“I cannot smile,” quips Chef Benny Se Teo during a photoshoot with Epoch Times. Stern and stout, he exudes a ‘Da Ge’ (big brother) charisma.
But underneath his formidable frame lies a compassionate soul. The 55-year-old chef cum owner of the Eighteen Chefs restaurant chain has been making an impact in people’s lives—particularly the lives of ex-convicts.
His restaurant chain has a social mission to hire ex-convicts, who constitute 35% of his 300 staff.
The founder-chef was also an ex-convict who had spent more than 10 years of his life in and out of prison due to drug addiction. Today, he has a strong conviction to hire ex-convicts and give them a second chance.
Although it is tough for social enterprises to thrive in Singapore, Se Teo’s business acumen and firm principles have grown Eighteen Chefs from a single outlet in 2007 to 12 outlets today. In 2015, the restaurant chain had a turnover of around S$20 million.
“Just like any other businesses, you face challenges like acceptance. It takes time for Singaporeans to accept my kind of restaurant which hire ex-convicts. Gradually, they support my cause,” says Chef Se Teo.
His secret to success?
“If you are building something with your heart, your mind and your soul, anything can happen,”
The Difficult Path
Decades ago, Se Teo became addicted to drugs due to peer pressure. Due to his addiction, he faced an impasse.
“When you are young, you see people around taking drugs, you think it is cool. Then you blindly go into it, and you realise, ‘Hey, this is not cool at all.’ You are unable to live a normal life, you are hooked to it, and are enslaved to drugs,” he says.
Years of drug addiction weighed on him and he “wanted so much to be free of them”.
“I tried to look for a job in 1993. I went for six job interviews. I was politely rejected because of my background. I realised that in Singapore, once you are an ex-offender, you are not able to get a normal job and live a normal life,” says Se Teo.
He found a job as a despatch rider for a couple of years and picked up the kitchen knife at the age of 45. To improve his cooking skills, he went to the UK and took up an internship at celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant—Fifteen.
After his internship, he began his entrepreneurship journey in the F&B industry, which has not been smooth-sailing.
In 2005, he started his first Chinese restaurant, with ex-convicts comprising 90% of his staff. However, the business failed.
In 2010, his Eighteen Chefs restaurant chain was making losses and he could hardly settle the bills. It was then that he decided to restructure his business. He revamped the prices, menu, and the outlook of his restaurant. In addition, he began to market himself through Facebook.
In 2009, Chef Se Teo hired a PR company to market Eighteen Chefs. However, the PR professional was reluctant to provide the service after looking at him, his restaurant and his menu. He told him his restaurant was unmarketable.
This spurred him to develop his own marketing strategy. “I love challenges. When people challenge me, I want to do something that is greater. So I began to market myself,” he recalls.
He adds, “Last time, I used to market Eighteen Chefs, but I found that marketing the restaurant itself is not good enough.”
In 2010, Chef Se Teo started marketing himself on Facebook. He has a Facebook account with over 17,000 followers. With posts that are always motivational and humorous, he is immensely popular on social media.
His strategy worked. Journalists from local and international media such as BBC and CNN flocked to interview him. Through the media coverage, Se Teo is successfully portrayed as a ‘drug-addict turned restaurant owner’, giving chances to ex-convicts.
Chef Se Teo realised that in Singapore, young people are generally rich as they get handsome pocket money from their parents. To tap into the youth market, Eighteen Chefs started selling a fast, fiery, boisterous and young culture—an ideal hangout for young people.
His strategy targets not only the youth, but their parents as well. “The parents want to know where their kids hang out, so they follow them to Eighteen Chefs, and they become our customers too,” he explains.
From Dec 2014 to Feb 2015, Se Teo took a risk and started four outlets in just three months.
A bigger challenge was finding manpower. “It is really tough because finding manpower is hard. In three months, I have to open four outlets, and I have to hire 120 staff,” he says.
He and his Operations Manager scoured HDB flats and knocked at the door of every single occupant to look for job applicants. Surprisingly, this method worked: through prison job fairs and door-to-door marketing, he was able to get the staff needed.
Se Teo’s fair hiring practices also played a part: on the Eighteen Chefs’ job application form, there is not a single clause that questions an applicant’s past.
“Tattoo is more likely to worry employers. Don’t worry as much about hiding your ink if you are applying a job at 18Chefs. We don’t even ask whether you have a ‘criminal record’ in our application forms,” wrote Chef Se Teo in one of his Facebook posts.
He explains, “We don’t care about your past. We are only interested in your future.”
In addition, Se Teo promises a generous salary package for his staff. The restaurant gives a basic salary of S$1,400 to his outlet staff. This salary also applies to those who have no F&B experience, cannot speak good English and only possess a PSLE certificate.
He also pays five-figure salaries to hire the best people for his management positions.
Besides that, Chef Se Teo carves out their career path—they will be trained and given the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder.
“I think that even when your business is good, but your employees do not feel a sense of belonging, it will be useless,” he explains. “I know every staff. If he works for me for more than two months, I will know him. I have no boundary between me and my staff.”