They started their restaurant as an experiment of sorts. With zero experience in the food and beverage industry, Mr Khong Yoon Kay and his wife, Ms Jeanne Seah, set up Joan Bowen Cafe to train young adults with special needs in culinary skills.
More than three years on, they have found that every step in their journey has been strained by countless challenges. But the rewards have been worth it.
Mr Khong, 57, who has a full-time IT job in a multinational corporation, said: “We’re neither F&B nor therapeutic experts, so it’s been tough.
“It’s been a try-and-try experiment. We did a lot of research, and calibrated our plan along the way. The business is now steady, but every day brings new challenges.”
The cafe is named after their daughter Joan Bo Wen, 22, who was born with special needs. The couple wanted to create a safe place for her and her former classmates from APSN Delta Senior School to learn a range of skills, from cooking and cutting vegetables to dish-washing and serving tables.
At first, one of their initial plans was to include a bakery at the cafe, which opened in Jalan Wangi in August 2009. But they stopped after six months as the kitchen crew found creating pastries too difficult.
Ms Seah, also 57, who works full-time with the business, said: “We spent S$15,000 on a bread-making machine that nobody could use and now collects dust in a corner!”
Today, the restaurant serves Western food like home-made mushroom soup and fish and chips, as well as simple desserts like brownies and apple crumble. Their second outlet, popular for private parties, opened at St Andrew’s Village in Francis Thomas Drive in August 2011.
The staff at the two outlets include 16 people with special needs. Those who are better skilled draw a salary of about S$1,500, while the rest get an allowance of between S$300 and S$500.
Still, maintaining the business at a steady pace requires a huge dose of patience and stamina. Because the staff have special needs, much time and effort is spent on training and repeating instructions. It can also get very stressful in the kitchen. For instance, busy lunchtime periods can see the crew preparing more than 70 meals in two-and-a-half hours at the Jalan Wangi outlet.
In addition, hidden costs eat into their profits, such as higher-than-average food wastage and accidental breakage of plates and cups.
Fortunately, the business saves money in other areas. For instance, it is not held hostage by sky-high rents because the couple own the unit in Jalan Wangi.
Mr Khong reckons the cafe pulls in about S$500,000 a year in turnover and just about breaks even. “We keep our heads above water,” he said.
“Right now, our challenge is how to always keep improving and maintain quality. It’s really about enabling our staff and creating more exciting opportunities for them.”
That includes making a lot of their food from scratch. He said: “This way, the kitchen crew learn proper techniques and how to refine them.”
They also learn new skills in small ways, like making different types of coffee, and how to pour and serve wine. Last August, six of the crew were sent to Bangkok to learn how to cook new dishes from a hotel chef.
Their ultimate dream is for Joan and her friends to run the entire business themselves, so that they don’t have to step in.
Mr Khong said: “The missing piece is finance and operational management skills. Will it happen? I don’t know. But if we don’t run it, we don’t know anyone else who can.”
The couple remain anxious for the future. Ms Seah said: “When we’re no longer around, what will Joan do? How can we also help her friends lead meaningful lives once they reach their 30s and 40s? Beyond culinary skills, how far can we go? How do we elevate their status?
“Some days, it gets so tough that we just want to give up. But then we see how hard the kids have worked and how they’ve improved over the years, and we know it’s all worth it.”