Owner of Botak Jones, Bernie Utchenik is an American who has turned Singapore into his playing field.
|CN PHOTO: Michael Chan|
Bernie Utchenik’s life is a series of ups and downs. Born into a lower middle-class family in Detroit, he has successfully overcome bouts of illness and injury, business failure and near bankruptcy to become the “Botak” behind Botak Jones, a popular American food chain found in kopitiams across Singapore.
Starting with one outlet in Tuas, working 18-hour days all week long, Utchenik is now the owner of an 11-outlet chain, employing over 200 employees. He is still wholly committed to “bringing well-made, restaurant-quality food to the industrial and residential heartland areas of Singapore where people have not been able to enjoy it before.”
Utchenik credits his wife Zee for helping him rise from the ashes of Bernie Goes to Town, an up-market pub at Boat Quay. “It’s hard to give up when the most important person in the world says she believes in you every day.”
The duo worked their way back up by consulting for other restauranteurs. “We increased the revenues of one of our clients by over 50 percent in six months, by making changes in their business. Zee looked at me and said, ‘Are you ready? Should we just get out and do it on our own?’
“Successful people handle the down times; very successful people handle the up times as well. You have to know that the down times are not going to last—you go through a mourning process, but then you get over it.”
While some might find his tagline “Damn good food at damn good prices” arrogant, the man himself is humble and friendly. “We make our own spice mix for the fries, we make our own tartar sauce, we bread our own fish, we make our own coleslaw, our cheese potato … All this stuff we make ourselves, so we have total control. If it sucks, it’s our fault; if it’s good, we’re very happy that you enjoy it. We have total control over all our food, so we can’t blame it on someone else.”
Apart from food quality, service quality is very important to Utchenik.
“I have a personality that wants to do things for people, so F&B is a very apt way of feeding that personality.”
“In the beginning, when we started Great Big Food, which is the company that owns Botak Jones, we invested heavily in service training through Ron Kaufman’s UP Your Service! College, and we used that as a basic way of teaching basic service.
“I think enough of service to spend that amount of money to get things started. One of our staff, who became our vice-president of company culture, was trained by Ron Kaufman to teach this course. We taught it in-house, and we added our own course, which we call ‘The Botak Culture’ about how we personally want to relate to people.”
His message to the attendees at the Entrepreneurship Forum was one of empowerment and encouragement.
“You can do anything you want to do. I realized it late, only when I was over 40. In America, anyone can grow up to be president; in Singapore, it’s ‘Wait, we have to look at your family background first.
“Maybe this system hasn’t worked out for you. But let me tell you something—entrepreneurs are always different.”