In recent months, the pandemic trend of opening new businesses has been making waves in Singapore.
However, Mustaffa (Mus) Kamal and Calvin Seah do not seem to partake in this trend. Instead, the founders of The Black Hole Group (TBHG) has been doing just the opposite, tearing down and remodelling their existing cafes and restaurants.
This is by no means an indication that TBHG has escaped the pandemic unscathed. Far from it.
The entire business recorded a loss of revenue in the “region of half a million dollars” during Circuit Breaker alone, according to co-founder Mus.
Despite that, TBHG went ahead to renovate and rebrand a couple of their concepts. Taco place Afterwit transformed into a burrito bar in September while The Mad Sailors is undergoing renovation now in preparation for a refreshed British dining experience come December.
They also plan to add new concepts to their portfolio and possibly revive dormant concepts by early next year. All these despite the pandemic.
Here’s how the Singaporean bona fide restaurateurs rose their company from the ashes of Covid-19 to stake their claim as a reputable brand of lifestyle experiences.
From hostel to hospitality group
Before TBHG was officially established, Mus and Calvin were already running several business entities beginning with the now defunct The Shophouse, a boutique backpacker hostel in Arab Street catering to tourists on a budget.
A small cafe was set up on the first floor of the hostel for guests to dine in, and soon after it became (Working Title) Burger Bar which serves artisanal coffee and gourmet burgers.
Shortly after that, they added Afterwit to the portfolio. At its inception, Afterwit was branded as a halal taqueria, a rarity in Singapore at the time.
Emboldened by positive feedback and a yearning to do more, TBHG opened yet another cafe concept called The Mad Sailors, a pub-style eatery serving halal British grub.
It was around this time too that Mus and Calvin decided to house all the brands under one collective group, and hence The Black Hole Group was born.
Fast forward several years, and we saw the Group gaining ground with the launch of more eateries such as Santap, Stack, The Great Mischief, The Co-Op and Tipo Pasta Bar.
The eateries are so diverse and possess unique personalities that the average consumer might not even know they are related. Up until two years ago, even the founders themselves decided, almost deliberately, to keep the entities — and themselves — detached from the Group.
“We didn’t tell people that the eateries are under the same Group out of, for a lack of a better term, embarrassment. We didn’t want the performance of one brand to affect the reputation of other brands in the Group. In retrospect, it may sound silly, but back then we were cautious about that sort of thing.”– Mustaffa Kamal, co-founder of The Black Hole Group
Both Mus and Calvin also admitted to being private people by nature, and chose to keep their lives separate from TBHG. But recently, they believed that this separation is causing a disconnect between themselves and the brand that they have forged and refined over the years.
Living, breathing lifestyle brand (owners)
Today, Mus and Calvin are more cognizant of the immense value that comes with unreservedly associating their brands with the mothership. If one brand in TBHG succeeds, the others stand to benefit from a spillover effect.
To bolster customer loyalty for its lineup of eateries even further, TBHG recently launched The Black Hole Rewards, a loyalty program that rewards diners with perks like cashback and birthday discounts for dining with them.
As for the founders, they are putting themselves out there more these days. This 180-degree turn is not so much about putting their faces to the business, but rather it stems from the belief that as owners of a lifestyle brand, their image also needs to reflect the same brand ethos.
“You can’t say that you are a lifestyle brand if the CEO and management are not out there,” Mus explains, “So that was a deliberate strategy for us to share a little bit more about our lives.”
Whether it is Mus providing glimpses of his plans for TBHG on his Instagram, or the team bonding over a cycling session, the founders are constantly mindful of putting their collective ethos — one of constant experimentation, breaking boundaries and embracing failures — into action.
How they survived COVID-19
For TBHG, the Circuit Breaker was a dark cloud that they already saw approaching. Hence, they were already preparing for the inevitable while waiting for the axe to fall.
Calvin was at home with his wife and kids when news about the imminent Circuit Breaker broke. “It was something we already expected, we knew that it was coming,” he recalls.
When the ban on dining-in was officially announced in early April, the Group was about “70-80 per cent ready.” Admittedly, the Circuit Breaker happened “sooner than expected”, and while the team was “surprised”, they were also “ready to spring into action,” Calvin shared.
The management team had two main goals to achieve out of this period: keep the brands alive and keep all 80+ staff employed.
