The Garden Slug – Slugging It Out In The Food Business
Located in an idyllic part of eastern Singapore, The Garden Slug is easy-to-miss. Flanked by an auto shop and a pet store in a nondescript (and some say run-down) squat building in Telok Kurau, the quirky and bohemian diner offers Western-style homemade comfort food that has attracted a following since it opened in 2007.
The Garden Slug is founded by three friends – Sharon Foong, Joseph Lim, and Sophia Leong. Sharon has a marketing background and used to be in financial services for Deloitte & Touche. Joseph has qualifications in engineering and previously worked in IT services and facilitation for Republic Polytechnic. Sophia is public relations-trained and had worked in marketing for Starbucks Coffee Singapore.
Co-owner Sophia says the three of them were prompted to start the business as they felt they got along well and could bring separate unique skill sets to the table. At the time, all three had relatively satisfying careers, but were keen to explore the “what-ifs” in life and wanted to do something exciting whilst they ‘were still young and energetic’. “We didn’t want to live to regret the fact that we didn’t dare do something that we felt strongly about. We were not particularly inspired by any event in particular, but as consumers ourselves, we saw the lack of a diner which was home-grown, owner-run, comfortable, unpretentious, quirky and offers not just a dining solution but a whole spectrum of F&B services.”
So they went ahead and put their entire life savings into The Garden Slug. Besides operating a diner, they provide services such as home and corporate catering, F&B consultancy, as well as food supply.
And how has the experience been? “It is always a challenge when people of three very different personalities come together,” laughs Sophia, “But so far, it has been a good marriage of different skill sets and diverse capabilities.”
When asked why the diner was given a rather unpalatable name, Sophia replied, “Why not The Garden Slug? It is a little bit whimsical, conjures up images of sunshine and stretching of lazy limbs.” (Writer’s note: I wasn’t aware slugs had any limbs, but I digress.) “And most of all, we were hoping that people will ask us ‘Why The Garden Slug?’ and create a topic for a purposeful conversation.” More importantly, Sophia points out, the name was generic and flexible enough to allow them to expand their business into different areas in the future.
The owners believe that the diner’s unique selling preposition is the fact it’s boutique-sized and able to offer a very personalized service. “Be it telling us that you want something special that is not on the menu, creating a thematic corporate event which requires food specific to your brand identity, or helping you manage specific aspects of your new or existing F&B business,” she elaborates.
“We call it ‘service solutions from the heart’,” Sophia says, “we treat our customers the way that we want to be treated.”
“Customer satisfaction will always form the core of our business,” insists Sophia, even as she explains how The Garden Slug try to find other ways to reach out to a different set of customers. For 2010, the owners intend to fine-tune their food supply business – to be as organized, consistent and structured as possible – while retaining their quirky, bohemian feel to the diner.
Marketing Through Word of Mouth and Social Media
Their customers are primarily the residents who live in the eastern parts of Singapore, as well as adventurous foodies who’d trek all the way to the East to find them. The folks at The Garden Slug are happy – and somewhat surprised – that they’ve managed to achieve a certain amount of brand equity without having pay for traditional advertising. “We can’t afford it anyway!” laughs Sophia. “From Day 1, we decided that, no, we won’t be doing flyers, print ads etc, as we feel that these days, consumers are savvy enough to know that an advertisement will always paint a lofty picture of the brand it is trying to sell.”
“Many a times, the end product falls short of the hyped-up expectations.”
Sophia and the rest of her crew believe that nothing is more powerful than word of mouth and personal recommendations. And while food establishments in Singapore have began testing the waters where social media is concerned, its a space that The Garden Slug seems to excel at. For example, unlike some other eating places, The Garden Slug doesn’t stop diners from taking pictures – in fact they openly welcome it.
The Garden Slug didn’t consciously set out to be, as Sophia puts it, ‘active on the social media front’. “We’re not out to win the most followers,” she says. “We use things like our blog, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr etc because a lot of our friends and customers are on those platforms and it seemed like a genuinely fun way to share things and connect with people.” Its Twitter account, run mainly by Sharon, is conversational and engaging without being too overly promotional.
Its social media outreach efforts are really an extension of how they view customers as friends. “It felt natural to have a Facebook page to share little updates every now and then without being too spammy or intrusive. We don’t really like to ‘market’ to people… a lot of (them) probably find it a big turn-off.”
“At the end of the day, nothing beats meeting people in real life and being able to share or continue a conversation in person!”
Reviews on The Garden Slug have generally been positive (see the reviews on here on HungryGoWhere), and the diner’s owners try not to be fazed by the few negative comments. “Of course, not all visitors to our diner will end up being our fans, and we accept that as part and parcel of running an honest business. It all boils down to personal taste and having your own voice; we respect that.”
Views on Entrepreneurship
Sophia says that they took a “somewhat calculated plunge” when they decided to start The Garden Slug, doing their math in terms of costs and risks before giving up their daily grind. “All the mathematical formulae in the world will not prepare you for some of the day-to-day challenges of running a self-funded business,” she elaborates.
“The most crucial lesson that we learnt is that there is truly no ‘quick-and-easy’ way to acquire consumer confidence and brand value. And coming from a position where we had limited marketing funds, we had to work twice as hard to win that one extra fan, and adopt more creative approaches in engaging our customers.”
“Entrepreneurs need to know that you truly need to be walking and talking ambassadors of your own brand, and work twice as hard as any of your hires.”
Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.