Drinks Food Interview Singapore

By The People, For The People: An Interview with In Bad Company co-founders Tim and Elaine

The Katong area has long been a site of activity, filled with a flurry of restaurants. pubs and retail shops along East Coast Road and Marine Parade. Amongst these though, one of the quieter buildings is The Flow @ East Coast, a mall filled primarily with beauty salons, tuition and enrichment centres, and the occasional bakery or eatery. Unless you have a prior appointment, it’s unlikely you’ll venture up its escalators to explore the space.

But for those in the know, if you walk towards the end of level 5 in the evening, where a seemingly unobtrusive nook lies at the tail of a long corridor, you might hear a smidge of house music, from a darkened space beckoning to you. You’ll feel a little hesitant – after all, what could this mysteriously alluring venue be in the middle of a nondescript mall? But take a chance and step in, and you’ll find yourself In Bad Company.

Known for their wide-ranging selection of drinks, from local spirits to obscure craft beers, and serving up an ever-changing, constantly evolving food menu, In Bad Company (IBC) is also a ‘gastropub’ that plays host to various events and collaborations. Now in its third year, IBC has seen countless curious customers pass through its doors, and some becoming devoted regulars to the brand, and quite simply, these are guys who know how to have fun, live in the moment, and whose star is only continuing to rise, one we dived into as we sat down to meet co-founders Timothy Ong and Elaine Chan for a coffee, and unpack the story of IBC.

“This whole thing started out of the pure love for F&B and craft beer,” says Tim, dressed in his signature colourful button-down shirt and jeans, casual in sight and chill in attitude. “It was a simple thought process, nothing too crazy, and we really just wanted to run our own space and see what we could do with it. And after the experience of a less successful business, IBC was an opportunity to try a new, more casual concept, this time working with craft beers, building relationships with customers, and having more fun with it.”

Tim and Elaine

Tim’s the one in charge of curating the menu and managing the kitchen, but compared to her fellow co-founder and fiancé, Elaine does not come from an F&B or hospitality background, instead having worked in marketing in her previous career. But upon meeting Tim, Elaine, who was looking for a change of pace, was enamoured by his sheer passion for what he did, and the constant excitement it promised. Now, she deals with events, finances and sales for IBC. “I had my doubts at first, but after we got full autonomy of the space and could really do what we wanted to, that’s when we both fired up the passion that got us here to begin with, especially with all the events we held to get people together, and how satisfying it was watching how he got to play around with things and go crazy with his ideas. It made me feel proud,” says Elaine.

You could say that the story of IBC is in part, a love story, with Tim and Elaine running the show together from the very beginning, as a couple. But IBC is far from first timers hitting the ball out of the park, and comes on the heels of Tim’s last business, and a heavy storm both Tim and Elaine have managed to weather through to see the light of IBC.

“The previous business was a cocktail bar-type establishment that was more about creating an upscale bar experience, where the team produced semi-fine dining and worked with craft spirits,” says Tim. “But there were a lot of issues with it – it was my first business venture into a physical space, and both myself and ex-business partners signed up for it not knowing much about how to run a business like that. We had the knowledge on how to make good food and drink, and it was aesthetically-pleasing, but where we were lacking was management of finances, and manpower. Things went downhill quite fast, most of the partners pulled out, and I was left on my own to run the space.”

But even as the business fell, Tim held on tight to it, not wanting to let go at all. At the same time, a chance swipe on Tinder led him and Elaine to each other, and the two hit it off over a night of drinks. When we first got together, I actually showed her how much I had left in my bank account. It wasn’t even $1,000, and I asked if she was sure she wanted to be with me,” says Tim. “But then she said ‘I’m not interested in you because of the money, but because of how passionate you are about what you do and how much you pursue it even though the odds are stacked against you.”

“He’s one of the most honest people I’ve ever met,” says Elaine. “On dating apps, most guys would try to impress you right off the bat, but by showing me his bank account, I was wondering – was he trying to test me? He was living in the shop, trying to save money by not traveling back and forth, heading to Tekka Market in the mornings to shop for ingredients, and it’s this kind of passion and the clear vision he had for himself, that’s what I found so attractive, and made me want to go into business with him.”

