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52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG: Week 27 with Nasen Thiagarajan, CEO of Harry's International

Harry's CEO Nansen

Welcome to Time Out Singapore's 52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG – our commitment to showing you the best of what's going on in the city this week. Every Monday, a guest writer who's "in" with the scene shares a recommendation on what to see, eat, do or buy in the city. This week, we chat with Nasen Thiagarajan, a proud Singaporean and CEO of Harry's International, Singapore's largest chain of bars that was founded in Boat Quay in 1992. Here’s what he thinks about the F&B scene in Singapore, where he hangs out and what gets him excited about our city.

What gets you excited about Singapore?

Singapore is modern, clean and green. In addition, Singapore is safe and has good infrastructure, making it convenient to travel with accessible public transport. Despite being a 'concrete jungle', Singapore has a lot of culture and heritage waiting to be explored – from its historical buildings and multi-racial identity to the growing food and arts scene. 

What are your feelings towards Singapore's F&B scene?

The Singapore F&B scene is very vibrant. Singapore is a cosmopolitan city with such a diverse culture, and we are exposed to many cuisines and offerings. I love the fact that more locals are dining and drinking out in the recent years. This, coupled with the increasing number of tourists, constantly re-shapes the patron scene here. We are constantly adapting to meet the demands of this changing landscape. Our current strategy is to highlight familiar Asian tastes in some of our food and drink options, such as with our bandung cino cocktail with rose and cream added to a vodka base. Our Asian palate selection includes a seafood spaghettini mee goreng stir-fried with a generous helping of tiger prawns, squid and snapper.

How can we make things better?

Modernisation is not always the answer, retaining important parts of Singapore's history and culture is key. We need to stay relevant and change with the times, and not lose sight of what consumers want. We need to find the right balance between automation and maintaining the human touch, especially in the F&B sector. Improving our level of service is key for us!

What are some of the challenges you face in your role?

Firstly, keeping up with technology is getting harder as more solutions are constantly being created. Researching and testing these solutions take up a lot of time and finding a suitable solution for the business can be challenging. Secondly, manpower can also be a challenge for most F&B businesses. Not a lot of locals want to work in this industry and there are strict laws imposed on the number of foreign workers we can hire. Therefore, retaining talent within our business is crucial. This is a great challenge because not every company pays the same. For instance, a waiter from an SME establishment can move over to the bigger listed or I.R. establishments and get a 20% to 30% pay raise for the same scope of work. This is something we can’t change. What we can do, however, is to invest in programmes that align our employees with to our company’s vision and provide them with opportunities to upgrade of their skills.

How do you keep things interesting for consumers?

We are a 26-year-old brand. With the ever-changing landscape of the F&B scene as well as consumer preferences, we constantly need to ensure that the brand is still relevant. After reviewing our menu last year, we decided to introduce new offerings like Asian dishes to reinforce Harry's as a true-blue Singaporean brand with authentic local flavours. We also restructured our beverage menu and brought craft beer to the table to target the younger consumers.

Aside from your own restaurants and bars, where do you usually hang out?

If I do find the occasional time, I hang out closer to home in Serangoon Gardens or Seletar for a cold beer. The neighbourhood or heartland spaces are fast becoming populated with good F&B offerings so I try to spend more time there. I particularly enjoy having a cold beer at The Summerhouse located in Seletar Aerospace Park as I love the greenery and colonial feel of the venue while my kids run around freely on the grounds.

What are you excited to do in Singapore this week?

I'm bringing my family to the Singapore Night Festival and we are looking forward to its awesome display of lights, arts and heritage showcase. It was excellent last year and I reckon can only get better this upcoming week. Hopefully, the weather holds up for all to enjoy!

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