Joey Lee and his sister are rolling out A Poke Theory, bringing healthy and tasty food to the masses and shaking up the food industry – just a little…
What’s your story?
My journey with food started after the excruciating experience of dropping out of junior college amidst the divorce between my parents. I started my first part-time F&B job as a waiter while everyone accelerated past me with their preparations with A Levels, watching what went on in the kitchen when I wasn’t waiting tables. I cooked my first dish in hopes of bringing the family closer when my mum and sister would come back from work, because dad said we grew apart after mum stopped cooking family dinners when she got busier with work. I arrived for the first day of my diploma in Mass Communication with an insatiable hunger to prove myself to everyone after getting shunned by all my peers as a school dropout. I focused on food journalism and grew even closer to food, leading my own column of 10 food writers and doing food tastings at various restaurants by the end of my first year in school. By the second year I had signed a contract with SPH Magazines, and by the third, I was testing my mettle with a six-month tech journalism internship in Hollywood, where I spent my free time exploring Los Angeles — what I regarded as ground zero for food trends around the world — and even notching a kitchen stint in Seattle during the festive holidays. At the end of the course, I had this confidence in myself that I had never known before, and a series of concepts that I wanted to bring back to Singapore. I worked in another kitchen before enlisting for army, strived for Officer Cadet School when it started, and after commissioning, spent whatever time outside of camp testing out recipes and working out the business strategy. This time, when my peers were applying for university, I had already set up Tandem Collective with my sister, Vannessa, and A Poke Theory is the first of the food concepts that we aim to roll out.
What excites you most about your industry?
Bringing people together in its purest form. Food is universal, and is an experience often shared with people close to you. Being able to create something to be remembered with between family and friends, especially one that is accessible to most, is something that I’ve always dreamt of doing. With my sister behind the branding, which ensures hordes of people coming to the door, it’s down to me to craft an enjoyable experience, especially at a price point that people don’t have to scrimp and save for a taste. We get this warmth when we see people smiling and laughing over a meal at our shop, and if there’s ever the slightest hint of dissatisfaction, trust me when I say we’re immediately working on how to iron that crease out.
What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and I’m proud of how far our nation has grown in a matter of five decades. I still remember the frustration I felt when some friends in America had never heard of Singapore, or were amazed at how I was fluent in English. Everything from our multiculturalism, to the bonds that Asian families are brought up to treasure, make me certain that my home lies here. Not to mention the terrific food that I perpetually crave whenever I stay in anywhere out of Asia.
Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, without a doubt. Our government has created a multitude of schemes and grants that creates avenues for young entrepreneurs to augment their visions, while investors have been attracting to the stability of our economy, bringing accelerators and incubators to the table. It still isn’t easy, but it’s that much less impossible to have a good crack at starting your own business.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I remembered calling my dad to tell him that I might possibly be retained after my horrendous results in my first year of junior college, with my heart heavy with dread. Instead of screaming at me, he told me to pick myself up, and that a year lost in school was nothing. That life after school was the real test, and that many people waste multiple years when they enter the working world, not pushing themselves to keep up, if not overtake everyone else. That stuck with me for everyday of my diploma course, when I was surrounded by people a year younger than me, when my face would flush with embarrassment because people expressed surprise when I was a year older than them.
Who inspires you?
My mother. For someone who came from a family that didn’t have the resources to send her to university, she took up a diploma in building construction and battled her way through an industry that was top-heavy with men, to set up Millennium 3 Building Products in 2000 when she was 35, while still handling my sister and I as kids. Now she’s a known figure in her industry, respected by many, and I am learning things from her every single day from an entrepreneurial perspective, including the fact that you don’t necessarily need a college degree to do what you want to do, well.
What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
How much you can learn in such a short span of time from running your own business, that school can never teach you. There are so many intangible aspects that aren’t considered fundamentals, like aesthetic value and proper branding, which I pick up from watching my sister every day. She does a brilliant job at handling these factions so I can focus on the brick and mortar side of the business, and we complement each other so fittingly.
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Not underestimate the necessity of proper inventory management, especially with a high turnover rate and our utilisation of fresh ingredients that all had different ripening periods. Within our first couple weeks, we were drilling through about 25 kilos of sashimi grade fish, 9 kilos of cherry tomatoes and 10 kilos of japanese cucumbers every single day, just to name a few ingredients. Not to mention that this was just for lunch service. Lack of storage space meant different temperatures for some vegetables and fruits, which led to varied ripening timings, especially those kept in warmer temperatures or close to our bananas. I still remember the nightmare of trying to find ripe pineapples in time to prep them for service, with pineapples being an integral part of the flavour profile in our poke bowls.
How do you unwind?
I always love a game of soccer, whether on the console or on the field, and I really missed my weekly game of poker during the first few weeks of business when time was scarce. Of course, my first love was always cooking, but being surrounded by large amounts of food production every day saps most of the urge to cook during the little free time you get.
Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand. I honestly travel mostly in search of food, and their food is always packed with flavours that I adore. Sweating buckets on the street of Bangkok over a bowl of tom yum goong before washing it all down with their iced tea, and then going for a two hour long massage, all for the price of under $25. That’s something that can fit into any friend’s budget, and with plenty left to spend on their nightlife scene afterwards.
Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich dad poor dad.
Shameless plug for your business:
If you’ve always had a distaste for even just the sound of “healthy food”, I hope that if you had to give us one shot at convincing you otherwise, it’s with our poke bowls. I’ve always replaced any oil with butter if possible, bacon in my opinion is the best flavour base to get any soup started, and I sprayed whipped cream from the nozzle straight into my mouth as a snack when I was a kid. As a food writer in the past, I am only partial to tasteless food, and that is something that I aim to never dish out for as long as we stay in this business. Stay tuned for our future concepts, we may only be 22 and 24 years old, but we aim to shake up the food scene more than just a little.
My twitter handle is @kangarooojoey, although I mostly use it as a news avenue these days with minimal tweeting from myself.
This interview was part of the Callum Connect’s column found on The Asian Entrepreneur:
Callum Laing invests and buys small businesses in a range of industries around Asia. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is the founder & owner of Fitness-Buffet a company delivering employee wellness solutions in 12 countries. He is a Director of, amongst others, Key Person of Influence. A 40 week training program for business owners and executives.
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