For those things to happen, some cost-cutting measures had to be taken. For instance, the senior management team including Mus and Calvin took a pay cut of more than 50 per cent, while the rest of the managers had to shave off 20-50 per cent of their salaries.
The ground staff did not get a pay cut but they earned as much as they worked. With operations slowing down, shorter working hours also meant earnings were reduced for them.
For Calvin and Mus, they rather have “everybody take a bit of a hit but still remain employed” as opposed to keeping some workers and retrenching the rest.
Another way TBHG was keeping the business sustainable during the difficult time was introducing The Black Hole Delivers, a delivery service that allows customers to order their favourite food from across all TBHG brands.
Calvin said that they had planned to kickstart the service in 2021, but the virus scourge has made the idea a top priority.
Scaling up and pivoting
According to the founders, food delivery is a challenge right from the start.
Some contributing factors they cited include food which were not delivery-friendly, an inexperienced ops team comprising of their restaurant managers seconded to taking delivery orders, and angry third-party delivery riders berating them when the food was not ready for pick-up.
F&B businesses, by their very nature, are also not tailored for delivery. So when Circuit Breaker hit, most F&B businesses suddenly had to operate like a logistics company.
This took a toll on TBHG, which at the time, was running six restaurants with very different menus. Needless to say, diversifying into the food delivery space was a huge undertaking for the Group; they had no established workflows that could support the demand.
As customers became more accustomed to ordering in, more and more orders started to come in, and cracks started to form.
“There was a demand for orders. But our establishments couldn’t produce them fast enough, and we couldn’t get enough drivers to deliver them to the houses. So there was a choke, a massive choke.”– Mustaffa Kamal, co-founder of The Black Hole Group
The situation was so dire that “out of 1000 orders that we received, we could only fulfil about 100 of them,” Mus shared.
Instead of keeping quiet about the issues they were facing, TBHG was transparent about it and admitted to their shortcomings in an Instagram post on April 24.
To mitigate the problem, TBHG developed their own fleet of delivery riders and drivers, all within a few days.
Later on, Calvin and Mus discovered that they were not the only ones experiencing these issues; delivery woes were a common problem faced by other F&B establishments of all sizes nationwide during those early days of Circuit Breaker.
For the two young entrepreneurs, that episode was yet another stumbling block in their entrepreneurship journey. Faced with the loss of a six-figure sum in revenue within a span of two months, they knew they had to ride the storm any way they can, or risk dying.
But as leaders of a young team, they knew that thriving in hardship does not necessarily come naturally for the people under their wings.
“For me and Calvin, we are used to hustling and working with limited resources,” Mus shares, “But in the past couple of years, we realised that if we want to go fast, we go alone. But if we want to go far, we go together.”
As the Group grows bigger, having a shared humanity becomes all the more important and working towards a similar goal should be the company’s North Star.
The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mus, was that it had the power to unite the team, forcing them to move forward together rather than alone.
The Black Hole Group’s sheer grit
With Phase 1 barely a distant memory, TBHG is emerging out of the dark times better and in many ways, more mature than before.
One of the major changes that happened was the revamp of Afterwit. According to them, the change is not about being different for the sake of being different.
Particularly for Afterwit, the revamp was necessary to allow the halal taquiera “to be a much better version from the folly of her youth.”
With a sleek, fresh setting punctuated by pink neon lights and an open front kitchen — from which you can see burritos getting assembled — it seems like Afterwit has moved up from uni dorm to first adult apartment.
Similarly, The Mad Sailors is currently undergoing a major renovation of her own. By the time it re-opens in December, the eatery is expected to be a beacon of quality British food in a sleeker environs.
No expense was spared in the complete top-to-bottom revamp of these restaurants. According to Mus, only the best-in-class vendors — architects, designers, contractors, and chefs — were engaged to undertake these massive projects.
Despite having starkly different F&B concepts, TBHG injects three all-important traits into its entities: Quality, Artisanal, Experiential.
Granted, these are intangible traits that are hard to lock down, but customers who have been to all TBHG restaurants could probably attest that these three threads are what bind the Group together seamlessly.
When asked about other upcoming plans, Mus and Calvin hinted on a new concept that is coming real soon, as well as possible revivals of older brands.
Truly, experimentation and constant change are in the DNA of The Black Hole Group, and pandemic or not, these guys always come up with something new and exciting for us to discover.
And like real supermassive black holes, TBHG is just sucking us in for the ride. And we can’t wait to see where we end up next.
This article is brought to you in partnership with The Black Hole Group.