“She was the one who convinced me to continue searching for opportunities even though we didn’t have enough money to start a new place,” continues Tim. “We were running all over the place, chatting with friends, scouting around and doing what we could at the time. The first business took a lot out of me, not just my energy but also my earnings and savings, and all of that was busted. To start a new business then would need us to find investors, if not, I’d have to work for someone else and build up the capital again.”

Tim and Elaine

For the two of them however, luck was on their side, and they stumbled upon an opportunity to join a brand new concept at Kim Yam Road, where half of it would be a co-working space, the other half would be an F&B venture. It seemed like an ideal plan – everything was built as they had envisioned, and while the landlords ran the place, Tim and his team would have gone in to handle the F&B as they wanted. The timing worked out as well, with the previous business finally ready to close shop, and thus, the original IBC was born. “I did try to run both businesses concurrently for a while, doing F&B here and cocktails at night at the old business, but things got very difficult to straddle,” says Tim. “It came to a point where I had to make a decision between this new business that was gaining traction and earning money, and this old business that I had already held onto for so long, my baby born from my blood, sweat and tears. But I decided to trust in the process, and realised that starting something new does not mean that the previous business ‘failed’ – I came away from that learning something new, and knowing not to make the same mistakes.”

“This did seem like the perfect opportunity – I have some experience in cooking and hospitality, and I just really love the idea of raw ingredients coming together under the influence of the chef’s creativity that will turn it into a dish,” he continues. “I can cook you a great piece of beef, but the way I do everything from lighting to setting, to bring that dish to life via storytelling and theatrics, it’s something that’s so hard to find in other industries, and that’s what excites me about food.”

Things changed however, as time went by and the two of them realised the many terms and conditions they were subject to. “When we did IBC at Kim Yam, there was a lot we were asked to do, like lunch service when we actually just wanted to do dinner, and that our price range had to remain between $6-16,” says Elaine. “And then for the co-working space, we were also obliged to do catering services, but on an extremely limited budget, like $10/pax, which made what we do incredibly restricted. We thought that renting this space meant we would have full autonomy, but it was only after we took over that these conditions were communicated to us.”

“To cut the long story short, instead of doing what we wanted, we ended up doing what someone else wanted, and it deviated a lot from what the brand was supposed to be. IBC is a place that’s meant to evoke and thrive in the night, and a place to have fun, but instead, we had become this coffee place that sells mushroom pasta and roast chicken thigh in the afternoon, and closed at 6 in the evening,” says Tim.

“Both of us hated it, and I started to lose a lot of passion for the business,” says Elaine. I think this was the lowest point in our journey, and even for Tim, who used to have so much fire and drive, began to just let the chef take full control, just going through the motions and coming in and out every day. And that’s when we knew that even though it would be another financial setback, we had to leave and rebuild the business with a proper space of our own. I talked to him about this, and gave him an ultimatum – to give it one last chance, and if it still doesn’t work out, we stop and go out there and do something else, because we can’t keep living like this.”

Photo from IBC’s Instagram

From there, they began the process of researching and scouting for a new venue once again, which is when they came across The Flow, and their future home on level 5, around April 2021. “It was something different, and I have a bit of an appetite for risk. It felt a little crazy, but after stepping into the space, I told them yes, I want this place,” says Tim. “Elaine’s response was an immediate no, because she was concerned about how it was such a quiet mall, so footfall may be limited, and possibly having to shut our operations by 1030pm. But then I brought her upstairs, and to see the whole place from a different angle. I envisioned for her where the kitchen would be, where the bar would be, a table that overlooks everything. It would be one of the weirdest spots in Katong, but when someone does find it, they would go ‘thank god I went to the trouble of finding it’, and a place people would come back to over and over again.”

Tim’s vision convinced Elaine of the potential of the space, and that, in short, was the story of how IBC came to The Flow. Still, teething issues were present, and it took several months of hard work to get into the swing of things. “Tim used to specialise a lot in meats, and he became very known for being able to control the heat and darkness, to the point he doesn’t need a timer,” says Elaine. “But when we came to The Flow, he suddenly decided that he wanted to go in a whole new direction, and explore local vegetables instead. He got really excited about it, and was envisioning a whole menu for it, and wanted to get people to come in and be wowed by the idea that vegetables could be presented in a whole new way, and make them the star of the show instead.”

