Predicting trends is a risky endeavour

F&B entrepreneur Nakul Pathak reveals the dangers of investing in what’s around the corner.

At the tender age of 16, Mr Nakul Pathak would work gigs as a barback in hotels and popular drinking joints while still in school. He explained that a barback’s role is to ensure that the bartenders have everything they need to deliver quality service. These include stocking up clean glasses, sufficient garnishes, beer and spirits, ice cubes, etc.

After serving National Service, he attended the International School of Hotel Management in South Australia and graduated with a Bachelor of Business and a Bachelor of Hospitality Management.

Since then, he has worked at the Fullerton Hotel, Accor Group of hotels and the Timbre Group. He rose to the position of F&B Corporate Manager and then decided to strike out on his own, starting his own business in the F&B industry.

From left: Mr Mike DeCosta, Mr Nakul Pathak and guests.

BiZQ sits down with Mr Pathak at his café which is among the F&B outlets in what is often called Horse City. He spills the beans on what made him quit his corporate role at the age of 30.

What made you decide that this was the time to move on?

I have been breathing and living F&B since the age of 16 and while it was fun, I did not want spent the rest of my life ‘chasing a salary’. So together with former colleague, Mr Mike DeCosta, we set up Café Tailor Made not in the city but in what is affectionately known as Horse City along Turf Club Road in Bukit Timah. We planned to serve premium coffee and cocktails with a selection of high-quality bread, sandwiches and more.

That was in April 2022 when gatherings were still restricted to five people. These were not good times for the F&B industry but we had a battle plan.

All the premium cocktail bars are in the Central Business District and the Chinatown area and we predicted that people would prefer to avoid crowded venues and enjoy themselves where they live and play instead.

Bukit Timah is a big residential area and Horse City offers a host of activities ranging from horse-riding, yoga, sports and more. While the children are occupied, parents often need a place to hang out, so we designed Café Tailor Made as a homely venue to enjoy a specially concocted coffee or cocktail. Our reading was spot-on and Café Tailor Made became profitable within three months.

In addition to a “can-do” attitude, you have a “make-do” strategy. Please explain the latter.

With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, I noticed that Horse City offers several open spaces. These were great to host events and we started doing that. Through word-of-mouth, our popularity grew and soon up to 800 people will flock down at our events. Recently we hosted St Patrick’s Day which drew a crowd of more than 500 people.

Events proved very popular.

Frankly, my co-founder and I are hands-on F&B people and not too adept in marketing, branding and advertising. However, we realised that we have one great resource, which was our clientele. They became our strategic partners and brand ambassadors.

For example, a fashion designer who frequented Café Tailor Made with her friends asked us to concoct cocktails at her fashion design event which was one of the ways how we grew our brand.

On another occasion, the landscape contractor for Horse City dropped by. We talked about our respective businesses and I mentioned the events I was planning. It seems he runs a farm in some remote part of Singapore and he offered to participate in an upcoming Farmer’s Market. Now, we are steadfast partners.

Customers became brand ambassadors.

Isn’t predicting trends mere guesswork?

Both yes and no. Some of it is the result of logical thinking such as people’s desire to avoid crowded venues but there are aspects that are more of a gut feel. Also, the trend might never appear and your business is left high and dry.

Even when you get it right, it could be transient. For instance, Café Tailor Made is doing well now but the government is planning to take back the whole Horse City at the end of this year. Our initial concept of a secluded premium cocktail bar is no longer feasible here.

What are your future plans?

We have been invited by The Great Room – one of the leading co-working office operators – to run a bar on the rooftop of one of their premises along South Bridge Road. They have several locations and there is a possibility of a chain of such bars but we are taking it one step at a time. We now know the importance of thinking things through.

Could you share some of the lessons you learnt?

When we set up Café Tailor Made, experienced business owners told us that it will take between six months to a year to break even. We did it in three months and were ecstatic.

So when larger premises at Horse City became available, we went for it because we thought we needed the second space for our events. It just did not turn out as expected and the extra premises became a liability and we were forced to rethink our business approach and pivot our strategy. Fortunately, we were able to sublet it to a pet café and when we need it for events, we can utilise the space in the evenings.

One learning point is that we failed to make time to study the events market carefully. We rushed in where more savvy entrepreneurs would fear to tread. I am sure I will be adding to my list of regrets in the future because the only sure way not to make a mistake is not to do anything – and that’s not my style.