Korean Food Entrepreneur Dominic Tan Tells A Story of Audacity, Innovation, and Heart

Korean comfort food chain Ajumma’s continues to flourish almost a decade after its inception — and there’s a new chapter coming up.
by Lyn Chan

Photo: Athirah Annissa

Restaurants emerge from a myriad of motivations — some driven by the enchantment of flavours and aromas, others by the profound human connections that food can kindle. For Dominic Tan, the impetus behind Ajumma’s was intensely personal, giving rise to a captivating tale that is as much about audacity as it is about heart, a narrative that defies convention and reimagines what’s possible when you dare to push the boundaries of convention. It’s a journey that traverses the complex terrain of entrepreneurship, where resilience and vision coalesce into something extraordinary.

A self-proclaimed rebel (“although I have mellowed”), Tan defied societal norms — as well as his parents — by forgoing a traditional university education in pursuit of his passion for the culinary arts and entrepreneurship.

Dominic Tan Ajumma's

Photo: Athirah Annissa

“My parents were not pleased, but I didn’t convince them of anything. I just did it my way,” he says matter-of-factly. “Both of them were working in big corporations at the time, and they saw the value of the experience working for someone more experienced. Even in the third year (that Ajumma’s was running), they were persuading me to get a degree.”

The soft-spoken 31-year-old grins sheepishly before confessing that he was a “naughty kid in school, the kind that almost gets expelled” — a hint that defiance has been a part of his DNA since young.

Taking the unconventional route was a gamble that paid off, laying the foundation for a venture that is thriving nine years later and in a fickle dining landscape where food trends can vanish as quickly as a fleeting Instagram story.

Early challenges

Dominic Tan Ajumma's

Photo: Ajumma’s

Still, the genesis of Ajumma’s was anything but a fairy tale. The initial years were marked by gruelling hours, hands-on commitment, and a steep learning curve. The resolute dedication to quality would become the bedrock of Ajumma’s burgeoning success.

The first Ajumma’s was at The Cathay. Opened on August 4, 2014, it was the chosen one amid contenders like the central business district, residential shophouses, and Cineleisure, partly for pragmatic reasons: The serendipitous inheritance of equipment from the previous tenant provided a significant cost advantage, allowing him to begin operations with a modest investment of only $80,000 which came from his parents and an angel investor.

“I was working 16 hours in the kitchen and in operations, and then going home and doing the paperwork, including food and produce orders, accounts, tax filing, and manpower applications,” he recalls.

Along the way, the possibility of failure plagued him at multiple points. “There are many stressful instances. At the start, I kept thinking about what we were going to do to avoid being in the red,” he says.

The high turnover within the food and beverage (F&B) industry also raised a troubling question: Was he managing the company correctly, or was it simply an inherent aspect of the business? “Hiring is so tough, and you don’t know whether you’ll pull through,” he shares, “but somehow you just do it.”

On top of Tan’s keen sense of the gap in the market for affordable yet high-quality comfort Korean food, his indomitable spirit proved to be the redeeming elixir through the headaches that accompany an F&B venture and the departure of his founding partner.

Bypassing university did hinder his progress, he concedes. To compensate, he sought knowledge from external outlets: “Since I didn’t study economics in junior college, I had to engage in extensive self-study to grasp how the world operates. I turned to resources like Khan Academy and YouTube, utilising anything that could assist me.”

The secret sauce

Dominic Tan Ajumma's

Photo: Ajumma’s

At the core of Ajumma’s success is a faith in the synergy of teamwork, says Tan. It is a principle that resonates on both personal and professional fronts. Tan’s parents have since transformed into pillars of support: His father’s seasoned insights gleaned from decades in commercial real estate and his mother’s human resources acumen have been invaluable assets.

At work, he credits the prosperity of his enterprise to his exceptional team. “They are dependable and passionate, they go all the way to ensure the business thrives,” he underscores. He acknowledges key individuals, like his operations manager, who has been with him throughout, along with a few other enduring managers.

But Tan’s role in the company’s achievements cannot be understated. When pressed for a response, he feels that his deep well of empathy, a quality he believes to be of utmost importance, is his unique contribution to the chain’s success. “Trying to understand someone, and see if you can remedy the situation or if you can help them improve is always my preference,” he says.

Yet, he acknowledges the intricate challenges that can arise from his inclination to be highly empathetic towards his staff. Tan is honing his ability to deftly balance empathy and resolve. His commitment to offering second chances, rather than swiftly resorting to termination, demonstrates his dedication to cultivating a harmonious and disciplined team environment — a critical underpinning of Ajumma’s’s growth.

From ambition to expansion

It is with this philosophy that he will lead the company to further expansion. A few years ago, he said that he aspired to own 10 Ajumma’s eateries. He is now at five and has “plans for another one to two, end of 2023 and next year”.

What ignites his enthusiasm at the moment is his latest creation: A craft makgeolli bar called Odem at 46 Kim Yam Road. Tan, who has a fondness for makgeolli, delves into the history of the traditional rice wine once favoured by royalty, and its contemporary resurgence in South Korea. Throughout his visits to South Korea in the past year, he has explored craft makgeolli bars and retailers in anticipation of Odem’s grand opening in 2024.

Revealing his departure from the down-to-earth pricing of Ajumma’s, he has set his sights on a price range of $80 to $100 per person for Odem. While the star of the show will undoubtedly be the craft makgeolli selection, the refined food menu promises to tantalise with superior cuts of meat and fresh seafood.

Amid his discernible excitement, he discloses with a rueful smile that his parents aren’t thrilled. “When I told them about the bar, they asked: ‘Why?’” He exposes their desire for him to ease up on work. “But that’s not me, lah. I’m very itchy backside; I need to keep doing something.”

Local humour aside, it becomes clear that Tan isn’t just building a restaurant empire; he’s shaping a legacy. In an industry known for its transience, he serves as a testament to the timeless values that truly matter: courage, innovation, and heart.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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