Business

Former convict cooks up social change with restaurant chain

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Media captionBenny Se Teo hopes to give other former offenders a second chance

With his direct and intense stare, it is hard not to be a little intimidated by Singaporean chef Benny Se Teo.

A high school dropout, he spent more than a decade in and out of prison for drug-related offences and rehabilitation centres because of a heroin addiction.

But beneath his tough exterior is someone who has managed to become one of the city-state's most inspiring and successful entrepreneurs.

He runs Eighteen Chefs, a restaurant chain that hires ex-offenders and troubled youths, and turns over $10m (£6.4m) a year. His five restaurants employ about 140 people, nearly half of whom had difficult pasts.

Mr Se Teo, who experienced first-hand how employers shun people with a criminal record, says he wants to give those on the margins of society a second chance.

"In the past, I was struggling just to stay alive," he says. "Now I can stand up and hold another ex-offender's hand and help them walk to the next level. If I can do it, anybody can do it."

Working for Jamie Oliver

After he was released from prison in 1993, he was turned down at interview after interview.

He eventually found a job but his big break came in 2006 when he got a chance to work at UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's London restaurant Fifteen.

Image copyright Eighteen Chefs
Image caption Mr Se Teo worked for a month at London's Fifteen restaurant

Fifteen takes on disadvantaged British youths for a year-long apprenticeship. After hounding its former chief executive Liam Black on a public internet forum, Mr Se Teo was eventually given a one-month internship.

The time in London helped teach him how to run both a kitchen and a social enterprise - a business that gives back to the wider community.

The following year, Mr Se Teo returned to Singapore and along with two partners, opened Eighteen Chefs with an initial investment of $200,000.

He named his restaurant Eighteen after the gang his late father belonged to, in the hope it would help inspire delinquents to turn over a new leaf.

The menu comprises of both western dishes such as root beer battered fish and chips and ribeye steaks, and local dishes such as tom yum aglio olio pasta and sambal prawn fried rice.

The chain, which attracts mostly families and younger crowds, has since become profitable and there are plans to open four more restaurants by early next year.

Image caption Eighteen Chefs is popular among local students and families

Drug history

But it has been a long, hard road to success for the 54-year-old, who is passionate about food and taught himself how to cook.

The youngest of seven children, Mr Se Teo's father was a local gang member and opium dealer. His mother was a housewife.

In the 1970s, he began smoking marijuana with his friends before moving on to harder drugs.

He finally managed to kick the habit after what he describes as a "near-death experience" while in prison. His time in jail and his struggle to find work afterwards also influenced what he wanted to do with his life.

"There is a gap where it is very difficult for ex-offenders to integrate back into society," he says. "I told myself if one day I am going to be a business owner, I want to hire this group of people."

Many of Eighteen Chefs' staff members were walk-in applicants and are a mix of both professional service staff and ex-offenders.

'Second chance'

Mr Se Teo also makes it a point to visit Singapore's prison once a month to recruit ex-offenders who want to "craft out a career path".

"If they are willing to change and willing to go to the next level and forget about their criminal life, I have the experience and the know-how and I have the resources to partner them to go to the next level," he says.

"Some of the ex-offenders that work for me now are my managers. Some are my head chefs. I guess if you had joined another company you will not be able to climb that corporate ladder.

"Here we actually pay you well and there are a lot of fringe benefits. Our salary scale is competitive, if not better than any other company."

Image caption Jumaat Jamat hopes to prove the naysayers wrong through his job at Eighteen Chefs

One of his workers who is rebuilding his self-confidence is Jumaat Jamat, who spent five years in jail for unlicensed money lending.

"I've been given a second chance and I won't waste it again," he says. "I hope to prove myself one day and be someone and prove everyone wrong who has been looking down on me for all this while."

However, the restaurant hasn't always been a success. Some employees have tried to steal money, others showed up drunk for work. Many ended up going back to jail for various offences.

But Mr Se Teo stresses that the core problem facing ex-offenders is a lack of self-esteem. A stigma still exists, even though overall Singaporean companies seem to have "increased their acceptance level" in recent years, he says.

'Alternative paths'

Image copyright Eighteen Chefs
Image caption Eighteen Chefs plans to expand further and has franchised the brand

Back at Eighteen Chefs' newest outlet in Singapore's Ang Mo Kio Hub shopping centre, students are clustered around the tables, pop music playing loudly in the background.

Mr Se Teo goes to chat to them, his portly frame moving deftly from table to table, eliciting warm hellos from everyone he speaks to.

Some customers come up to him later, looking to shake his hand or to take a selfie. He is regarded as something of a local hero.

His popularity extends to social media, which he uses to regularly post photos of his restaurant staff and inspirational quotes.

"I want delinquents to know that life offers many alternative paths. You don't have to identify as a gangster, you can be a chef," says one post on the Eighteen Chefs Facebook page, which has more than 13,000 likes.

The accolades have also started to roll in. He received Singapore's President's Challenge Social Enterprise Award in 2012 and last year's Emerging Enterprise Award.

A book has been written about his experiences, and Mr Se Teo regularly gives lectures at universities and conferences both at home and abroad.

But Mr Se Teo, who got married earlier this year, says that his greatest sense of accomplishment comes not from the fame, but from helping others and giving back to society.

"It is just very natural for me. Somebody has to do something to start this movement, to give the ex-offenders the opportunity to regain their self-confidence and step into the real world."

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