27 year old Melvin Ong (above) has a vision. And that is to be the king of fries in Singapore.
Together with his partner Steve Tan (also 27), Melvin owns and operates What The Fries! – a snack food outlet located at the basement of J Cube Mall. With the cheeky acronym WTF, the stall has been in operation slightly over a year (it opened on 2 Apr 2012). It serves savoury snacks like Golden Nuggets, Mexicali Wings, Roasted Drumlets, Sunny Hunny Wings, and lots of fries.
Occupying some 23 sq m (246 sq ft) in area, What The Fries! prides itself on only serving premium imported US thick cut fries. According to the partners, these specially sourced fries are supplied only to five and six star hotel restaurants. Cooked only upon ordering, they are served hot and crispy while remaining moist and fluffy on the inside.
Beyond perfecting its potatoes (they do taste yummy!), the outlet also prides itself on its range of dips and sauces, most of which are Asian-inspired. Patrons can choose from original flavours like Wasabi, Sweet Thai Chilli, Nacho Cheese, Beef Bolognese, Herbie Mayonnaise and Chilli Crab.
To provide greater variety to customers, What The Fries! also introduced curly fries and potato wedges. More recently, pasta with cheesy beef bolognese sauce has been added to the menu, catering to those who hanker after something more substantial during meal times.
Naturally, the fries snacking business is a pretty crowded one. When asked how What The Fries! hopes to compete against larger fries specialists as well as the huge fast food chains, Melvin highlighted WTF’s unique selling points:
1) The use of premium US thick cut fries as highlighted. These are specially sourced from Steve’s family business supplying food ingredients to leading hotels in Singapore.
2) The emphasis on uniquely created sauces and dips made with quality ingredients.
3) The process of frying only upon fresh orders, with no batch frying, refrying or pre-frying. While customers may have to wait for longer periods, Melvin is confident that the better taste of their fries are worth the wait.
Friends since secondary school, Melvin and Steve are both fry fanatics. Before building the business, their penchant for potatoes saw them traveling to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan in their quest to uncover the perfect Asian-tasting french fry. Their journeys sparked off the idea that fries can actually take centre-stage in a meal rather than be relegated to a side dish. Furthermore, the creation of innovative and flavourful sauces and dips enhances the savoury experience of eating fries.
With this in mind, the partners went to source for suitable locations. Due to the somewhat saucy acronym (WTF) of their outlet, they initially faced rejections from various landlords in shopping malls. Fortunately, the partners persevered and found a suitable partner in Capital Mall which was more amenable to the cheeky brand name. Hence, the J Cube Mall outlet was opened.
Splitting their responsibilities equally – Melvin takes charge of operations and marketing while Steve does admin and product development – the partners are equal shareholders. For the initial stages of their business, the bulk of their start-up investments went to equipment, brand development (logo, signages, posters, menus, brochures), renovations and rental deposits.
For Melvin, his passion for the business spurred him to quit a decent paying career in financial planning to become a full-time entrepreneur. Initially, the demands of both jobs made it difficult for him to juggle his time and energies. When push came to shove, it was the fries which won. Fortunately, the business broke even within its first year.
Like any F&B business, manpower is a major challenge for What The Fries! Recent increases in foreign worker levy made it harder for them to hire foreign help while locals tend to shun such jobs. Over the past year, Melvin had to work retail hours almost seven days a week, assisted by two part-timers. Fortunately, the partners managed to hire a full-timer recently, freeing Melvin to spend more time developing and growing the fledgling fry business.
As a start-up, getting the word out was critical. Fortunately, What The Fries! managed to garner modest success in publicity, with coverage in Straits Times Life!, Women’s Weekly (where it was given the Golden Plate Award) and Teenage Magazine. Celebrity comedian Chua Enlai (aka Pornsak of the Noose) also patronised their outlet.
For the road ahead, Melvin and Steve will open a second outlet at Suntec City in July 2013, followed by a third in August 2013. Optimistic about the future, the partners enthused that they “want to be the leaders in the fries retail industry by providing the best service and quality of food at an affordable cost to our customers.”
Melvin and Steve’s words of advice to would-be entrepreneurs is to “..never give up, just do it! You’ll never know if you never try.” To succeed in the F&B business, they emphasised that quality, service and cost are vital.
Do check out What The Fries! at the basement of J Cube Mall (#B1-K09) and indulge in some fabulous fries today.