As one of Singapore’s most prominent entrepreneurs, Elim Chew needs no introduction. The 56 year old Singaporean is best known as the face behind homegrown fashion label, 77th Street, which she started at the tender age of 21. In 2014, Elim, together with her sister Sulim, who is also her co-founder, took a leap of faith and opened up a restaurant without prior experience in the food and beverage (F&B) sector, setting up shop within the grounds of School of the Arts (SOTA), selling Korean Barbeque. In spite of naysayers, business was brisk and they opened up a few more outlets and achieved much success. On the surface, Elim seemed to have the Midas touch. With her ever smiling countenance and positive energy, it’s hard to imagine that Elim too, has weathered her fair share of trials and tribulations.
In the second and final interview by SG Lifestyle to commemorate International Women’s Day, Features Editor, Angela May Tan, had a tête-à-tête with the serial entrepreneur to find out more about her business philosophies, who inspires her and what keeps her going even when things don’t go as planned.
SGLS: You studied hairdressing in Britain prior to becoming a fashion entrepreneur. Why and how did you make the shift?
Elim: Hairdressing was always something I’d wanted to do when I was much younger. Hence I followed my heart, went to London for my hairdressing diploma before returning home three years later and opened my own salon – Elim Emanuel Hair, Beauty and Training Centre. At that time, I was often decked in punk-style jewelry, accessories and hoodies that my sister bought for me. My customers would always ask where I bought them from and some even offered to buy them off me on the spot! I soon recognised the market gap, which led to the opening of the very first 77th Street store at Far East Plaza.
SGLS: You are one of Singapore’s most prominent female entrepreneurs, one with a Midas touch. How did you achieve repeated success over the decades?
Elim: People usually see the success, but many don’t see the hard work, sweat, blood and tears behind it. I had low points in my life too; business partners taking advantage of me, being lied to and once, I even lost a SGD300 million business project. However, I am grateful for my family, friends and team who stood by me and kept me going. The trials and tribulations I went through over the decades made me the person I am today; stronger and better. Back to your question; there is no magic formula for success. You just have to keep at it and not give up.
SGLS: You pivoted to F&B in 2014. Why and what were some of your challenges and how did you overcome them?
Elim: I was in the fashion sector for almost three decades. However, with rising rental and manpower costs, as well as the advent of e-Commerce, my team and I figured it was time we diversified our business offerings.
We took a leap of faith and made our first foray into the F&B sector in 2014 when a 3,800sf unit at School of the Arts (SOTA) was made available. Together with a Korean business partner, we started I’m Kim Korean BBQ. However, two months before our official opening, our Korean business partner unexpectedly passed away and we were left to our own devices. We decided to proceed with our opening plans and hoped for the best. When we first opened the outlet, business was much better than what we expected. In a short span of time, long queues started forming daily. As a matter of fact, our business was so good that our dishwashers resigned [laughs], and my sister and I had to do the dishwashing for two weeks.
It was a rough start but we kept at it, always asking customers and employees for feedback so we could improve.
With the success of I’m Kim, we went on to open other outlets such as I’m Kim Korean BBQ & Shabu Shabu at Ang Mo Kio Hub and Grantral Mall (Clementi), as well as Captain Kim Korean BBQ & Hotpot, which is halal-certified. The latter two are located at Tampines Junction and Junction 10. We also own GoroGoro Steamboat & Korean BBQ, a steamboat and Korean Buffet outlet at The Centrepoint, which offers hotpot with dishes that appeal to the Singaporean palate. In April 2021, we bought over and now own One Sushi.
When the pandemic hit, all F&B operators were affected. With mandatory quarantine and safe management measures that prevented people from dining out, we introduced new product offerings such our Korean chicken wings and bento sets for takeaways and deliveries. By popular demand, we also started to sell our Korean BBQ marinated meats under the I’m Kim Butchery brand, so our customers can enjoy I’m Kim‘s dishes in the comfort and safety of their homes.
SGLS: You have kept your core team of employees since your 77th Street days. Many human resource professionals and employers would be keen to know how you’d managed to achieve such high employee retention and loyalty. What’s your secret?
Elim: Treat your employees right. Our employees treat one another like family and it is this strong corporate culture of trust and kindness that has kept us going. Our core team stuck with me even when things were tough. For example, due to the pandemic, buffet counter spreads were not allowed based on the Ministry of Health’s safe management guidelines. We therefore had to be nimble and changed the way we do things. With the shortage in manpower, each of the management team members parked themselves at various outlets, rolled up their sleeves to serve as front of house, cleared the tables and even washed the dishes. We are more than colleagues. We are family.
SGLS: What advice do you have for female entrepreneurs who want to achieve your level of success?
Elim: Gain experience first! If you wish to cut your teeth in F&B, work in a restaurant for a few months to understand the operational aspects of the business. Shorten your learning curve by talking to people in the industry about their challenges, and then make educated sales and financial assumptions before deciding whether it makes business cents (sense). Most importantly, have the fire in the belly; the passion will be your sustenance when the going gets tough.
SGLS (Bonus Q): Name a woman (or two) who inspires you in work and life.
Elim: My 79 year old mother, Pastor Evon Ooi is my greatest inspiration. She is a Christian missionary and together with her group of volunteers, got together some years ago to help people in need, particularly the people in Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia. Before the pandemic hit, she was travelling there very frequently to work on the ground to provide, food, aid, medical resources and a listening ear to villagers in distress. Her energy, passion and her heart for people are admirable and I am very proud of her.
My elder sister, Sulim Chew, is another woman who inspires me. Sulim is my rock; besides being sisters, she has worked alongside me since we started 77th Street. With her tenacity, passion and natural leadership, she is a key driving force behind our businesses and I am very grateful to have her in my life.
Interview by Features Editor & Writer, Angela May Tan
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