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From salaryman to earning 6-figures per month: Great Nanyang boss shares his journey

Keith Kang was betrayed by workers and lost all his savings, but eventually found success in the F&B business.

Keith Kang poses in front of his new cafe, Great Nanyang.
Keith Kang poses at a facade of his new cafe, Great Nanyang. (PHOTO: Yahoo Finance Singapore) (Yahoo Finance Singapore)

SINGAPORE — After three years of meticulous planning and setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, heritage cafe Great Nanyang finally opened for business at Craig Road in August. Amid an interior backdrop of antique decor and artwork reminiscent of a retro shop lot, the cafe was packed to the brim on a Friday lunch hour.

The man behind the kopitiam-style eatery, Keith Kang, is no stranger to Singapore's food and beverage (F&B) scene. Kang, 40, who is originally from Penang, is also the owner of Yang Ming Seafood, a restaurant chain known for its fresh seafood. He also owns three coffee shops, four mixed-rice stalls and three bee hoon stalls.

The idea of a heritage cafe came when he noticed that many coffee shops in Singapore were being renovated to look more modern, so he wanted the younger generation to experience a taste of "old-school" Singaporean and Malaysian culture.

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Although the cafe is barely two months old and costs about S$500,000 to open, Kang is already planning a second Great Nanyang branch. His serial entrepreneurial mindset is a trait that can be traced back to the beginning of his F&B career. Speaking to Yahoo Finance Singapore, Kang described how he started with one bak kut teh stall in a coffee shop below a HDB block, and expanded quickly within a few months.

But it wasn't without its challenges, for Kang struggled to make money in the first two years of running his businesses.

Hardship and betrayals

In 2016, a then-33-year-old Kang quit his job in a company that made electronic components, with dreams of starting his own business. He wasn't sure what he would do next, but armed with some savings, he decided he would quit first and return to Malaysia to plan his next move.

However, Kang soon returned to Singapore when an acquaintance called him to ask if he would like to try his hand at taking over a bak kut teh stall at Jalan Besar from its previous owner. While he wasn't planning on becoming a chef, Kang was determined to run his own business, as he believed that upon reaching the age of 45, it would be hard to be employable in Singapore. Thus began his foray into the F&B industry.

Noticing that there was ample space next to his stall, Kang decided to open another food stall selling bak chor mee and hired a worker to help him with the operations. Not long after, he opened another bak kut teh stall at a different coffee shop. Kang shared that it costs about S$20,000 to S$30,000 to open a stall.

He worked from 6am to 10pm daily. However, all three stalls closed down with losses after three months due to poor business.

"There was one day, from morning till night, I only sold two bowls of bak chor mee. Last time, it was S$3 per bowl, so I made only S$6," Kang recalled.

When you are starting, nothing is easy, but you need to persevere.Keith Kang

Still, he did not give up. As he was operating his food stalls, Kang met a group of associates who knew how to operate economy rice stalls. They asked him to be an investor, and in return, they would operate the stalls and work for him.

Kang duly opened five mixed-rice stalls across multiple coffee shops and canteens in the span of six months. However, he soon ran into problems again.

"I was young and inexperienced. I didn't know Singapore had so many regulatory requirements. Everything needed a licence," said Kang.

Aside from the regulatory hurdles, Kang faced a much bigger problem: his workers began stealing money from him and ventured out to open their own mixed-rice stalls, leading to losses that amounted to about S$100,000 – the equivalent of all of Kang's savings.

"I remember that first year was very difficult. Every night when I slept, I would wake up at midnight and just think about this problem," he recalled.

Kang and his wife were also expecting their son at the time. Kang's wife, who works in a shipping company, was very understanding of the situation and gave him money when he had no income. He vowed that if he were to make S$15,000 a month, she could then stop working.

Fast forward to 2023, Kang said that his businesses now bring in S$200,000 profit per month. His wife did not stop working however, and insisted on holding down her corporate job – the same one she has worked at for nearly 20 years.

Business expansion

By 2017, things started to turn around for Kang. Following the betrayals of his workers, he had to make some hard decisions. He discussed parting ways with his workers and gave up three of the five mixed-rice stalls at no cost to them, keeping two stalls for himself.

At the same time, Kang was building up rapport with coffee shop owners and learned from them. His next venture was to manage coffee shops, and the opportunity came in 2017 when one such owner approached him to open a new coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio.

Although he had no money, Kang said that this particular owner told him to pay his share after he made some profits. This was Kang's first coffee shop.

While his mixed-rice stalls started to churn some profit, Kang found it difficult to make money from his first coffee shop venture. He continued scouting for more opportunities and in 2018, one came knocking. A businessman who owned a seafood restaurant in Bukit Batok, a roasted duck stall and a canteen, made an offer to sell them all to Kang, claiming that they were profitable businesses.

Every setback is a learning journey.Keith Kang

Kang, who trusted the man, paid S$100,000 to take over the canteen and seafood restaurant with money borrowed from his parents. He soon found out that the seafood business was doing badly. To make matters worse, the person who sold him the business died suddenly, before the legal handovers were completed.

Nevertheless, Kang got to work restructuring the seafood restaurant. He overhauled the menu, introduced live seafood at the restaurant, retained its workers but kept the restaurant's original name — Yang Ming Seafood. The rebranded restaurant suffered losses in the first six months, but business picked up after that. By 2019, Yang Ming Seafood opened its second branch in Bishan.

Learning through experience

Despite all the challenges faced so far, Kang considers himself lucky. Apart from the first two years which were plagued with financial difficulties – he attributed these difficulties to inexperience – Kang said that his business has steadily climbed thereafter.

"Once I have a target, my thinking is all positive, no negativity. This is my business philosophy. Of course, I'll sometimes have negative thoughts when we have problems, but my job is to settle these problems.

"When you are starting, nothing is easy, but you need to persevere," Kang said.

On the biggest business lessons he's learned so far, Kang said he is now much better at identifying trustworthy people, especially people whom he hires for managerial roles. The other lesson is the importance of location in his business. Despite his setbacks, Kang said he has no regrets.

"Every setback is a learning journey," he said.

As for the future, Kang continues to aspire to bigger things. He shared that he hopes to expand Great Nanyang regionally and to open more Yang Ming Seafood branches in Singapore.

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