We go behind the scenes at the latest F&B openings to find out the highlights and challenges faced.

12 years after opening a Western food stall along East Coast Road, Aston Soon, 46, now oversees an empire of multiple brands including ASTONS, Aji-ichi, Chic-a-boo, Javier’s, and latest addition MANLE, a buffet restaurant which serves Teochew porridge for lunch and hotpot for dinner.

We sat the CEO down to find out his inspiration for starting a hotpot restaurant and how far he will be expanding the brand beyond the two current outlets at Downtown East and City Square Mall.

How different is it going from one restaurant to a food empire?

From the operational perspective, we have to manage more people, more outlets, but the core values of ASTONS remain unchanged after 12 years. We still want to offer value-for-money, quality food, no matter which cuisine. I still come up with new ideas and recipes with the team. Though I’m not a chef by profession, I have a very big interest in cooking.

What are some of your favourite foods?

Even though I love to eat, explore new cuisines and develop new menus, my diet is very simple. It’s still wonton mee, fishball noodles and economy rice. I’m no different from the average Singaporean.

How did the concept of MANLE come about?

I have a soft spot for hotpot, and I have been toying with the idea of creating a value-for-money hotpot for a long time. I like the joy and vibrancy of a hotpot meal: when you enjoy the abundance of food, the lively conversation, and everybody participates in the cooking.

Do you have fond memories of hotpot?

When I was 16 or 17, I used to go to a place on Waterloo Street where the hotpot was only $7.90. The spread was really overwhelming and it was such good value. I also liked the hotpot restaurants at Dragon Village in Marina South, near the bowling alleys. Prices were about $12.90, $13.90, and you could eat to your heart’s content. The only drawbacks were the issues of cleanliness and the hot, humid environment. With MANLE, I want to give a good spread at good value, in a comfortable environment.

What challenges have you faced with MANLE?

All F&B places face manpower issues. We don’t plan to make MANLE a big chain—probably four or five outlets—because it’s quite heavily dependent on manpower. We may, however, utilise automation and technology in the future.

How do you ensure the longevity of your business?

To sustain ourselves, we have to keep up with modern times and understand our consumers. Ultimately, it’s what they want, not what we want to give them. And understanding them means constant innovation and reinvention.

What do you still wish to achieve?

How to turn ASTONS, a Singapore-born company, into a global MNC—I think that is the challenge for me. Hopefully one day when you visit Malaysia, Europe or anywhere in the world, you’ll see an ASTONS restaurant. That would be the sweetest and biggest achievement for us.