“It was a bit of a risk, and going in, we did predict it’s an idea that might have taken, say, 2-3 years to take off,” says Tim. “And at the beginning, the response wasn’t too bad, but we realised that I was getting too creative too fast, like turning key lime into caviar, to pairing salt-baked cabbage with steak. Some diners understood what we were trying to do, while others found it too weird. So we slowed down the innovative pieces a little, allowed word of mouth to travel and for people to find this space, fall in love with it, and build up our customer base.”

The F&B industry in Singapore moves fast, and it’s not uncommon to see restaurants and bars shutting down after two years or less. The secret to IBC’s longevity and continued success? Tim and Elaine think it has to do with the work environment they create for their staff, and even within their own relationship, priding open communication and trust.

“It’s quite interesting that when we first met, Elaine had so much faith that she would be willing to be with a guy who would be texting her at 2am, disappear for a few hours, then again at 5am before going off the grid for a while,” says Tim with a laugh. “And that was a time when I wasn’t taking any salary, where the money I had dwindled to maybe $500, and I’d be sleeping in the shop without going home.”

“Friends told me I was crazy to be going into business with him after knowing him for just 5 months, but isn’t that business? Taking a calculated risk and a leap of faith? Sometimes, it’s not about the number of years you know a person, but the amount you’re willing to share with each other,” says Elaine.

Deep fried sake poached tofu nuggets, lightly seasoned with Aonori Salt and served with a fermented habanero sauce. Photo from IBC’s Instagram

“In building trust, we made a lot of effort to communicate with each other,” says Tim. “At the start, I remember Facetime-ing her the moment I got her number to show her I was real, that I wanted to get to know her, and that if she felt the same way, then I’d like to just open up and establish a proper communications channel between us. She used to be very introverted and guarded, and I was there to encourage her to share her thoughts and feelings in a safe space.”

“That’s because I grew up in a family that was very quiet and didn’t show much emotion, compared to his family,” says Elaine. “Watching the way he interacted with his mum and how much they enjoyed each other’s company, I realised that it’s something I always wanted to do but never did because of my personality. It was so new for me being in a relationship with him because I learnt to have serious communications about how we felt, to always talk even if we fight, and we had such different impressions of how a business should be run. As a result, I learnt a lot about compromise through mutual respect and understanding, and how to open up a lot more. If you met me 3 years ago, I’d probably just smile silently if someone talks to me, but these days, opening up and talking to new people comes a bit more naturally.”

“A big reason why I was so upfront about what I was going through is because when I was running the first place, I broke up with my ex-girlfriend because of how difficult things got,” says Tim. “It was firsthand experience learning how to communicate with a partner both in my personal and professional life, something that can be so hard because you live and breathe every moment with her. It might seem easy at the start, but there came a point where we weren’t able to see eye to eye on decisions, there were a lot of unclear hierarchies, and our leisure time was sucked up with talk about work.”

“So I shared all that with Elaine, and wanted to make it clear that this was something that could happen to us, and if we wanted to make it work, we needed to find the proper time and place to lay things out and get them resolved, especially when it came to remaining professional in front of our staff, and set the right expectations for each other in running this business together. Once all that is aligned, all we can do is set sail from there and see where the ocean takes us,” adds Tim. “She complements me, because she understands why I do things a certain way, and is able to explain my kind of ‘tough love’ I give to my staff to them. Sometimes on the way home together, we’ll talk things through with each other, reflecting on our actions, and these pockets of communication, and moments of patience, these are what contribute to building our relationship.”

