INTERVIEW: Botak Jones' founder Bernie on why working in F&B is an "addiction"

Bernie Utchenik with his signature cajun chicken. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)
Bernie Utchenik with his signature cajun chicken. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

SINGAPORE – "It's an addiction," laughed Bernie Utchenik of the food and beverage industry, "in the sense that it's a 'terrible' occupation."

"You work harder than anybody [who is not in the F&B industry] could even think. You definitely put in hours that are outlandish. You miss all the holidays, birthdays, things like that."

Utchenik, who turns 69 this year, is the man who opened Botak Jones in 2003, the popular Western food stall chain with large portions and unique offerings. After leaving Botak Jones, he started another chain called Big Bern's American Grill, with outlets at Timbre+ and Gluttons Bay (they also had an outlet at Toa Payoh in 2017), before closing it down earlier this year.

Today, he has re-opened Botak Jones under the name "The Original Botak Jones", at a coffee shop at 118 Depot Lane, with many favourites returning to the menu such as his fish and chips, chicken gumbo soup, and cheese-topped cajun chicken.

Fish and Chips (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)
Fish and Chips (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

On why F&B is an addiction, Utchenik had this to say. "There are very few things, outside of performing on stage or F&B, that give you a very immediate response to what you're doing. I've been fortunate enough to experience that both on stage and in the kitchen. That touches you in a way few things can, so you tend to want that again. It's a high that you keep getting in."

Performing on stage? Utchenik is a man of many talents, it seems.

He used to stay in Malaysia, where he got to know a dear friend who performed at the same pub that he did. When Utchenik moved to Singapore (he was in the oil industry then), his friend, who had also moved here, called him up on stage. "Oh my gumbo babies, come up here and sing a song with me!" his friend, who has passed on, would say. That's how he started singing in Singapore.

Cajun Chicken Burger (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)
Cajun Chicken Burger (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

Utchenik's venture into the food business started with a group of close friends he had made in the oil industry.

"I thought, at that time, I was getting on in years. But I actually in my 40s," he chuckled. "And we were always talking about what we would do if we weren't working in the oil field. One of the things was, we would like to bring the real food that we grew up with here, where people haven't really experienced it."

In 1996, that seed germinated into a place called Bernie's, which was located opposite Changi Prison. Utchenik soon grew it to three outlets, and eventually ran the business full-time.

After trying out another venture at Boat Quay in 1999, he finally came up with his brainchild — Botak Jones.

Chicken Gumbo (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)
Chicken Gumbo (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

"I don't know why I came up with the name, outside of the fact that I'm a botak," smiled Utchenik as he pointed at his bald pate. "But I thought that Jones is such a Western name. And it has other meanings, like if you have a 'jones' for something, you've got a need for it."

As a result, Botak Jones has both local and Western influences in the name. "Plus you want people to jones for the food, good food."

The Original Botak Jones at Depot Lane. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)
The Original Botak Jones at Depot Lane. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

The Original Botak Jones opened on 14 June, 2021 — smack in the middle of Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), when dining-in at food outlets was not allowed and eateries were struggling. That presented its own set of problems, especially for a nascent F&B brand.

"The challenge is having a launch with no dining in," laughed Utchenik. But even under such circumstances, the opening saw long queues and the food was sold out by 3pm.

"We're totally overwhelmed with the response. There've been so many people sending their support and well wishes," he said before the launch. "I didn't think our brand was that much remembered since it's been a while since I've been involved with the Botak Jones brand.

But the good thing is that the Depot Lane coffee shop has a large seating capacity, since it used to be an industrial canteen. So when things are back to normal, they'll be ready.

Queues on the first day. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)
Queues on the first day. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

So what does the Botak Jones founder feel about it all?

"One thing that comes with age is the tempering of expectations. At least for me, it has. So it's more like this, expectations were fairly low, but my hopes were quite high," shared Utchenik. The initial Facebook posts before the launch saw an overwhelming, unexpected degree of virality,

"I know that when while we were Botak Jones a long time ago, we were touching a lot of people. And believe me, we felt it ourselves. We were feeling their love, we were trying to give as much back as possible. But I didn't realise how many people grew up with the brand. And so many people now, they're in their 20s and 30s, were toddlers and adolescents when they first started eating Botak Jones food. So it's something that's very strong in their minds," he said of the nostalgia factor for Botak Jones.

A candid shot of Bernie. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)
A candid shot of Bernie. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

For those who are interested in entering the F&B industry, Utchenik has some choice words of advice.

"Don't do it! You'll spend your whole life doing something that a lot of people are not going to appreciate," he joked.

He went on to share that a strong fire, drive, and passion is needed for those who go into F&B.

"[Being in] F&B has got to be something you can't do without. If you don't have that feeling after you've tried it, don't do it. You'll be doing a disservice to yourself, you'll be doing a disservice to your customers, because you won't be able to accede to their expectations," is his advice.

The Original Botak Jones is now open at at 112 Depot Lane, from 11am to 7pm. It is closed on Tuesdays.

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