Aston Soon turned a kopitiam stall selling value-for-money steaks into a 15-outlet chain with an annual turnover of $12 million in four short years.
The Monday Interview with Aston Soon
Singapore, August, 3, 2009 - From a one-man stall, Aston Soon has built an empire serving premium steaks for a steal.
A boyish-faced man sporting close-cropped hair poses for Life!’s photographer outside a new steakhouse at The Centrepoint on Orchard Road.
You wonder if this is a waiter who is filling in for his big boss before the actual shoot starts.
The session wraps, the man walks over, shakes hands and thanks everyone for coming to do the interview. The “waiter” is, in fact, the boss of the joint.
He is Mr Aston Soon, owner of the Aston chain of 15 steakhouses across the island worth up to a sizzling $12 million.
He is the one to thank when you next tuck into a 250g grilled New Zealand rib-eye steak for just $16.50, a steal of a price for a prime piece of meat. Or wagyu beef for $38.90 nett, compared to the $60 to $70 it can cost elsewhere.
Forget high-end, international steakhouses such as Lawry’s and Morton’s, Aston’s lean margins on juicy joints mean heartlanders can eat like a king, too.
Mr Soon, who is 37, has achieved this in just four years, starting from a humble kopitiam stall to a chain that has grown an average of nearly four outlets a year.
The latest addition is Astons Prime, an upmarket version of the other outlets, which opened at The Centrepoint in June.
He ushers Life! into the eatery. It has walls lined with wood panels and a warm, dimly lit ambience. A mix of American pop classics, jazz and blues sets the tone.
Despite the Western vibe, the director of Aston Food and Beverage Specialities says sheepishly that he has never been to the United States. “Everything is from my own imagination,” he chuckles.
And what about the name? Mr Soon, whose hanyu pinyin name is Sun Wen Biao, explains: “I took up the name Astor 10 years ago from the brand of an American tobacco box. But I got tired of people mistaking me for a woman named Esther, so I changed the ‘r’ to an ‘n’.”
The link with Western food began when he was working at now-defunct food chain Ponderosa, known for its salad bar, steaks and other American fare.
He recalls: “It’s an American chain and they train workers from scratch. I worked as a waiter, broiler-cook, dishwasher, everything.”
Home was a two-storey house in Guillemard Road where he lived with his three brothers and two sisters, housewife mum and father. Dad ran a construction firm and then became a taxi driver. The family later moved to a four-room HDB flat in Ubi.
A hunger for more knowledge found the young Soon, the second eldest child, reading up on cookbooks and experimenting with dishes ranging from steamed fish to bee hoon.
His late mother, Madam Neo Bee Hong, was taste-tester. He says: “After work, I would buy groceries, come home to cook and wake her up for supper.
“She never said what was nice or not nice, but one thing for sure was that she was very happy as long as I cooked.”
This trial run proved a recipe for success. He rose through the ranks at Ponderosa, eventually becoming a supervisor and manager.
Ponderosa was also where he met his first love, a fellow colleague. They married in 2001, but due to differences in life goals – he was ready to start a family but she was not – they separated after only two years.
However Cupid smiled again when he was posted to sister company Kenny Rogers, where he met his current wife Ng Li Li, 29, and remarried in 2004. She is now Astons’ operations manager.
He eventually decided to “step down from a hectic restaurant life” and try his hand at other jobs, including dog-rearing and helping out at a friend’s cafe.
The turning point came in 2005, when he borrowed $35,000 from friends and family and opened Astons Specialties, a one-man stall in a kopitiam off East Coast Road.
Perhaps it was a natural talent for cooking but his stall got off to a roaring start and he broke even in six months. He was working 18-hour days, with help from his mother-in-law, wife and her sisters.
He says: “It was tiring. I would take power naps during non-peak hours behind the kopitiam, just squatting by the drain for about 10 minutes. But sometimes I was so drained that I would doze off just like that for an hour.”
To cater to the growing demand, he shifted just two units down from his kopitiam stall in 2006 and started a proper restaurant with a staff of 10. He continued to do most of the cooking.
Due to overwhelming customer response, he converted the adjacent unit into dining space eight months later. The restaurant expanded from a 33-seater to a 90-seater.
In 2007, he opened a second outlet in Serangoon Gardens. It started as a partnership with long-time friend and ex-Ponderosa colleague, Ivan Loo, 46.
Mr Loo says: “I’ve helped him out since his kopitiam days and as a favour to me, he eventually gave me ownership of the store. That’s how generous he is.”
Mr Soon opened a third Astons outlet in Joo Chiat shortly after and growth went into overdrive. Apart from his first kopitiam stall, the start-up costs of his other outlets were all paid for with revenue from the business. There was no need for loans.
He now has a mini empire, with Astons restaurants divided into three categories – Specialities, Express and Prime. The Specialities line comprises the main concept with five outlets island-wide, the most popular being its Cathay branch.
There are nine Express outlets, mostly in the heartlands, from Jurong East to Tampines and Ang Mo Kio. These offer the same menu but no air-conditioned dining, music or personalised service.
Steaks – and prime cuts, too – start from just $11. A standard Angus Prime Rib costs $25.90 with two side dishes.
