Pope Jai Thai: Good Food, Good Service, Greater Cause

Social Entrepreneur Daniel Teh builds his empire of businesses, with a vision to employ and train people with special needs

Daniel Teh, social entrepreneur and founder of Pope Jai Thai restaurant, which provides employment opportunities to those with special needs.
By Aby Tirza

For many entrepreneurs, conceiving and building a unique business idea from the ground up is not easy. But the restaurant Pope Jai Thai is one of those rare, up-worthy businesses that have stood the test of time.

Some might know Pope Jai Thai, as one that serves good food and employs those with special needs. But how many are familiar with the restaurant’s brainchild, entrepreneur Daniel Teh?

Pope Jai Thai started in 2012, with the goal to provide employment opportunities to people with special needs, the physically disabled and the disadvantaged. About 90% of their workforce consists of beneficiaries from eight different groups.

Priding themselves in good service and good food made from scratch, Pope Jai Thai was awarded the President’s Challenge Youth Social Enterprise Award of the Year in 2017.

We sat down with Daniel Teh to gain insights on Pope Jai Thai and his other projects in the making.

How would you describe your background? What sparked your passion in helping beneficiaries?

I had a few brushes with the law as a teenager. It was during that time, I found out that there are many people who are discriminated against and I wanted to help them out.

For those who don’t know Pope Jai Thai, how would you describe the restaurant to them?

It’s a restaurant that is about bridging communities together and breaking down stereotypes behind special needs. We provide training and employment opportunities to different groups of beneficiaries, while serving good food.

The chopping boards at Pope Jai Thai were specially developed for the staff to make cutting food easier.

 

How did Pope Jai Thai begin? What are some concerns you had on raising this social enterprise?

Pope Jai Thai started out in a coffeeshop in Chinatown. We have since grown and expanded to a restaurant scale. Before starting out, I’d never worked with any of the beneficiaries even though I had a heart for them.

We build our own customised tools for the beneficiaries and we have to conduct our own research and development to do so. One of our inventions is our cutting board which makes cutting easier. Currently, we are looking into a new POS (point-of-sale) system to make cashiering easier, and into upgrading our watches to help beneficiaries better navigate cues.

One of the things we have to highlight is the financial restraints we have. We would like to expand our capacity but we need support to do so.

Menus at Pope Jai Thai. According to Daniel, most of their customers come because they heard good reviews of the food and not because it is a social enterprise.

What was important to you when you started out this business?

Our core business is about making good food at good prices. Our signature dishes are the Honey Chicken, Basil Chicken and BBQ Pork Collar.

Most of our customers come in because they have heard about our good food, not because we are a social enterprise. We have a steady loyal customer base.

It’s all about finding and meeting the needs of individuals. We saw that there was a social gap in employment that could be tapped on.

What did you feel were the success factors behind your business?

Resilience. I believe in creativity and not being quick to say no, especially when it comes to uncharted waters. We believe that our business model is sustainable as we tap into societal gaps, giving beneficiaries a way of life through employment.

Did anything change after receiving the award and media coverage? Do you think that there’s more that could be done in achieving your goals for your projects?

I actually didn’t know we were a social enterprise until we received the award! Our vision was just to help the marginalised and discriminated.

While there has been support, we feel like there could be more support and more people stepping up to give opportunities. We need more government support and more leasing opportunities to cope with the high rising costs.

We need more community partners to move forward and make our business more sustainable, such as social service organisations and non-profit organisations are welcome.

Pictures at the restaurant showcase the staff that serve the customers at Pope Jai Thai. The restaurant hopes to expand its capacity but needs support to do so.

What vision do you see for Pope Jai Thai in the future? Is it any different from the vision when you first started out?

It’s been the same throughout. It’s always been about inclusivity in action, [and] catering different things to different needs. I love seeing the long-term progress of our beneficiaries. We give them a chance at life, more than just an income.

Just to share a short story, I met a guy begging on the streets yesterday and I started talking to him to find out more about his life. He was trying to start afresh after many bumps in life, so I gave him a job on the spot as a kitchen staff.

Dish washing station at Pope Jai Thai; They label and simplify instructions in their kitchen to maximise functionality for their staff

Do you have any projects (beyond Pope Jai Thai) that you could elaborate on?

We currently have a diversified business model. We are considering a second location for Pope Jai Thai, which can’t be disclosed yet.

Tao Chew is an events company all about traditional Nanyang coffee.

PopeJai Cares is our social arm and we are currently running two programmes: Jumpstreet and Dine For A Cause.

Jumpstreet create opportunities for youth-at-risk and the underprivileged to showcase their dance skills. We get proper dance trainers to come in and teach them.

Dine For A Cause where we provide dining opportunities for our beneficiaries through a pay-it-forward scheme. We have since impacted 445 beneficiaries through it.

We are in talks to open a hair salon called PopeJai Cuts, where we cater each point of service to the beneficiary, such the visually impaired doing the massages.

For me, it’s all about staying grounded through giving back that is beyond just corporate social responsibility.

How would you define entrepreneurship for yourself? What three words would you use to describe your journey?

It’s a challenge. It’s a rollercoaster with no ending and the right attitude often has perseverance in it. I believe in “Never Try Never Know”.

My testimony is not [just about] sharing how strong and how far we have become, but also the vulnerability. We need more open opportunities to move forward and to never give up in the pursuit of our goals.

My three words are “Humble, Ownership and Accountability.”

Any advice to budding entrepreneurs who would want to start businesses like you?

I would say to start small. Gain experience and exposure first — test out your prototypes as much as possible and keep your cost margin low while trying to grow it.

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