Sometimes, the best career guidance comes from those closest to us. In this three-part series for Mother’s Day, we follow three business owners who followed in their mum’s footsteps when it came to their careers. Whether its working side-by-side with mum or learning from her wisdom, there’s no denying that their mothers have made a powerful impact on their lives.
Teo Shi Kai remembers spending “nearly every day” at The Blue Ginger when the Peranakan restaurant opened its doors in 1995. “Growing up, I was always at the restaurant the first few years after we opened, eating the food and spending time after school there,” he recalls.
Now, more than two decades later, the 35-year-old is once again spending most of his days at The Blue Ginger. This time, however, he’s running parts of the family business that was first co-founded by his mother, Susan, and two of her friends. Susan eventually took over the entire venture when her other founding partners ceded the business due to personal time constraints.
Over the next 29 years, Susan grew the award-winning establishment into a stalwart in the Peranakan culinary scene; in 2016, it was selected as a Bib Gourmand establishment by the Michelin Guide Singapore.
Building a family legacy
Shi Kai joined the business in 2019. It wasn’t exactly an overnight decision; he describes it as something that happened “organically”. He had previously worked at a bank as a wealth manager – which “wasn’t really for [him]” – before doing a stint at a food-related tech start-up. “There was always a slight interest [in the industry], having grown up surrounded by food. It was a natural progression for me,” he explains.
When he first expressed interest in joining, Susan shares that she felt “surprised, but ultimately happy”. “I was really glad that he wanted to. Before he joined, the restaurant had been considering an expansion. The truth is, we’re not getting younger. We’ll need new blood [if we wanted to expand]. And it was important for me that somebody in the family could carry on our business, as there’s no point in building everything up only to have no one to follow through on our passion.”
It was important for me that somebody in the family could carry on our business.Susan Teo
When he first joined, Shi Kai worked ground-up and experienced a variety of roles, including being a service staff as well as heading into the kitchen to experiment with the chefs.
Currently, he is managing The Blue Ginger’s second outlet at the Great World mall, as well as other operational aspects of the business.
The Great World outlet opened in the third week of January 2020, and Shi Kai describes navigating the restaurant through the challenges of the pandemic as “tough”: “It was very difficult, but I guess it showed our teamwork ultimately. We kept a tight rein on our budget, and made sure that we didn’t overextend ourselves.”
It was very difficult, but I guess it showed our teamwork ultimately.Teo Shi Kai
Savouring tradition and modernity
For the young restaurateur, the new outlet offers an opportunity to present Peranakan cuisine and culture to a younger and wider audience. When the outlet opened, he also introduced a brand refresh, including revamping the restaurant’s website, as well as updating and modernising details such as the logo and colour scheme.
Balancing a heritage multigenerational brand while trying to appeal to changing tastes is no easy feat, admits Shi Kai. It has to be done carefully and meaningfully in order to preserve the culture. He taps into the culinary knowledge of his mother and a food consultant to develop and modernise the recipes of old-school favourites.
Susan continues to work on the “overall back-end of the business, including personnel work as well as marketing and sales”.
Working together with his mother has shown him the importance of “making measured decisions”, says Shi Kai. “We’re very careful and conservative in making our business decisions,” agrees Susan. This style of playing it safe has kept the business afloat through tough times, including the recent pandemic.
A recipe for success
Still, working so closely together can at times cause friction, and the mother-son duo openly share that they are working on improving communication between them.
“I’m old-school and he’s new-school,” Susan says with a laugh. “We’re still working on our different styles, but we’re getting there and learning how to meet somewhere in the middle.”
Both mother and son are very firm about establishing boundaries between their professional and personal relationship. “If we ever have a disagreement – as with any relationship in a business, you’ll rarely agree on everything with each other – yes, we’ll get upset with each other. But we talk it out, and when we go home, we go home. That’s it; we leave it behind.”
We talk it out, and when we go home, we go home. That’s it; we leave [the disagreements] behind.Susan Teo
“At home, we only talk about work if the issue is urgent. We never talk about work over dinner,” adds Shi Kai.
What happens in the office stays in the office, they agree.
Susan shares: “We don’t hold grudges – after all, we’re a family.”
Photography PHYLLICIA WANG
Art Direction ADELINE ENG & RAY TICSAY
Hair AUNG APICHAI, USING KEVIN MURPHY
Makeup LASELLE LEE, USING TOM FORD BEAUTY & AUNG APICHAI, USING GUCCI BEAUTY