IBC’s take on ajitama – delicately marinated and smoked quail eggs with whiskey wood smoked caviar. Photo from IBC’s Instagram

That sense of trust and faith and openness extends into their business operations as well, and their relationship with their staff. “I believe that everything can be talked about, and even if they do make a mistake, it’s important to understand the reasoning behind it first,” explains Tim. “The most toxic work environments are divisive ones, where divisions and cliques emerge, and they end up taking advantage of or ganging up on the boss. If I ever see this happening, I’d quickly seat them down and ask why they’re playing such games. We love what we do and we’re meant to create a safe working environment for everyone. It’s so important to have a space where people want to get out of bed and look forward to coming to work, and it’s the employer’s job to identify what a person is good at, and make sure the team can gel with each other, coexist and communicate to reduce the toxicity in an environment.”

“One big reason I left my previous job was because of the politics involved,” adds Elaine. “I know that there will always be undercurrents, but so long as it doesn’t affect people’s performance and mental health, then that’s good enough for me. We can’t control what people say or do, but what we can do is to address that behaviour and talk it out with them. Just because we’re the co-founders doesn’t mean we’re right all the time, and both Tim and I find ourselves learning a lot from our staff as well, so it’s important to make sure they feel they can share anything they want with us.”

“We keep reminding ourselves that yes, we do set some SOPs down, but that’s not necessarily set in stone,” says Tim. “We treat each other like a family, and we grow and learn together, and manage them according to how they work together. It can be hard – other business owners have warned us about how having all these conversations out in the open can hit a nerve for another staff member, and I guess we’re still trying to find a good balance for all of this.”

“There’s a lot to think about, but one thing we’ve done is to promote more cohesion between our staff by dedicating Sunday nights to doing an activity together,” says Elaine. “We close on Mondays, so when we go out, we might be working out together, like skating till 2am, and it helps our staff bond. We have this mutual respect for each other, whether you’re a full-timer or part-timer, and having that freedom to speak and express themselves, it takes some of the load off of the two of us, because they have their own brilliant ideas we can tap on as well.”

“Those outings also help us have different kinds of conversations, where we’re in a more relaxed environment, so we can develop our interpersonal relationships better, as friends and not just colleagues,” says Tim. “And of course for ourselves, we also need to know when to take a break and rest on off days. But overall, it really is a blessing that even though all of us see each other 6 days a week, we still look forward to it, rather than dread it, which shows something is going well.”

The IBC Team

In a way, the hierarchy between boss and staff is an invisible one, where they all feel they’re on more equal ground in working together as a team, with Tim and Elaine occasionally taking the lead. “They don’t need to call me boss – we’re all working towards the same goal, and if they feel I’m not leading them well, they’re fully entitled to sit me down and tell me, rather than talk behind my back,” says Tim. “I liken that learning process to my cooking, where I want to keep exploring possibilities and more culinary styles. This is a business that was built for us to continually learn and experiment and take risks, because that’s the only way to grow as a chef and business owner. We’re not here to just do the same thing day in and day out, but we want to keep refreshing the menu, to do collaborations and activations. We’re more than just food and drink, we want to try all these different events we never tried before, to keep us on our toes, to experiment with what the business could be.”

They’re not tooting their own horn – speaking to part-timer Nge Zhen Yang, an NUS architecture undergraduate who works with IBC, he echoed their views and why he continues to work with Tim and Elaine, despite the completely different discipline he’s pursuing, and the considerable distance between IBC and home. “At the start of summer, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and a friend working at Yeastside suggested I try IBC, since I was always interested in drinks,” he says. “I was still deliberating if I should pursue an architecture internship, but coming in here, it’s been quite an eye-opening experience, where I’ve been learning a lot about beer, and even putting my graphic design skills to use from time to time, and really getting to try to do everything.”

“Sometimes I think, well, if I’m going to do architecture in future anyway, then why not try something new while I still can? Coming here and working here, it’s really exposed me to a lot of people outside of my faculty and discipline, and everything compounds and adds on to my personal experience,” he adds. “The people who come into IBC are pretty chill, and I learn how to be professional while in a casual environment, just conversing with customers and chatting them up. It can be tiring, but it’s the people here, both the staff and customers, that keep me coming back, and I truly believe in the kind of culture that Tim and Elaine are fostering within IBC.”

