally abused her staff and broke her toilet door and her contractor swung by first thing in the morning to fix it.
Another helpful thing to have, besides good relations with business partners, is humility, says Mr Kantono. Asked what advice he would give entrepreneurs, he says: "If you're new in the industry, don't act all arrogant and all-knowing and say: 'This bar is so bad, we can do so much better.' An attitude like that won't get you anywhere but if you go out there and meet people and customers and are sincere, everybody will help you."