Published on 11 Aug 2023

Alumni entrepreneurs changing NTU’s food scene

Three young and ambitious business owners opted to set up their food and beverage brands at their alma mater instead of bustling shopping malls. We find out why.

By Nur Isyana Isaman

Most F&B entrepreneurs operate their businesses in shopping malls for better prestige and higher footfall, but three NTU alumni have set up shops on the campus they are familiar with. From affordable salad bowls to unique speciality coffees, they have successfully introduced new food and beverage (F&B) concepts to NTU.

37-year-old Soh Yong Joo (NBS/2011) is the managing director of The Crowded Bowl, which began as a salad stall in 2014 and has expanded to seven outlets, five of which are located within institutes of higher learning. He opened The Crowded Bowl’s biggest outlet and the only one with its own dine-in area at NTU North Spine in January 2020.

“I realised that there is a trend of people looking for more healthy food options. However, as someone who seeks healthy food, I noticed that many salad places sell their food at around S$10 to over S$20, making it very hard for people to eat healthily. So, my main focus is to serve healthy food that is affordable. For a start, I wanted to focus on younger customers like me, who are more health-conscious. In a way, I was also solving my problem,” said Yong Joo.

Focused on serving affordable healthy food, Soh Yong Joo operates The Crowded Bowl across seven outlets in Singapore. (Photo credit: Nur Isyana Isaman)

A stone’s throw away from The Crowded Bowl is Venture Drive Coffee, co-founded by alumna Chng Xueru (NBS/2006). NTU North Spine houses its second outlet, which opened in August 2021. A third outlet has recently opened at the NIE Library, and another will soon open at NTU Gaia.

“I wanted to set up a small cafe for the NTU community to experience and appreciate speciality coffee and use the space to educate a new generation of young coffee enthusiasts. Most importantly, I am driven by a deep sense of loyalty to and familiarity with the university – this is my way of giving back to my alma mater,” said the 39-year-old.

Chng Xueru left her 15-year banking career to open Venture Drive Coffee. (Photo credit: Chng Xueru)

A similar sense of familiarity drove first-time entrepreneur Daniel Heng (MAE/2011), 37, to open Coffee Faculty at the NTU Alumni House located at one-north. After working as an engineer for eight years, Daniel decided to be his own boss after frequenting a coffee pushcart while pursuing his postgraduate diploma in Australia.

Daniel said, “The coffee pushcart was located on my university campus there, but it closed permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought it would be interesting to bring the concept to Singapore. I figured that NTU is a good place to start because I am familiar with it and will not be too overwhelmed in managing my maiden business.”  

Presenting curated menus

Coffee Faculty has a range of offerings from flavoured coffee to hojicha tea.

“For coffee, besides the black and milk-based drinks, we also offer various flavours such as mocha and honey. I went through six months of testing before finalising the coffee beans, which is a four-country blend by a local roaster. The flavour profile is unique, with a sweet, floral undertone and chocolatey, nutty aftertaste. Besides coffee, there is also hojicha, matcha, and hot chocolate,” he elaborated.

An ex-engineer turned entrepreneur, Daniel Heng is the co-owner of Coffee Faculty. (Photo credit: Daniel Heng)

Over at Venture Drive Coffee, Xueru serves beverages such as the signature flat white and pour-over coffee. She also holds latte art classes at the North Spine outlet. Beyond physical outlets, the coffee joint offers an online coffee subscription service.

Like Daniel, Xueru also underwent a career switch. Before her coffee venture, Xueru worked in the banking industry for 15 years.

“While my banking job provided stability and financial security, it could not quell my urge to build something from scratch. The ability to shape the entire value chain, from sourcing the finest coffee greens to roasting themin-house and crafting unique brewing methods, was a prospect that ignited my entrepreneurial drive and pushed me to pursue this path wholeheartedly,” said Xueru.

On the contrary, Yong Joo grew up helping his parents with their hawker business selling vegetarian bee hoon. Inspired by the stall’s concept, he started The Crowded Bowl where customers can build their own salad bowl for S$4.80.

