In this brand spotlight feature, we speak to the humble and courageous Mr Fu Yong Hong, CEO of greendot, a growing meat-free dining concept brand in Singapore.
Hi Yong Hong, please introduce yourself to our readers and tell them about your brand greendot.
How long has greendot brand been in the market?
It’s about six years since we started greendot. We started operating in school canteens during the first three years and it was only in the last two to three years that we moved into shopping malls. Those are our humble beginnings.
My partner Justin was a vegetarian since birth. I knew him back in secondary school, and those days he did not have many food options in school. Every day, he either ate bread or begged the auntie to cook vegetarian meals for him. Wanting to make a difference for the younger generation of vegetarians, he and I decided to open a vegetarian store in a school. I was only a second-year university student back then.
We were very clear about our positioning right from the get go. We wanted to target the non-vegetarians and help them fall in love with vegetarian food. To do this, we came up with Asian-fusion flavours. The response was quite good and slowly we opened five more outlets. Our old logo had a kiddish look that appealed to young students. However, we started noticing that 70% of our customers are female. The logo which you see today is targeted more at female customers.
We knew that if overseas expansion is our goal, we would have to be willing to face and compete with the big boys. Hence, we pitched our concept to Bedok Mall in 2013, which is run by CapitaLand Malls. We were very thankful for the chance to start a small kiosk measuring 300 square feet. We tested the business for a year, and finally set up our flagship stall in Paya Lebar Square — this time the storefront measured about 1,900 square feet. If you ask me what gave us the courage to move from a 300 square-foot outlet to a 1,900 square-foot one, it was the conviction that we just needed to take the step and try. Had we failed, we would just go back to our normal lives.
Today, we have grown to seven outlets with half owned, and the other half franchised.
What does greendot means?
There are two reasons for our name. In India, there is a green dot on the packaging of all vegetarian products. It symbolises vegetarian. The second reason is that Singapore is known as a little red dot. We believe that greendot can bring about a positive change to our customers. We want to plant the seeds of consciousness in our customers. We aim to help people around us in this little red dot to go green and develop healthy eating habits.
What is unique about greendot?
When we first started, we try to aim at the “flexitarian”. It describes 25- to 40-year-old working ladies who want a more balanced meal, and also want to opt for less meat. This is a natural progression in life: as we grow older, we start to realise the importance of healthy eating. So, at greendot we’re not merely selling a vegetarian concept; we always tell our staff we are on a mission to help others to take care of and love themselves. .
From a branding perspective, there is no meat-free concept in the fast casual dining category; greendot is the first.
We are located in very convenient locations, and our storefronts are just a stone’s throw away from MRT stations. To cater to mass consumers, we have opened our outlets in shopping malls.
Furthermore, we sell quality meals. Many people have misconceptions about vegetarian food — they think it is all about 斋米粉 (vegetarian mee hoon), 斋叉烧 (mock char siew), or gluten products. At greendot, we mainly use Lion’s mane mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, fresh vegetables, Konnyaku and soya products. We use sunflower oil to cook our food instead of normal vegetable oil. We use 香米（fragrant rice）, which is one grade higher than 白米 (white rice). Our definition of healthy eating is a balanced meal and that is why we still have our flavourful items such as laksa and rendang to entice gourmands. We are making the statement that healthy eating need not necessarily be boring, and it can comprise wonderful flavours as well.
Our cooking process is also unique. We have a filtration system for washing vegetables, and a combi-oven to steam our rice. Unlike 菜饭 (economy rice ) which is cooked in large quantities at one go, we cook our batches in small portions. This is to ensure consistency in taste, quality and freshness.
What is the vision for your brand?
We hope to motivate 100 million people to go on a plant-based diet, and to encourage one billion people to go green. If we can serve about 500 to 600 customers a day in a single outlet, then I’d need about 1,000 outlets around the world to achieve this vision.
What are your challenges in building the greendot brand?
When we first entered the industry, we were doing many things in the F&B industry that have not been done before. Also, my partner Justin and I did not have any prior F&B experience, and it was a steep learning curve for the both of us. We had to experiment to find new ways to do things. The second challenge is manpower. In recent years, we have brought in professionals such as GMs and OMs, who lend their expertise to help build the brand.
What keeps you awake at night?
What would be our business model in three to five years? Business models in the F&B scene are ever evolving. The F&B business has always relied heavily on assets, from talents to equipment to physical store space. Nowadays however, companies such as Uber, Grab and Airbnb are springing up: They are asset light but network heavy. Can F&B businesses keep to an asset-heavy business model? Because rental fees will only get higher, and so will manpower cost.
During the first three years, we focused on operations, relying on word of mouth to drive publicity. Now, we are mining data to understand our customers. We are planning to launch our CRM system soon to collect customer insights, which allow us to, for example, know a customer’s frequency of visits, favourite products, and time of visit (that is, breakfast, lunch or dinner).
To me, as an SME owner, you need to be prudent with your spending; you need to look at each outlet and determine the target group, what is lacking and then use targeted marketing to bridge these gaps. That is what SMEs need to focus on.
What are your plans for growing your brand?
There are three areas that I want to focus on: Food, Fitness and Fulfilment.
I want to come up with better food and help people take care of themselves by encouraging positive habits, such as understanding their calorie intakes. We are working with Health Promotion Board to put logo signs on mainstays under 500 calories. We would implement this around the third quarter of 2017. We want to help our customers to become more discerning and really understand what they are consuming. For example, just by changing your cooking oil to sunflower oil, you can get omega-3 in your diet, which gives you unsaturated fats.
The second focus is on fitness and health. In February, during a charity event held in tandem with Willing Hearts, we conducted a mass Zumba dance with all our outlet staff. We even involved some of our customers from our Paya Lebar Square outlet. I want to encourage my customers to lead a more active lifestyle. We are also planning to partner with purveyors of health screening machines so our customers can better understand their body conditions.
Finally, fulfilment is more about giving back to society. The last time, we went to the rental flats in Bukit Merah where we distributed dry goods in person. We worked with Willing Hearts, and we packed over 5,000 meals for 5,000 beneficiaries island-wide.
What is coming up in the year or two we should watch out for (e.g. new product lines, new outlets, new markets)?
We definitely want to launch new outlets in Southeast Asia by next year. In Singapore, we plan to open 10 to 15 outlets in the next two to three years, and we are also considering creating other meat-free brands under the greendot group. We are also exploring starting e-commerce platforms.
Anything else you would like to share with the readers?
Be clear about why you exist in the market, and what you are doing for your customers. Every decision you make, every goal you set must be linked to your vision and mission. You need to be true to yourself; and you need to be a champion of what you believe.