As a child he was interested in sports and dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, but the rapid growth of the food industry in the past 15 years was what ignited entrepreneur Tan U Keong's passion in the F&B industry.
The executive director at UK cuisine Sdn Bhd launched his first bistro, bar and entertainment outlet in Seremban last year, in a move to bring "cool and trendy" dining to the Negri Sembilan capital.
Post launch, Jigger & Shaker faced some challenges as Tan had to adapt to a different culture in the area, coming from a busy city to a lifestyle that was a bit slower-paced. Among the obstacles were limited supplier options in Seremban, as well as finding experienced staff.
However, the kinks were eventually ironed out. Tan took some time out of his busy schedule for a Q&A with Life Inspired.
How have your experiences, growing up in KL and throughout university prepared you for your journey into this line of work?
I have always envied bartenders making drinks behind the bar and chefs cooking in the kitchen. It looks really cool when they wear the uniform and perform the job to accommodate the customer's needs.
My hometown in KL produces many eateries which operate 24/7. To enhance my F&B knowledge, i took up a short three months hospitality programme in Taylor's college. my first internship was at J.W. Marriott KL. I was a trainee at the Chinese restaurant there.
You have had several jobs leading up to your current position. Perhaps you could share how some of them may have shaped your path?
Along the way, I was blessed to receive a sponsorship offer from YTL College. That's where I got my diploma in hospitality management. Upon graduation, I was offered the post of restaurant supervisor at the J.W. Marriott. I must say I'm glad to have been a part of this renowned organisation as I was given the opportunity to attend several training courses that helped me grow. After a year, I was promoted to assistant manager. At that point of time, I started to fall in love with wine. I was honoured to become the wine ambassador for J.W. Marriott.
I was able to try all sort of wines and conduct wine training for the F&B team. Studies and training are the most crucial factors that have helped me grow my knowledge in this ever challenging industry.
As we often face customers, we must be equipped with the latest information in order to give the customers what they deserve. Another way is self-learning; "Google" is my teacher. My last position was as an assistant manager in botanica + co in Bangsar South. I was in the pre-opening team which helped set up the beautiful restaurant.
Your main agenda is to bring cool dining trends from KL to the Seremban community. Can you explain if you feel you have been somewhat successful so far?
What I have learned over the past year is that Seremban has great potential to be as good at providing what the outlets in Kuala Lumpur are currently offering.
As the distance has somewhat shortened over the years with improved highways and not to mention, KL-lites choosing to live in Seremban and commute daily to and from Seremban, it has evidently given restaurateurs great potential to do business in an urban mode.
My initial intention was to bring homemade cocktails to the forefront in Seremban and completely eliminate old-fashion classic cocktails. What began slowly, eventually rose to stardom simply with the help of social media and the good reputation of the restaurant itself through word of mouth.
In terms of the food, my intention is to provide big food portions, so value-for-money would never be the question — god forbid. I am pretty confident to say that our food served at Jigger & Shaker is one-of-a-kind, simply because we use high quality ingredients to prepare each dish with extra care. One of our signature dishes that is sought after by many is the Surf & Turf. A popular signature drink is our smokey cocktail.
What do you want diners to feel the moment they walk into the outlet?
I want the customer to feel like home. They walk in with a personalised warm greeting by name, get seated at their preferred table and are offered daily fresh produce by our chef. Customers' preferences are our priority. Service must be upheld and tip top. We want the customers to feel that Jigger & Shaker is the place they want to hang out at with friends and family.
What are your favourite things about the outlet and why?
My favourite part of the outlet would be its unique location. It is set within the 5-star d'Tempat country club house with the view of the Olympic-size swimming pool. Next would be the element of space where we can accommodate up to 150 pax. Customers have the freedom to host private events at our venue and can opt for a wide range of food and drinks to choose from. It's customised to their needs.
How would you describe your leadership style/philosophy? What are the qualities that make a great leader?
The leadership philosophy that I live by is to "Walk the talk and lead by example." I practise transparency that allows the team members from every level to speak up and give their opinions. I believe in the philosophy of "Treat your staff well, then your staff will treat the customer well in return." A great leader must be fair and humble, work with the team and constantly motivate them.
What has motivated you in your career?
My first mentor was Madam Idy, F&B director from YTL Hotels. She is most probably past her retirement age, but still contributing to the company. I learned a lot from her in terms of leadership, how to develop my career. Her never-shy-away-from-anything attitude is so admirable.
Next would be Datuk Lee Tian Hock from the Matrix Group. He is the one who inspired me to embark on this journey and I truly admire his down-to-earth leadership values. Despite his hectic schedule, he still finds the time to keep in touch with his subordinates.
When it comes to business advice, I always reach out to him. He is ever so kind and accommodating in imparting his knowledge and ideas, providing guidance in my career path.
Which aspects of the job do you find most rewarding and which ones do you find most challenging?
The most rewarding part would be the appreciation and "Thank you" from the customers. It is the best accomplishment a businessman can experience. What's most challenging? Keeping up with rising operational costs but it's something that we can overcome always, with proper planning, of course.
What are the most important lessons passed down to you?
Datuk Lee Tian Hock shared this quote with me once and I will always value it. "Love your job and you will be rewarded one day." Besides this, his concern for his staff and his love and passion for his company and people are greatly admired. With this being put into practice, my team is now highly motivated. They love their jobs even though we all know that working in a restaurant is not as easy as many think.