Entrepreneurship, Self-Improvement

Learn The Ropes From Gan Guo Yi of Jigger & Pony – Denise Li

Cafes and bars come and go all the time in Singapore. So how did cocktail bar Jigger & Pony become the household name it is today? We speak to owner Gan Guo Yi to find out more.

F&B is a tough business to succeed in anywhere, but especially so in Singapore where business owners continually have to face high rental costs and staffing issues. So we thought it was pretty cool that Jigger & Pony – one of the earlier entrants to the cocktail scene in Singapore – isn’t just thriving, but is often the first name that comes to mind when you think of cocktail bars in Singapore. Even more amazing is the fact that 29-year-old Gan Guo Yi – who started the bar with her husband – didn’t have experience in the industry prior to opening Jigger & Pony. We speak to her to find out how she did it.

Gan Guo Yi, one of the owners of Jigger & Pony

Gan Guo Yi, one of the owners of Jigger & Pony

What inspired you to start Jigger & Pony?
It all began in 2010, when my friend casually asked me what I’d do if I could be guaranteed success in the endeavour, and my answer was to open a bar – a place where friends and strangers can meet and be comfortable. At that time, it was hard to find a cocktail bar in Singapore that served good classic cocktails, hence we wanted to fill that gap with Jigger and Pony.

We were also inspired by the warmth and hospitality of the bars in Spain during our travels, and wanted to recreate that experience here. It was Indra (my husband and co-partner) who encouraged me to fulfill this dream of mine and hence, Jigger & Pony was conceived in 2012.

What were some of the challenges you encountered on your entrepreneurship journey?
With Jigger & Pony being my first start-up, I was entirely new to this industry and the learning curve was steep. Searching for the right venue itself took nine months before we finally found this space at Amoy Street. As Indra still held his day job then, I had to do almost everything on my own, from hiring staff, dealing with contractors to getting the place up and running. However, we have been really fortunate that most people in the industry were very helpful and gave us some really solid advice on things like regulations and interior design.

What did you learn from these challenges?
Being  new gives me the advantage of having no sacred cows. Every day is a learning experience and that has been very enriching. Experience is the greatest teacher and passion is my main driving force. I learnt a lot from the people around me so I have to say the biggest lesson of all was not to be afraid to seek help when needed, as people are often very willing to offer their advice. Also, we are very fortunate that the cocktail community is close-knit, united by a common love for all things cocktail-related.

How did you get the capital to start your business? 
Most of it came from our own savings, with some investment coming from Indra’s long-time business friends who came onboard as silent partners. These investors also served as mentors to us as they were able to give us sound advice on running a business.

We're fans of this cozy bar too!

We’re fans of this cozy bar too!

Many bespoke cocktail bars have since opened. How do you deal with the competition?
I’m thankful that Jigger & Pony is now known among customers and industry people for its warm and hospitable service, which was exactly what we hoped to achieve. We don’t see the new entrants as competition, but rather as new members of the same community who are working together to build up a more vibrant cocktail scene for Singapore, ultimately benefiting all parties. Personally, I get really excited about the new bars that open every month in Singapore.

Lots of F&B outlets list high rental costs and staffing issues as challenges of running their establishments. Does Jigger & Pony have face the same set of challenges?
Retaining talent has always been the top priority for us and we’re thankful that we have a fabulous team onboard. Through regular training sessions and company gatherings, we make them feel like they’re a part of the family and that their contribution is appreciated. We had a great time at our recent company retreat in Bali which helped us to understand one another more, fostering a better working environment. I strongly feel that today’s talents want to work in an environment where the purpose and missions are clear and shared transparently.

One of Jigger & Pony's signature cocktails, Corpse Reviver

One of Jigger & Pony’s signature cocktails, Corpse Reviver

How would you describe your management style and why do you adopt this style?
My management style is more hands-on and involved; I enjoy working alongside my team, thanks to the experience gathered working frontline at Singapore Airlines. I’m always willing to listen, keeping the lines of communication open at all times with all staff.

What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
I derive joy in seeing happy customers, knowing that these people appreciate our drinks and what we do. Validation from fellow industry friends is an added bonus for us; we have had the best talents walking through our bar and working alongside with us. Likewise, our own bartenders have travelled halfway across the world and forged a good camaraderie with notable cocktail aficionados. The establishment of these bridges of friendship make it all so rewarding and motivates us even more.

Do you think it’s important for business partners to have specialised roles when it comes to running a business?
Yes, I think that is important and greatly beneficial for the business. My past experience puts me in good stead for the front-of-house operations, while my partner Indra’s previous appointment as a business advisor and his finance background offer a good strategic approach to the business and contributed a lot to what we are today.

Any last words of advice for young budding entrepreneurs hoping to make their mark in the F&B industry?
I’d say it is to stay focused on your dreams and push on even when the going gets tough. You’ll never know how far your venture will take you unless you give it your best shot.

Jigger & Pony is at 101 Amoy Street. Tel: 6223 9101

About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.

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