Yong Joo decides on the menu, which has grown from basic vegetable options in the early years to more curated choices, including plant-based meat. All dishes are freshly prepared at individual outlets, while the sauces are prepared in a central kitchen to maintain a consistency in taste.

“When I started, it was hard to convince people to eat vegetarian food because it was seen as boring. So, I wanted to change that perception because vegetarian food is more than just greens. Over the years, I can see that the demand has been increasing,” shared Yong Joo.

Inspirations meet aspirations

After graduating from NTU with a Bachelor of Business, Yong Joo was asked to take over his parents’ stall at a hawker centre. He was not keen and endeavoured to start a business in tech start-ups, but he was unsuccessful.

Three years later, in 2014, he returned to the F&B scene and opened the first outlet of The Crowded Bowl in a food court at Republic Polytechnic. 

Yong Joo celebrated his graduation with his then-girlfriend and now-wife, NTU alumna Cheryl Cheah (MSE/2012). (Photo credit: Soh Yong Joo)

Yong Joo recounted, “When we started, I was not 100% sure whether it would work. It turns out that people quite like our food, so we expanded to another polytechnic and opened a second outlet. It just went on from there. Looking ahead, we want to continue bringing our food to more people, so location-wise, we plan to go into neighbourhood shopping malls, and menu-wise, we hope to get the official Halal certification.”

Xueru was inspired to establish Venture Drive Coffee in 2019 after a memorable pour-over coffee experience in Shanghai. She has a knack for identifying successful F&B ventures. In 2011, she established her first business selling traditional beancurd, Dou Hua Zhuang. Nine months later, she sold the business comprising a franchise in Chinatown and two stalls at Taman Jurong and NTU Canteen 1.

“I ran the business full-time and was featured in The Business Times’ Young Entrepreneur Forum. My strategic plan was to establish and operate the business until it reached its peak potential, then sell it before the market interest waned. The swiftness in which I could sell the business was unexpected, primarily due to an irresistible bid,” she shared.

In her past and current businesses, Xueru has been operating outlets at her alma mater. Meanwhile, Daniel hopes to open Coffee Faculty’s second outlet on the NTU main campus by mid-next year.

“I wanted my first outlet to be on the main campus, but there was no available space then. I hope to have a shopfront to store things for the pushcart. With that, my mobile pushcart can be wheeled around the campus or anywhere in Singapore to support different events,” he said.

Tapping on his engineering skills, Daniel - who holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering - planned the layout and designed the space of his coffee pushcart from scratch. He also installed the waterworks and piping on his own. The result is a pushcart that is more compact yet still mobile.

Rejuvenating campus cuisine

These alumni-owned businesses certainly add flavour to NTU’s F&B scene, which has evolved over the years to suit changing preferences.

“There was not much healthy food then. Instead, the dishes sold in canteens were mostly fried food,” recalled Yong Joo. Daniel echoed the sentiment, sharing that his favourite campus meal was the fried rice with fluffy omelette from a canteen stall in Hall 2.

Xueru added, “During my time at NTU, the food options on campus were primarily focused on providing staple meals. Now, a wider range of offerings, including novelty food, is complemented with many modern dining areas. This creates dynamic spaces for students to dine and socialise, thus enriching their overall campus experience.”

 Xueru with her mother after her convocation in 2006. (Photo credit: Chng Xueru)

The trio are proud of their gastronomic contributions to the university, which has been possible with the support of the NTU community.

Beyond academic qualifications, their undergraduate experiences have shaped them into the business owners they are today.

“As a student, I was entrusted with various leadership positions. My focus has always been on welfare – students’ welfare then and workers’ welfare now. As a new business owner, I recognise that my business cannot go on without my workers, so I ensure that they feel cared for by thinking from the top-down and collecting bottom-up feedback,” said Daniel.

Wide smiles from Daniel and his childhood friend to mark their graduation. (Photo credit: Daniel Heng)

Yong Joo knows it better. His team has grown from two part-timers to 25 employees. “My first employee who worked with me from the first day at our first outlet is still working with me. According to the F&B industry standard, my company has a very low turnover rate. Many of my employees are twice my age, so I adopt a consultative approach and treat them like my elders.”

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