By Joy Fang
FOR close to a month in 2006, Mr Eldwin Chua would wait for four to five days a week outside the Mandarin Orchard hotel to see its head chef, Mr Fung Chi Keong.
The reason? The budding restaurateur wanted to woo the chef over to his new fine-dining Chinese restaurant, Taste Paradise. It would be 10.30pm by the time Mr Fung finished work and, during the meetings over coffee that followed, the young entrepreneur would try to court the expert chef, but to no avail.
Mr Chua's young age was a disadvantage - the chef had reservations about his experience in the restaurant business.
Eventually, he had to show Mr Fung - and other key staff for his business - his bank account to convince them.
"I was young, and it's not as easy convincing people to come on board compared to if you are mature and successful," said Mr Chua, who turns 35 this year.
Then, the bachelor owned only one zi char stall in Defu Lane.
However, his persistence paid off. Mr Fung, who had taken a pay cut to join him, is now head chef of Taste Paradise and earns a five-figure salary.
Mr Chua, meanwhile, is chief executive of Paradise Group Holdings, which has 25 outlets here under seven restaurant brands. On the drawing board are more than 10 outlets in Singapore this year.
Paradise Group has two outlets in Jakarta, and is opening three in Kuala Lumpur this year. Other locations, such as Myanmar, Vietnam, Shanghai and Hong Kong, are also being explored.
An outlet in Shanghai is almost confirmed, and the group is looking for a location in Hong Kong, he said.
The group is targeting revenue of $75 million for the financial year ending in June, up from $50 million the previous year.
Mr Chua said: "I had the culinary experience for zi char style food. I got to know people and picked up my skills from seafood restaurants where I worked. But it was really tough initially. I really slogged my way up."
He started working part-time at McDonald's at the age of 13. By 16, he was juggling three jobs a day - working as a convenience-store assistant, a hotel banquet helper and a kitchen assistant at seafood restaurant Palm Beach - to earn extra money.
In 2002, his grandfather asked him to help manage his coffee shop at an industrial estate in Defu Lane.
He invested $10,000 in a modest 25-seat zi char stall there, which he named Seafood Paradise. He cooked and served dishes such as fried rice and noodles.
He would also wash the dishes and mop the floor after his staff left at 10pm, then hop onto his motorcycle to buy groceries early in the morning. He caught only three to four hours of sleep a day then.
"It was a very comical sight. The back and front of my motorcycle would be piled with boxes and boxes of vegetables and meat," he recalled.
By 2005, the eatery's popularity had grown, and it was then a 50-seater well known for its signature creamy butter crab. In 2007, the stall was converted into a 400-seat air-conditioned restaurant occupying the whole coffee shop.
In 2006, he set his sights on opening a more high-end restaurant. He was spurred to do so by a blunt remark by a friend, who had questioned his ability to run high-end eateries.
It hurt him and, when he reached home, he checked his cash position and began to make plans for a "proper" restaurant.
He opened Taste Paradise, which serves modern Chinese fare, in Chinatown in 2006. It has since moved to Ion Orchard.
He opened a second Seafood Paradise outlet at the Singapore Flyer in 2008, and started launching three or more outlets every year from 2009.
Now, he spends his days at meetings and frequently travels overseas for two weeks every month. He visits his restaurants to sample the dishes and speak to his chefs. He reaches home at 10pm and will be up clearing e-mail until 3am.
That is the price one pays for a successful business, said Mr Chua, sighing.
He rarely has time for family and friends. He makes up for it by calling his parents once a week and organising family holidays once or twice a year.
So, how did he succeed where so many others have failed?
"Hard work, luck and a bit of a golden touch - that is, having an eye for what customers want," he said.
While his journey has been filled with hiccups, he never thought of giving up what he feels is his livelihood.
"Never in my dreams did I expect to have this mini empire today. It's a miracle to me," he said.
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