This insurance manager went from flipping burgers for his wife to running a joint
Even through the upturn of events and a potential future of a chain business, Tommy Wong hopes to maintain a supportive and collaborative environment in Nothing But Cheese Burger.
In October last year, Tommy Wong started making cheese burgers at home to satiate the cravings of his then-pregnant wife Janice, who was unvaccinated and could not dine out.
What began as a passion before turning into a home-based business has now evolved into a full-fledged restaurant for the 35-year-old insurance manager.
Throughout it all, Tommy says it is really the support of his wife and customers that has driven his passion to what it is today.
The idea of turning it into business came from his wife, who loved the cheeseburgers Tommy prepared so much and wanted others to enjoy these creations.
Tommy then agreed to the idea as a temporary measure to increase income for the family and a test bed for his new passion.
The initial hurdle, Tommy recalled, was learning the ropes as a home-based business owner – handling the logistics, customer management and creating a supply chain.
Aside from experimenting with “over 80 different burgers”, visiting multiple suppliers and tapping on close friends to do the deliveries, figuring out the name of the brand also took a long time for Tommy.
He said: “I think for most businesses, I guess the most challenging part is to be relevant.
“At that point of time, I felt that whether it be a home-based business or when I’m going to come out and do my own business, it must stand for something.”
My first thought for the name was to incorporate well-known phrases, he said. Wanting a name more “stand out-ish”, Tommy took a gamble and went with the acronym NBCB, which stands for Nothing But Cheese Burger.
Acknowledging a possible outcome that he would be slammed for the offensive meaning the acronym stood for in hokkien, he stuck to his guts in his conceptualisation.
He said: “I think if the intention is correct, and is true to what the product is selling, generally the public would be more accepting or see the brand for what it is, than what the meaning of the name is.”
As he had hoped, the first sale they held had an overwhelmingly positive turnout. All 50 burgers they prepared as pre-orders for sale were swept clean over a weekend.
As a firm believer of cooking-to-order and choosing to handle most of the food preparation himself, Tommy’s strategy for the home-based business was to open slots for pre-order sales, which were announced through social media.
On one hand, the boost in popularity was due to the fact that there were limited burger options in his neighbourhood. But on the other hand, Tommy felt the loyal following it gained was because of his “no gimmick” style of gourmet burgers – fresh lettuce and tomatoes, slice of cheddar, slab of fresh beef grilled to order and slightly toasted buns.
Through referrals made by his family and friends, Tommy said sales started to increase as media outlets and other home-based businesses caught wind of NBCB and came to order.
“These businesses were more established, having their own following. They voluntarily helped by posting about my business, and soon their own customers started ordering too,” he said.
And for those next two months, every slot for pre-orders was almost fully booked as well, Tommy said.
Though initially wanting to stop the business by December last year to dedicate time for the birth of his second child, Tommy said customers told him they felt “a bit sayang”, advising that he should open a shop.
“But that commitment would require me to put in more money, more time and more effort,” he said. “I had a discussion with my wife, who is very supportive, and she said never mind she will take care of the baby, I will take care of the shop.”
When his second child was born in mid-February, Tommy gave her his promise that he would be around and that once the business stabilised, he would spend more time with family.
“The family nucleus is important,” the father-of-two said, now splitting his time between caring for his family and the rapid growth of NBCB.
“It’s a sacrifice of maybe six months to a year, ensuring that there is an income for the family, and that I as a husband will come back home.”
Finding a location of the brick-and-mortar business wasn’t easy and the name of the business didn’t help either. Initially wanting a location closer to home to better care for his family, Tommy’s request to set up shops in the nearby malls were declined by landlords.
“A lot of landlords’ biggest concern was the name, as they would say, if this signboard was shown, parents might complain,” he said.
However, this obstacle turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Finding a home on the fourth floor of Orchard Central, Tommy said the rental was cheaper, and that he spent less on construction as the previous user of the premises, Omakase Burger, had left much of its infrastructure there.
“I saved a lot of money not having to rebuild everything. With the existing blueprint of the kitchen, it made it easier for me though I have no expertise in this, instead of having to spend on a consultant to do everything from scratch,” he said.
And with that, NBCB officially opened in early March, sporting a menu with the customer-favourite cheese burgers as well as other items like criss cut fries and a chicken burger alternative.
The chicken burger is based on requests from customers back when NBCB was a home-based business, he shared.
With the centralised 30-seater restaurant attracting long-time customers and new crowds like office workers and young people hanging out in the Orchard area, Tommy said NBCB now serves up to 150 burgers a day.
Tommy also helps out in the kitchen whenever he’s free during work hours. Though the initial purpose was to ensure product quality, he now offers a helping hand to address any operational issues.
“Although I am the owner of the place, I told my staff, if you need me to do something during working hours, consider me as additional staff,” he said.
Tommy also recounted the restaurant’s earlier days when he just employed the current head chef Mabel Lim and she was the only one running the kitchen.
“I told her at the time that she only has one person in the kitchen excluding me, and she was a bit slammed and asked me to try the food. That’s the way my staff should seek me because I feel that I’m there as a hand,” he said.
His willingness to perform staff duties even as an owner is not unfounded. Having family members on his wife’s side who previously worked in the service industry informed him of the recurring issues faced in that line of work.
Tommy said: “The complaint is always that the hours are long, the pay is low, and customers generally don’t respect that profession.
“So other than the focal point of NBCB being the food, the staff have to be paid a certain wage that I feel is fair.”
Even on regular workdays, referencing how office workers get scheduled lunch breaks, the NBCB staff are given a two hours’ break from 3pm to 5pm daily to unwind.
Tommy’s personal effort to remove the hierarchical barriers between him and his staff is part of an overall scheme for NBCB – to be a brand made by Singaporeans, for Singaporeans.
He said: “No matter how skilled the staff is, the palette is still important. As much as possible, I try to keep it local.
“It’s not just the brand, or the people I hire, or the product, but all the way to how Singaporeans actually like their food.”
Still keeping his full-time job in insurance alongside his commitment to NBCB, Tommy said it is still manageable as the primary job is of a work-from-home nature and does not take up too much of his time.
“Once NBCB grows till the workflow, processes and operation are stabilised, I will then slowly take my hands off,” he said.
Drawing from his experience thus far, Tommy said that others desiring to follow suit with starting their own business should consider whether the intention is to merely earn a quick buck or set a legacy.
He said: “The product can be trendy, it can be sellable. But I would think that for a lot of things that are trendy and sellable for a short period of time, usually the product quality is not so good.”
“If the intention is to create something that you can be proud of, then subsequently something Singaporeans can be proud of, you must recognise that your business will be recognised based on the quality of the product. If that is what you want to do, then all the other considerations like profit and environment will fall into place naturally.”
Receiving offers to work with other establishments, Tommy said the temptation to use these opportunities as a cash grab is there. Even so, he intends to keep the business standalone in order to follow through with his vision, which includes more NBCB outlets in Singapore, a larger number of staff as well as stabilising operational processes.
“It’s about setting the foundation correctly. Not just do well financially, but morally everything needs to be right,” he said.