2019 marked a momentous year for us, with the arrival of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. World-class chefs, restaurateurs and media descended upon our shores, and Singapore’s culinary community banded together to welcome the crème de la crème of the global dining scene.
As we ring in a new decade, we take time to remember that our success as an industry today, is largely made possible by the “Makers and Shapers” that set the stage before us. In a series of upcoming interviews, we pay tribute to the founders and guardians of iconic, longstanding food and beverage brands. From serendipitous to purposeful beginnings, these are the stories that recount the past, celebrate the present and inspire the future.
For the first interview, we meet with Mr. Nasen Xavier Thiagarajan, Chief Executive Officer of Harry’s International. Harry’s recently celebrated its 27th year in Singapore, with the opening of its flagship at Resorts World Sentosa. Since its inception, the homegrown brand has introduced over a million customers to well-known music acts from around the world; at its first location along Boat Quay. Today, under Mr. Thiagarajan’s leadership, Harry’s continues to strengthen its foothold as Singapore’s favourite neighbourhood bar, and has expanded into 28 venues across Asia.
1. When and why did you first join the food and beverage industry?
I started as a bartender in FIRE, a popular discotheque back in 1991.
2. Did you expect to continue to stay in the industry? Why or why not?
I was not academically inclined, so I wanted to be realistic about my career choices. Despite exploring different industries, I always went back to food and beverage because nothing else excited me as much. Though it was hard work, the learning opportunities were in abundance, and being able to interact with different people daily also made every day a fulfilling one.
3. What were your observations of the industry then, and how does it compare today?
Back in the early 90s’, there were limited choices for an evening or a night out. Today, consumers are spoilt for choice. This also means for anyone who wants to pursue a career path in the industry, the opportunities are aplenty.
4. What would you say were the mind-shifting milestones throughout your career in the industry?
At the age of 25, I took on the role of General Manager for SALT nightclub in Melbourne, Australia. This move opened new doors for me, and before I knew it, I landed a role as General Manager in another nightclub in Shanghai, China, before returning to set up Café Del Mar in Singapore. What was mind-shifting for me throughout this journey, was that this was no longer a career I went into because of a lack of options. Somewhere along the way, it became a path I had chosen out of passion.
5. What do you think were the biggest contribution that paved the way for your success today?
I would say hard work. There was no easy way out. I put in the hours from the bottom up, and learnt as much as I could in order to move forward. I had good opportunities come up along the way too, so for that I am grateful.
6. Do you have any regrets about joining the industry? Why or why not?
I have no regrets at all. This industry keeps me on my toes, because consumers’ preferences are ever-changing. It is the excitement of the unknown that keeps me drawn to it.
7. Why do you think there is a lack of desire for the younger generation to join the industry?
I suppose it is the entry level positions that they turn away from. In America or Europe, people proudly say “I am a Server/Bartender”. In Singapore, there is a stigma that waitering is not an ideal career path, due to the long hours and a perceived lack of progression opportunities. In my opinion, these are issues of the past. With homegrown brands expanding out of Singapore, and international brands taking huge interest in our vibrant city, there are no lack of good opportunities for anyone who has an interest in joining the food and beverage industry. More companies are also starting to offer shorter work weeks and days, to maintain the mental and physical well-being of their staff. Of course, this does not take away the hard work and dedication that he/she needs to put in, in order to carve a successful path for themselves. If they take the service profession seriously, the food and beverage industry is one that rewards aptitude and hard work with opportunities in Singapore and beyond.
8. Do you agree that industry operators can do more to attract more talents to join us? Why or why not, and how?
There is always room to do more, although the industry has its own challenges. Most operators are either SMEs or standalone venues; hence even where there is intent, the resources may be tight. Organisations like WSQ and other statutory bodies do champion campaigns that aim to increase the pool size and quality of talents. But improved engagement with food and beverage operators through organisations such as Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS) and Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) would ensure campaigns yield better response and results.
9. Any final words for those seeking success in the industry, or anyone who is considering a step into the industry?
Today, we are seeing more young and “hungry” entrepreneurs. Budding business owners who aspire to be good leaders, and many of them desire to operate food and beverage businesses with good social causes. This keeps the industry healthy and exciting. But in my opinion, it will always be better if they start from the bottom. Work for someone, learn the ropes, gather experiences, and apply them to the business for a confident head start.Even if you are working for someone, all is not gloom. I have worked for organisations for over two decades; there are limitless opportunities and positive journeys that you can gain.
10. Name the next success story you would like to read about. Who should we interview next and why?
The owners of Da Paolo, Paolo and Judie Scarpa. They are veterans in the industry, and the brand has successfully diversified over two generations. It would be a good story for any budding entrepreneur to hear.
11. Tell us more about your first job in the industry.
From being a barback (a bartender’s assistant), I moved on to become a bartender in FIRE. Although the work was far from glamorous — clearing the trash, topping up the ice, washing the glasses, scrubbing the bar mats — it was good fun and I did my utmost to learn at every opportunity.