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EIGHTEEN CHEFS A BUSINESS, NOT JUST CHARITY

Want to buy a franchise?

You can - if you have at least $50,000.

That's how much Mr Benny Se Teo charged those keen to use the name of his Western food chain, Eighteen Chefs.

And the former drug addict-turned-restaurant boss had not one but two takers.

"Who says a social enterprise is not viable?" the 54-year-old said.

As the first social venture in Singapore to start a franchise, Eighteen Chefs has made a business out of doing good.

The recipe worked so well that a fourth outlet, in the east, is opening by year-end.

"It's all done without getting a single cent in grant money," Mr Se Teo said, citing branding, cinema-centric locations, innovation and back-up plans as key ingredients.

"You must have a Plan B, C and D even before problems crop up," the President's Challenge Social Enterprise of the Year 2012 award-winner said. "If the food doesn't suit people's taste, I tweak the food. If the price doesn't suit them, I tweak the price."

Some counterparts fail as they focus too much on the social aspect, he added. "They forget about running the business."

Started in 2007, the venture known for giving ex-convicts a second chance, almost crashed when it expanded in 2009.

PARTNERS

Mr Se Teo said: "My partners - all from non-food and beverage industries - wanted to have a say in how things should be run."

The business lost money, to the tune of almost $500,000. At one stage in 2010, Mr Se Teo was broke.

So he revamped the model. Now, former offenders comprise 38 per cent of the payroll - a ratio that lets him balance business concerns with mentoring.

But he bristled at the thought of customers patronising his business simply because they like his way of doing good.

"A social enterprise is still a business. That's why I cannot accept running it based on sympathy or charity," he said.

"With your own business, failure is not an option. I never compare with others.

"I'm just grateful for what I make, be it $300 or $30,000."