With a slew of recent hot openings around town (Sorrel, LongPlay, Meat Smith), the Unlisted Collection group shows no signs of slowing down. We talk to the man himself – head honcho and passionate entrepreneur, Loh Lik Peng – about how he does it all, what drives him, and… how he really isn’t the trendsetter we all make him out to be.
Hi, Peng! Let’s go back to the beginning. Why’d you choose to enter the F&B industry in the first place?
It started with Restaurant Ember. I just love food and saw that with the right chef and the right passion with the right business plan, this was a viable business. For the restaurants in the hotel, it was an integral part of the overall business plan for those projects.
Tell us the story behind your very first venture, Hotel 1929.
At the time I started my legal career in the late 90s. It was the mid-point of the last Asian crisis and so I was involved in a lot of bankruptcy and liquidation work. For a young practitioner that was not a lot of fun. At the same time, properties were cheap and the recession meant construction work was cheap. There were a lot of rundown properties for sale at that time and one of them was in the ‘wrong’ part of Chinatown. It was a combination that meant I could start up what was to become Singapore’s first design-led boutique hotel 1929, and I never looked back.
Was there ever a particular incident where a complete nightmare turned out to be a blessing in disguise?
Hmmm… I think virtually all projects go through a phase where everything becomes a nightmare. The one that comes to mind is 1929 again. We opened in the midst of the SARS crisis and so it was a very difficult opening with a huge amount of uncertainty. But actually, in retrospect, it was a great time to open because it taught us so many lessons about business and how to run a tight ship and how to really bring together a cohesive team.
Is there anyone in the industry you admire?
In Singapore I have learnt so much from having a front row seat in the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA) board and learning from Kay Kouk, Diana Ee Tan and Albert Teo. I really admire and respect their visions.
What drives you and what beliefs do you live by?
The challenge. You have to be super adaptable to suit local conditions, which is also why we [Unlisted Collection] always try to hire locally and we build local concepts. We always try to fit into the vibe of the city.
When I set out to do this, it was key for me to inject some fun into the process and always to be original as possible. For me, personally, it’s about discovering new projects that get me going in the morning. I love to discover those old buildings and imagine what they will be like when I have finished with them. That’s what drives me most.
Where do you go for a good meal (aside from Unlisted Collection’s outlets, of course)?
I love the Tippling Club for fancy food and I love heading to Maxwell Market for local food.
In another life, what would you be?
A heart surgeon!
Name your biggest pet peeve.
Rude people who are condescending to those in the hospitality trade. I see this all the time but they don’t realise these are the hardest working people who are trying to earn an honest wage and they deserve a lot of respect.
Is there something about you many aren’t aware of (or would be surprised to know)?
I’m really not a very trendy person and I don’t know a lot about wines! People always assume that I must be some trend driver and that I must be an expert in all things F&B. But really, I’m nothing like that at all!
What’s next for Unlisted Collection? Give us the scoop!
Another couple of restaurants in Singapore (Sorrel just opened on Boon Tat Street, go check it out!) but our next biggest yet: Our first foray into Sydney, Australia! We’re converting the old headquarters of the Carlton & United Brewery’s Fosters Beer into a really cool 60 room boutique hotel, plus three restaurants. It’s going to be called The Old Clare Hotel so we’re pretty excited about that.
Any tips for budding entrepreneurs?
Don’t follow the herd. Be original.