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Spa Esprit Group’s Cynthia Chua on setting restaurant trends, and building brands that last

18 December 2019

By: Adibah Isa

A first in our restaurateur series of interviews, we chat with the woman behind some of Singapore’s most trendiest cafes and restaurants.

It’s challenging to build a strong brand identity for a single restaurant concept, yet Cynthia Chua’s food and beverage empire, Spa Esprit Group, has managed to do just that — and then some. With nine F&B concepts to their name, Spa Esprit Group has been credited with the introduction of novelty cuisines, the transformation of a heritage hood to a hip enclave, and more. What’s commendable is the unique identity of each brand that exists distinctly on their own while still keeping it within the family.

We catch up with Chua on her journey in brand building for some nuggets of advice.

Your restaurant concepts bring vibrant and unique international cuisines, yet maintain a clear local flair and influence — Tiong Bahru Bakery, BoCHINche and Noka being prime examples. What’s your formula in bridging the two — international fare + local palate — together? 

I love travelling and I love, even more so, the creative process of importing concepts of what I feel are lacking in Singapore and blending it with the heritage of the place where I grew up in. 

For example, Tiong Bahru Bakery started when I travelled to France and saw how a bakery can change the face of a neighbourhood. I thought to myself — how great it would be to have a French bakery at a Singapore estate’s neighbourhood corner, one that can beat the French in serving the best croissant, coffee, breads and pastries. It’s always been a dream, as an urban traveler, to interpret the culture by lending an unexpected twist to the things I experience overseas to my home. 

It’s not in my vibe to import an international concept without understanding the local culture. I am very much into tweaking and representing what is relevant and introducing it to the local scene in a way that is fresh and fun because it’s a form of expression and creativity for me. 

What were some of the challenges you faced after moving on from a single F&B concept — Forty Hands — to operating a diverse portfolio of F&B concepts? 

I think I have come to terms with the fact that creativity is my most important form of expression and it is what I enjoy doing. Hence forth, it’s just been one concept to another and always wondering ‘what’s next?’ 

The challenges of being a hands-on entrepreneur is always trying to perfect everything you have and recognising that your resources are finite. So there are the extremely satisfying bits, and there are also the stressful bits that come from knowing they are not perfect. This is why I champion positivity and passion in my staff — when you love what you do, it helps to cope with the stressful bits. 

Could you share a little about how you have cultivated a strong synergistic culture across your restaurant concepts, while still keeping their own unique and distinct brand identity? 

The synergistic culture of fun and quirk is in our DNA. The core values are creativity, passion, and the tenacity to pull through all the endeavours we set out to do. I cull staff who respects those values and many that follow the group are those who are very passionate about what we do. To build a strong team with beliefs that are aligned is important to run a multi-concept company

You’re considered a major trendsetter in the restaurant and beauty business. What are some of the risks you’ve taken as a trendsetter, seeing that you’re often the first to bring something new to the market? How have these risks paid off? 

A lot of the trends/concepts I start are based on my own life experience and what I love, and how I would like to live and eat. So I am personally advocating for many of the trends I want to set – for example, natural wine. The beginning of trying to start something almost unheard of is always hard. A new concept could take up to three years with full 100% dedication to yield fruits. Some may work, and some may not.

But very often, the passion outweighs the cons and the reward is seeing that you are able to contribute to a movement. The thought of being able to bring events and concepts to the city I’ve been brought up in is an amazing feeling.

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Adibah Isa

A digital and print journalist turned content manager for brands that believe in the power of storytelling.


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