How Penang Place founder went from being laid off to fulfilling dream
Penang Place founder started restaurant using retrenchment benefits in 2003
Eighteen years ago, Mr Paul Ooi found himself at a dead end.
At 48, the Malaysia-born Singaporean had just been retrenched from a multinational company where he worked as an employee service manager for 21 years. It was one of the scariest times in his life, as he was the sole breadwinner and had six children aged six to 16 at the time to provide for.
Mr Ooi had studied hotel management and always had an interest in food service, having managed cafeterias at his previous job.
Having grown up with the aroma of authentic traditional Peranakan food in his home and memories of his grandmother making Nonya kueh, his childhood dream was to start a restaurant.
With his back against the wall, Mr Ooi jumped at the opportunity to venture into the food and beverage industry and used his retrenchment benefits to invest in his new business.
With his experience in hotel and restaurant management and his wife's degree in economics, the couple founded Penang Place in 2003 amid the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis.
He hired two chefs who were retrenched alongside him from the same company, who are now the restaurant's head chefs.
Over the years, Penang Place - which serves authentic Penang street food and northern Peranakan food - relocated from its humble beginnings at International Business Park to Fusionopolis, and now occupies a 10,000 sq ft space in Suntec City.
But as it was based in a central location that depends on footfall from nearby offices, it felt the impact of work-from-home and circuit breaker measures.
Despite losing over half of its revenue in recent months, Mr Ooi has been absorbing the losses rather than laying off any of his 30-strong staff.
He said: "The Covid-19 crisis was probably the lowest point of our business, but it is also a good reminder for us to hold dear to the things that matter the most.
"I empathise with people who have been retrenched. I know what it's like, because it is what I went through. This time, it's different - a lot longer and more uncertain. Now we are fighting for more than 30 livelihoods."
Penang Place is transforming its business model and is relying heavily on online delivery - via its "wonderful and supportive business partner" Oddle Eats - which grew from about 5 per cent to 10 per cent a year ago to 35 per cent now.
Here, Mr Ooi shares with The New Paper some advice on how to survive and move on from being retrenched.
Do not isolate yourself
What got Mr Ooi through the tough times was the support from his family and his Christian faith. "Don't hide your pain. Instead, share it with your loved ones," he said.
In the early days, when Penang Place was still relying on word of mouth for business, his children and his father would come by the restaurant to help distribute flyers, allowing Mr Ooi to bond with them.
"Unity is important. You'll never know how their cooperation and support can turn your adversity into opportunities," he said.
Be patient and persevere
Mr Ooi has hopes that the Covid-19 pandemic will end soon. In the meantime, he encourages people to upskill themselves and take up courses.
He said: "Keep an open mind in trying to find where your interest and passion lies, while understanding how to work within your circle of competence. In this way, you can apply transferable skills."
However, as the future is uncertain, Mr Ooi advises workers to take jobs that are reasonable and can act as a stepping stone. It is always prudent to manage one's finances well and be patient about what lies ahead.
Remember to smile
Mr Ooi managed to maintain a positive attitude after being retrenched because he wanted to set an example for his children, so that they would not be afraid of the situation.
He said: "At your lowest, it's hard to see the light. But don't lose hope, you have to keep fighting.
"Keep yourself healthy and believe that things will get better. You will surely survive.
"If you failed today, do not be anxious, because tomorrow is a new day and another day to try again."