INTERVIEW: Derek Ong, Group CEO, Tipsy Collective — “The food industry remains a paradox”

·Lifestyle Contributor
·5-min read
(PHOTO: Tipsy Collective)
(PHOTO: Tipsy Collective)

SINGAPORE — I wanted to interview Derek Ong because I’ve seen first hand how the Tipsy Collective grew since its first Tipsy Penguin outlet at Tampines to its most recent launch of Tipsy Flamingo at Raffles City, racking up a grand total of eight Tipsy hyphenate to its name. Along the way, the group also launched Takeshi Noodle Bar at Hotel Soloha, Lady Wu at North Canal Road, and O/T Bar at Woodlands Square—all within the span of three years.

There’s something to be said of Derek’s success in a country where the business of F&B is vicious, unrelenting, and unforgiving. In this interview, Derek shares his thoughts on the lessons he’s learned from sitting as mogul to a food empire and the biggest sacrifice he’s made in this journey.

How do you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?

I’ll share that I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to eat and drink for a living—and that it’s genuinely a joy to be able to provide a space for people to have hearty conversations over good food and even better company.

I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Tipsy Collective, a multi-concept F&B group in Singapore, and I’ve been in this industry for more than a decade. It’s been an exciting yet challenging journey and one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

My love for business ignited when I started selling halal fish bak kwa and became the first student in Republic Polytechnic to be awarded a S$50k grant from Spring Singapore (Yes! Start-ups). Eventually, I expanded my portfolio with The Burger Office, Roots Kitchen Bar and even Central Perk—the first Friends themed cafe in Singapore.

Takeshi Noodle Bar (PHOTO: Tipsy Collective)
Takeshi Noodle Bar (PHOTO: Tipsy Collective)

Why did you decide to pursue the business of food?

Food and drinks, to me, is the fabric that holds and connects humankind. In every culture, food plays an integral part to connect everyone; it gives people a sense of belonging and identity. Whenever I travel to other parts of the world, the mention of food immediately builds an instant connection and opens the door the deep, meaningful conversations.

Yet, the food industry remains a paradox; it is the simplest of businesses to start but one of the most complex to maintain. It is almost impossible to grasp what our consumers want exactly, but we know what they do not want.

What lessons have you learned from setting up The Tipsy Collective that has changed how you look at life in the F&B scene?

My greatest life lesson is that failure is never fatal; they are stepping-stones as long as you persevere and keep going. Setting up Tipsy Collective from the beginning was only possible because of my past experiences, and I am grateful for them.

The F&B scene is ever-evolving, but I now have a better understanding of how ambience, location and customer experience play a huge role in providing the best “Tipsy Experience” for our guests.

What has been the most significant difference that you can see between the food industry when you first started out and now post-pandemic?

Before the pandemic, most F&B businesses would see each other as competitors and be less open towards one another. Now, because of the many collective voices and efforts to lobby for the industry due to the pandemic; I believe the industry as a whole is shifting towards a more united culture where we see each other as comrades in the industry—with a united voice against the other variables such as lockdown restrictions, SMMs or even rental issues.

Tipsy Penguin dishes (PHOTO: Tipsy Collective)
Tipsy Penguin dishes (PHOTO: Tipsy Collective)

What has been the biggest sacrifice you have made in your food journey that you have never told anyone about?

It would be my six-pack liver, because I work it so hard, and a well-rounded tummy—hah! Jokes aside, I understand that there is always a sowing process that involves sacrifice behind any business.

For me, it was my family. I wished I had spent more quality time with them. But thankfully, my children are still at the tender age of 4 & 5, and I am glad to have a strong support team at Tipsy Collective; they allow me pockets of time to spend with my family.

What does success in the F&B industry look like to you, and where do you place yourself in this trajectory?

My biggest wish is that everyone in my company thrives not just financially but also individually and holistically. There is a saying that goes: “we first take care of our people, and our people will take care of our business.” I think this is ever more important in the F&B industry now because our people are a direct reflection of our business.

So, success to me is when our team, big or small, continues thriving individually so that it collectively overflows to our customers. Tipsy Collective is a work-in-progress, and we will keep on keeping on.

When you look at the state of dining in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?

Throughout the pandemic, we see that dining regulations have been on everyone’s attention nationwide. It shows how integral dining is and how much Singaporeans value food and connect with one another. I believe once we overcome COVID-19, dining in Singapore will once again return to its former glory, or even better, we will go from glory to glory.