STRONGER TOGETHER: HOW GAN GUOYI MASTERED UNCONVENTIONALITY
A sense of ease and warmth emanates from Gan Guoyi as she speaks candidly with us on a quiet Monday afternoon. The last thing you might expect is for her to be co-owner of the Jigger and Pony group, which operates a half dozen food and beverage (F&B) joints including Humpback and Caffe Fernet. Their bars Jigger and Pony, Sugarhall, and Gibson have been consistently ranked on the prestigious Asia’s Best 50 Bars awards list. You also would not expect her to be one of the youngest female members who sits on the Gan Clan committee. But convention is so yesterday.
Hailing from a family of strong women where the mindset of adapt-or-die is preached and practised, it is plain to see why the Jigger and Pony group thrives under Guoyi and her husband Indra’s stewardship. But make no mistake — Guoyi is no ruthless businesswoman. From her businesses to her work in the clan, one thing is clear: it all boils down to family and community. This is someone who perfectly understands the meaning of kinship and unity.
Clan committee members tend to be senior, male clan members. What made you decide to serve on the committee?
I guess it’s a bit of both family and wanting to give back through my businesses. The first is that I’ve seen the effort that my grandfather and my aunt have made. My aunt is a very busy woman but she finds the time to contribute to the clan and it’s for no reason other than giving back. So much effort has been done to continue the clan, so for me, wanting to help out a little bit and contribute in my own way would be the next step, I guess. If not, tradition’s gonna end here.
Second, we’ve always participated in the Golden Treats initiative, where we host year-end dinners for the elderly. When we did the dinner, my ethos to the team was that it’s not just dinner: you’ve got to think of ways to interact with the guests and engage them. If it’s just dinner, it’s not fun since a lot of them don’t know each other. Our team learning to host and take care of the elderly also teaches them a form of empathy and how to be thoughtful to others. That’s exactly the type of personality that you need to have, especially in F&B, and I feel like we don’t have enough of that in Singapore.
There aren’t many women in clans even today. Why do you think this is so?
I think this probably stems from tradition. Men are usually the head of the family and they make the decisions. But because my grandfather passed away so young, my grandmother was the matriarch of our family and we centre a lot of things that we want to do around her. I see that as the key differentiating factor. For us, I think we tend to be a little bit different because the way our family is, and even the way the clan is run is a little bit less traditional. Within the Gan clan, we have a few strong female voices like my aunt and my granduncle’s daughter, so I guess our family has quite vocal women.
We are also very liberal. With my immediate family, my dad is the only male Gan with kids. And at the end of the day, the cousins are still Gans. If you want to continue the roots, you need to be inclusive. I guess the more modern you become, the more you lean away from a male-centric mindset. My cousin has two daughters and is expecting one more, so if women aren’t included, we can’t take a stronger step forward. My aunt is also very inclusive in that you don’t actually have to be a Gan to join the clan — not anymore. Because the truth is not many people are Gans, and ultimately, you want to encourage interest in heritage and where you’re from. If you’re a daughter from the Gan family, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be included.
Your establishments Humpback, Gibson and Flagship sit underneath the Gan clan premises. Why did you and your husband decided to open them here?
This place was always operated by F&B tenants but Bukit Pasoh wasn’t too favourable for F&B. The first tenant here that I recall was actually a karaoke joint: the whole street was just full of them. And when my aunt was trying to gentrify the Gan clan, it also meant trying to source for different tenants. When she heard that I was interested to start a business, this was the first place that popped up, I guess because there is that trust that if the tenant is family, then at least the building will be taken care of. Make no mistake, the Gans are still Gans and we pay market rent.
You don’t get a special discount?
Of course not! Business is business. If not, who’s going to sustain the clan? That said, when they come downstairs, I charge them full price. (laughs)
Your hospitality group is fondly termed the Jigger & Pony family. Can you tell us a little more about the familial culture you’re cultivating?
Our company’s mission since we started has always been to be a place in the community where people can find comfort, forge friendships, and share happiness. And this extends to both our customers and our team. I wanted to have an ecosystem where people could socialise, make friends, be spontaneous, and not have to plan to meet in advance. A place for people to go where there was always a friendly face. That, to me, was important.
And for the team, we started to realise that work is not a job, work is a career — it’s a place where you spend a lot of time. At the same time, you want to bring like-minded people together because then they will enjoy working together. Now that we’ve expanded, we’re trying to find more ways to integrate the teams with each other. For team gatherings, I try to encourage the staff to bring their teams to our sister venues and we support that by taking care of the bill for them, because we want to reduce the boundaries and have them just come and get to know the other teams. The older staff already do that, but the challenge is getting the new staff to do it because they will naturally feel hesitant. So the best way is to do it in groups. If the first time you meet someone is at the company dinner and you don’t see them for the rest of the year, you’ll never be close. So that’s how we try to develop the Jigger and Pony family.
And yes, we have departures, but my hope is that even when they leave, they’re still our friends — that’s how you extend your reach within the industry. I feel that if the company culture is strong, no matter where, if a person shakes or pours a certain way, or has a certain style of hospitality and service, you can tell they are definitely Jigger and Pony lineage — that’s my goal for the organisation.
To me, it’s about changing the industry: for it to be less of just a job and more of a career. Singapore doesn’t have a strong culture in F&B, unlike New York, London or Melbourne. In order for us to be at that global standard, people need to start seeing it as a career, and we have to help them understand how to get there. I think that also stems from your wanting to go to work every day. And that feeling I think only comes from when you’re enjoying the company of your colleagues, and therefore, your colleagues have to be like family.
The Bukit Pasoh F&B community is small. How would you describe the relationship you have with each other?
People think F&B operators are worried when another F&B operator opens up next to you because there’s competition. But to us, it’s always been that when you have more like-minded neighbours is when the area gentrifies and grows together. I’m really happy to have neighbours like Casa Poncho and Straits Clan because they bring the younger generation here as well. You start to see more youth, more life in the area. And I think that’s how it starts, right? Every day when I see takeovers or shops opening here, I always hope it’s a good operator because you can’t just be alone. You need like-minded people. The whole area is an ecosystem and if more people open up here, it’s great because it drives the traffic and community to this area.