It does seem ironic then that in spite of their tongue-in-cheek name, IBC’s ‘bad company’ is anything but, and filled with way more good than it suggests. “Ok, so the name came from a time when Elaine and I, and our two ex-business partners ended up at a bar in Serangoon,” says Tim. “We had a lot of drinks, and we were brainstorming for names for the place, and nothing seemed to fit. Elaine was still working at her previous job, and I volunteered to send her there, and they all went ‘wow, we’re really bad company’, because we do all these dumb things together, getting into trouble, but always ensuring a good time. So that settled it – this is how we wanted people to feel when they entered our space, and that even though they may think they’re making ‘bad choices’, they know they’re in for a fun time.”

Love Out Loud – IBC’s 2022 LGBTQ+ inclusive event that raised funds for The T Project and Project X. Photo from IBC’s Instagram

IBC then, is a journey that began at Kim Yam Road, and continues strong at The Flow, three years of hard work, and reaching the high point that they’re currently at. “Even if it was tough, we can’t just forget all that we’ve been through from the beginning, and that’s why even though we’ve only been at The Flow for a year, the brand itself is already three years old,” says Tim. “It’s been the biggest roller coaster of my life, and one thing that we do want to ensure is that we stick to one of our slogans, which is to create ‘a space by the people, for the people’.”

“One of our previous business partners talked to us about the idea of establishing the place as a safe space, rather than going all in with the food alone, and with that in mind, one of our first events was actually a Pink Dot Party, where we did a live screening of the event and welcomed queer people to come here and feel safe gathering,” adds Elaine. “To me, entering a space seems so easy, and I don’t judge people, so I didn’t realise that it was something that could be so fearful for people, and we wanted to tell them it’s ok to be here.”

“At this stage, I still don’t know where I really want to go in terms of food I’m doing, but we’re leaving it as an open book, and building the menu at IBC according to the experience rather than cuisine type. Among us, we take turns to throw ideas into the pot, and just have fun with it, because I don’t ever want my job to be boring,” he adds. “In three years, we’re still that brand, always welcoming people into the space, always preserving IBC’s quality and style. One thing’s for sure, we still want to try new things, like beer and food pairings, something that people around the world have done, but not Singapore yet. And to do that, we need the right team, and for our kitchen staff to have the right synergy, and see what our minds can churn out together.”

With so much good at IBC, where does it go from here? “I know we call ourselves a ‘gastrobar’, but that sometimes has some negative connotations associated with it. I want to position the food as something you’d get in a restaurant, and the drinks as what you would get in a cocktail or craft beer bar,” explains Tim. “So it’s all about the level of detail and professionalism from the creation process to delivery, yet also keeping things as casual as possible, and making customers feel comfortable in that setting, and for them to feel ok coming in dressed however they want, where they’ll receive the same quality service regardless.”

“Maybe the future of IBC will see us opening up a second space, or working towards building a consultation business. The latter comes from us knowing we can’t do this forever, physically-speaking, and we need to be able to transition to something else,” he muses. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of business owners going into business without knowing what needs to be done, getting advice from the wrong people, and burning holes in their wallets. We want to see businesses flourish, for them to experiment and reach their potential, and perhaps if we end up consulting, we can talk to them, understand how they run their business, and help them out, in a way, for us to contribute back to the industry.

“On the other hand, running more joints is a fun dream to have, and there was once I had the idea that one day we get rich and we rent a space that has a long counter and just open on days we feel like, and whoever wanders in that day just eats whatever we cook up, engage in good conversation, and just the two of us run this very chill space.”

In Bad Company, now back and fully open for business

“Either way, it comes back to the idea that if I have the chance to bless someone as much as possible, then I want to be able to give that to someone,” Tim says. “Even for my employees, I’m not going to have chefs coming through and thinking oh it’s all nice out there, when kitchens are not easy places to be. I may be harsh, but that’s because I want you to learn, and think really hard about whether this is a choice you want to stick with. Experience is something that comes with time, and for us to pass it on to someone else without spending the time and trouble, that’s the blessing that I can give. I’m not rich, but I feel rich when I get to bless someone else with my experiences.”

In Bad Company is located at The Flow @ East Coast, 66 East Coast Road, #05-17, Singapore 428778. More information available from their website here

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