The single Astons Prime outlet at The Centrepoint is a sleeker version with pricier menus and a wider selection of wine. Steaks there start from $18.90 for black angus beef from New Zealand.
Astons’ selling point of quality Western food at budget prices seems to hit the right spot with hungry carnivores.
At Cathay on weekends, scores of young people can be seen queuing for a bite of signature steak dishes such as the New Zealand ribeye extra cut.
Astons keep prices low because of economies of scale – ingredients are ordered in bulk – and also through good relationships forged with suppliers through the years, says Mr Soon. The beef comes from New Zealand, Australia and America and he intends to import the highest grade Japanese beef soon.
All this sizzling success may seem a far cry from Mr Soon’s childhood, when he juggled school and part-time jobs.
Back then, most of those jobs involved dealing with food.
At seven, he peddled his mother’s confectioneries on the street. He recalls: “When the police came, you had to throw everything away and run.”
He also helped his mother and grandmother prepare cakes and dumplings for various occasions. Holidays were spent working as a factory packer for food products.
He says of his penchant for work: “It was not that we were very poor. I’m just independent, so I didn’t want to rely on my father for money. I was always finding ways to make more money. Plus, I hated school.”
Textbooks were not his forte but his strict parents ensured he completed his studies at Guillemard East Primary School and later at Chong Cheng High School Branch, after which he took enlisted for national service and took a path that led him to become a steakhouse king.
So how has life from a humble kopitiam hawker to a boss of a 300-strong company changed his goals?
He says: “Well it’s not all about making money now. I’ve to think about how to let everyone working for me feel that they are making progress in their careers.
“That’s even more difficult than making money myself.”
Having worked his way up the hard way, he seems to be particularly concerned about his staff. All the employees from his Joo Chiat branch have been transferred to Astons Prime, as the former has been shut to make way for a training academy for his workers.
It is this sincerity and goodwill that endears him to aquaintances and friends. Ms Zee Lam, 34, creative director of Concept Lab Communications, a design agency that provided consulting work to Astons, says: “I find him a very genuine and humble person. He’s very approachable. There are no airs about him.”
Long-time customer Daniel Loke, 23, a student who has been eating Astons’ steaks since its early days at the kopitiam, says: “My church was in the area so we used to order and Aston would personally deliver the food to us.
“He is an extremely humble person, despite his success. I called him recently after a year of not having kept in touch, to interview him for a personal food blog.
“He remembered me and we chatted for 20 minutes. He asked me how I was and even gave me tips on how to pass an upcoming driving test.”
Mr Loke also recalls Mr Soon hiring some intellectually challenged staff to give them a chance at learning life skills. He says: “Aston really has a good heart.”
Still, a reflective Mr Soon hints at some regrets, especially in his kopitiam days, saying: “Sometimes I was more concerned about whether the customer was happy than whether my wife was happy.
“We had many quarrels. Looking back, I should have been more understanding.”
However, it is this trait of being focused that got him where he is today. “When I’m interested in something, I can shut out everything else to concentrate. I’m like that.”
His wife says that taking time out to help friends has always been his character, which has not changed even with the growth of their business.
What attracted her to him?
“He is a good guy and a family man. Of course there were rough patches, especially in the early days juggling his stall and my pregnancy, but we got by,” she says.
The couple have two children, daughter Jazlyn, four, and son Javier, two, and live in a five-room Woodlands HDB flat. The children stay with their maternal grandmother and come home only on weekends because of their parents’ long hours.
Mr Soon still works 15-hour days, shuttling between outlets and handling landlords. He has only recently “made it a point not to work on Sundays”.
He reads up on cooking and watches documentaries in his free time.
He still cooks, but does most of his “research and development” in his kitchen at home. He drives a Toyota Land Cruiser jeep and confesses that he does like sports cars because of their design.
So why does he not get one? He chuckles: “I'm giving myself 10 to 15 years, lah. I can’t afford it yet.”
He points out that his profit margins are “slim” despite rolling revenues.
Future plans include franchising and regional expansion, he reveals, but says he is currently consolidating the business to “fine-tune operations”. With 15 restaurants, he has to ensure quality-control in terms of food and service.
While he is definitely a man with a plan, he still comes across somewhat as a tenderloin greenhorn who made good.
He says: “I did not start out with the intention of being my own boss or owning a company. Somehow, it all just took off and I handled it from there.
“I guess I chose a river that led me to the rough seas.”
Wah! Broke even in 6 months, that is a feat!
bt nt my type oso.
Tried the Astons Prime at Centrepoint yesterday with my friend. Surprisely there is no one dining inside. I thought Astons is always packed with customers compared to Cathay outlet. I ordered a medium rare Long-fed Tenderloin and my friend ordered medium rare T-bone. Although we waited quite some time for the food to be served but i dun mind if the food was gd then the waiting would be worthy. When the food was served, i noticed the tenderloin was way too thick which i think in order for the chef to get this piece of meat to cook to medium rare the outer layer become fully cooked and hard. The t-bone which my friend ate was in medium instead of medium rare. I prefer the outlet at Cathay and their selection of meat and the thickness is gd and that's why the queue never ends.
i have always enjoyed astons. as i can eat there free.