Vannessa Lee and her brother founded A Poke Theory together in the food and beverage industry. Vannessa concentrates on the business’ branding whilst her brother serves up the delectable dishes.

What’s your story?
I leapt from advertising into the F&B industry at age 24. I was 18, an advertising intern in a small, local agency when I caught the eye of my client – then VP of DBS (Marketing), now CCO of Havas Media APAC which, years later after university, landed me my job at Havas Media. Winning 11 awards in my 2 year stint at Havas and being approached to join the Google team were some highlights. I left Havas to pursue a bigger food dream with my brother and business partner, founding Tandem Collective, with A Poke Theory as our first food concept.

What excites you most about your industry?
The fact that there’s so much more room for growth. To the ordinary person, the F&B industry may seem saturated – but I see the gaps in the market; the pockets of opportunities that are waiting to be tapped into.
For us, we’re looking into the fast food-first market – where good food doesn’t have to come with bad quality or high prices. Few F&B places follow great food with equally amazing creative content and branding. We’re bringing that to the scene soon enough. With my brother behind the food and me behind our branding, it’ll definitely be something interesting.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Bits and pieces of our menu pay homage to Asian flavours and favourites among Singaporeans. Our premium toppings for our poke bowls have crispy salmon skin – a default go-to for locals. Our menu on a whole has its roots in Hawaii, being poke after all, but poke itself came about from a fusion of Japanese flavours with American flavours.
Think marinated chunks of sashimi on a bed of chilli and garlic infused sushi rice – that’s an example of a poke bowl base with us, before you add on your fresh and premium toppings. It’s very suited to the Asian and Singaporean palate.

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Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore. It’s where we grew up and where we understand the dynamics of local culture, movements and ever-changing palates the most.
Our current generation of entrepreneurs, creators of the arts or any movers and shakers in the business – are really quite unique. You see people embracing our heritage in modern ways that encapsulate the past in all its richness, while reeling in the younger generations for an authentic, but catching and updating experience. It makes me proud to be even a small part of it.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
People will always find it in themselves to tell you what you can or cannot do; the decisions you should and should not make. Sometimes it’s just better to go with your gut, self-belief and a leap of faith.

Who inspires you?
My mother. She set up her company, Millennium 3 Building Products in 2000 when she was 35. She started off working from a tiny rented work space of 400 sq ft. Now she’s a top player in an industry that is dominated by men, having done building projects for Google and Yahoo and for buildings like MBFC II. Millennium 3 has an annual turnover of $18m now and is still climbing.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The capacity for blood bonds to be strengthened even more in a business. My brother and I have always been incredibly close growing up, but everyone cautioned us against working with loved ones.
It certainly did test waters in the weeks of our launch, but my brother has stood firm and reminded us in our moments of 4 hour sleeps with a single meal a day, that we are in this for the long haul, needing to constantly find ways to communicate and work together better so work never comes between family. I am thankful every single day for the relationship we have.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Doubt myself less. I remember planning social media and PR strategies for the brand and wondering if they would work. Things shook me up more just because it was for MY brand now, not a client’s.
What happened? We started getting media features weeks before opening. We experienced approximately 160% in growth on our social media numbers, shooting to over 2000 fans and followers on Facebook and Instagram barely 1 week into our opening. We had queues forming half an hour before we opened each day and we were approached by media everywhere for features – even before I had the chance to approach them.

How do you unwind?
Candles, massages, a good movie or book. I love my aromatherapy and all things relaxing.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Anywhere with a good beach. I love Thailand because of its food and close proximity, but have yet to explore the beaches of Sri Lanka or the Philippines. I’ve heard great stuff about them.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Shed That Fed A Million Children. It’s on how Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow started out distributing aid from a little shed in his backyard and now feeds over a million children in Bosnia, Malawi and beyond with Mary’s Meals – a movement that feeds a child a meal a day in local schools, to keep them coming back for education to break free of the poverty cycle.
The smallest seeds of thought can be transformed into gigantic movements with a whole lot of heart and there’s no shame in starting from the ground up. It always adds to the memories and stories you tell after.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you’re still in disbelief that healthy food can taste pretty damn good, come try our poke bowls. If you’ve got a steak, butter and aggressive flavours-loving guy like my brother behind the food – you’ve gotta have some faith that our food can appease even the worst of junk food lovers.
We may be just 22 and 24 years of age, but are already on the radar of other industry players. Keep an eye out for us as we expand and roll out the other food concepts up our sleeves!

How can people connect with you?
They can say hi at [email protected] or stalk my food photography at @feedvannessa on Instagram.

Twitter handle?
My Twitter handle is @aheartsmurmur – however it is private.

This interview was part of the Callum Connect’s column found on The Asian Entrepreneur:

CallumConnectsCallum 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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