Throughout his 20 years of culinary experience working in various restaurants and hotels, chef Collin Ho developed a taste for both the sweet and the sour sides of the industry. While the Western-style food was exquisite and popular, the prices were often prohibitively high.
Inspired by the hawker food culture – affordable, tasty food available to the masses in eating halls and food courts popular in his native country Singapore – Collin broke away to start his own one-man hawker operation in a FOODLOFT coffee shop in Geylang. One outlet quickly became 12, and Collin knew it was time to expand further to realise his vision of how Western food in Asia could be.
To do so, Collin turned to some old friends. “I gathered ex-colleagues from the restaurant days,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Back then, we all had a shared passion for cooking and serving, and we all had fun doing it. Now, we’re bringing that vibe along with very tasty food to the public, at much more affordable prices than you’d spend in hotels or top restaurants.”
As FOODLOFT, a coffee shop chain that was founded by Alex Chia and Michelle Leow in 2001, continued to grow in business, COLLIN’S was added to its portfolio and SF Group was established. Together as partners, Collin joined the original founders to accelerate their business expansion. Today, SF Group is a business with more than 78 outlets of which a chain of 24 outlets bears the chef’s name – COLLIN’S – and are infused with his signature style.
“Consumers have always responded well to what Collin has to offer,” says Jonathan Lim, SF Group’s Chief Development Officer. “When Collin first started out, there were long queues for his food, a good sign that we were going in the right direction with COLLIN’S.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the most exotic and dynamic chefs in the world.”
- Collin Ho
The chain is the culmination of Collin’s culinary journey, but the beginning took place long ago in his grandmother’s kitchen. “I loved to watch her cook,” he recalls. “That’s where I learned to do home-style cooking. From then on, I was excited to be a chef.”
After the obligatory stint of national service, Collin followed his calling. “My grandfather would always tell me to learn and to make something of myself,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the most exotic and dynamic chefs in the world, and even pasta together with some of the greatest Italian chefs. This whole journey has been so fulfilling.”
And even though Collin has, in creating his own chain of restaurants, reached significant heights in his industry, Jonathan says it hasn’t slowed his pace. “He’s a very hands-on CEO. He still clocks extensive hours and is still goes going from outlet to outlet. That’s where I think he feels most at home.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic on the wane, Jonathan says the COLLIN’S chain still has room to grow. “We’re definitely looking at expanding beyond Singapore, but our view is things may take two or three years for the pandemic situation to settle down,” he says. “We have a presence in China, but it has proven very challenging during the pandemic. Thus in the short-term, we’ll be focused on growing COLLIN’S in Singapore.”
SF Group also plans to expand its coffee shop business. “We run over 20 coffee shops and we’ve moved into the food court business as well,” Jonathan says.
Like many food and beverage industry peers, SF Group’s outlets made the switch to takeaway and delivery during the COVID-19 lockdown. “We’re now really focused on food delivery,” Jonathan explains. “It’s a very important part of SF Group’s business, and going forward, we’ll try to find locations we haven’t covered in terms of existing delivery outlets. That’s always a criterion when looking for new locations.”
“He’s a very hands-on CEO. He still clocks extensive hours and is still goes going from outlet to outlet. That’s where I think he feels most at home.”
- Jonathan Lim
Despite the fragmentation caused by the pandemic, Jonathan believes SF Group’s dedication to quality keeps it competitive. “We’re not the only player that serves Western food in a casual setting, but we put emphasis on the quality of ingredients and of our cooking methods,” he says. Indeed, SF Group works with key suppliers of ingredients from pasta company Barilla and Country Foods.
The tough times of recent years have done nothing to quell Collin’s passion for food, nor has it muted SF Group’s drive for success. “We’re trying to democratise high-end food by making it accessible to everyone at very reasonable pricing,” Jonathan adds. “The last two years have been challenging for the food and beverage industry, but everyone fights to survive and do better, thus we’re no different. No matter how hard it gets, there are always opportunities if you look hard enough.”