Emily Png is the co-founder of AndSoForth, a Singapore-based immersive dining company. Together with her partner and co-founder Stuart Wee, the pair has designed various immersive dining workshop experiences such as ‘Marie and the nutcracker,’ ‘Dinner in Wonderland,’ and their most recent adventure ‘Around the world in 80 days.’ The duo is now preparing to launch an immersive dining restaurant called ‘’Absurdities’.
“It’s been a whirlwind today, especially since we are preparing for the announcement at 4 p.m.” Emily said, as we connected over a Zoom call on May 31, 2021.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was to address the nation on the same day to lay out the country’s approach to tackling COVID-19. The announcement was important, especially for the F&B businesses and for Emily, which saw her business affected by the recent tightened measures to curb the spread of community cases in Singapore.
From May 16 to June 13, Singaporeans were not allowed to dine outside, and restaurants were only allowed to offer takeaways. The situation also posed a huge problem for AndSoForth, an arts company that relies heavily on onset experiences. The current measures meant that the team had to pause operations until further notice.
“There is just too much uncertainty for this year alone,“ Emily said. “We had been doing this for seven years, and launched the workshop experience ‘Around the World in 80 days right before COVID-19 hit. Call it luck, but it was only recently that many more people got to know of what we were doing because they couldn’t travel, and they were looking for a way to escape reality.”
It all started with the idea of supper clubs, where people could invite strangers to their houses and prepare food for them. As young working professionals, Emily and Stuart wanted to have an experience where they could broaden their circle and meet new people.
“During that time, my partner Stuart was working as a studio manager, and his boss brought the entire team to Abbey Road Studios in the UK,” Emily recalled. “Stuart brought me along, and I wanted to find out what I could do in London. That was when I came across an immersive dining experience named ‘Ginger Line.’ I loved the entire experience, and thought that instead of doing supper clubs, maybe producing an immersive dining experience will be more interesting in Singapore.”
With a blend of theater and food, the couple started to conceptualize a production that catered to the Asian audience. However, huge ideas often meant tougher execution too. Emily shared how their first few experiences were either a hit or miss, and how the execution only matured after seven years of constant experimenting.
“We had our very first experience at Lasalle, an art school in Singapore. We had a friend who was very kind to lend us the space for three Sundays. That first experience was very painful because we had to redo and tear down the setup each Sunday. Thankfully, we sold out all seats for the three shows, but it was a very steep learning curve. We realized that there were many operational details that we didn’t take note of, such as balancing the kitchen with the entertainment side. It was hard to serve the food timely, in conjunction with the scenario. We learned along the way.”
While the current experience ‘Around the world in 80 days’ has been running for a year, most of AndSoForth’s experiences usually last for three months. The founders wanted to bring as many new experiences to the audiences as possible, but this came with a high cost.
“This was one of the toughest challenges because essentially, we were renovating every three months. The setup cost is insane, so it was difficult to bring investors in because no one would do this. I always joke that our company is for profit, but we work like a non-profit. Whatever we earn, we pump it back into the next production, and the amount grows larger each time. It could range from SGD 50,000 to SGD 100,000 (USD 37,000 to USD 75,000). It is as if we are building our own monster.” Emily continued, “Honestly, we’ve only managed to break even recently because we decided to run our current experience longer than three months.”
I was really amazed at that. It takes a really strong heart to be able to invest that much capital, especially in the initial stages, where one has no idea how the turnout is going to be. “I don’t think I would be able to do that,“ I said to her.
While it took some time, AndSoForth eventually managed to attract a regular group of customers, who would spread the word for others interested in trying out a whole new dining experience in Singapore.
For a business that lies between entertainment and F&B, the challenges are endless, which intensified when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In accordance with the regulations placed out by authorities, the company had to cease any form of singing and reduce the time available for customers to eat at the venue. Instead of acting as characters, freelance actors now take on the role of facilitators to ensure that rules are being enforced while delivering the experience to the customers.
“When the pandemic started, we were considered non-essential services because AndSoForth is an art company. That was when we decided to step fully into the F&B industry and set up the restaurant Absurdities. Singaporeans love food, and the experience of being able to dine in different concept rooms was a fun idea. It was set to open recently, but with the current pandemic restrictions, everything has been put to a halt again.”
The journey for them has not been smooth-sailing, but their passion kept the business going. I wondered if there had been a time when Emily felt like throwing in the towel. Upon hearing my question about it, she laughed and immediately replied, “that’s every day.”
“It is a constant battle for me, every day. For example, even right now, I’m a little jumpy about the upcoming announcement to know if we might be able to start operations soon. We have so many customers to get back to because our tickets are non-refundable, which means they could only defer their visit. There are so many things to deal with, and it’s so draining that I feel like giving up all the time.”
“Sometimes, it feels as if it is never enough, but then, when we remember why we were doing this in the first place, it pushes us again. We just need to keep reminding ourselves and move on so that we can continue to create better experiences for our regulars and new customers.”
When asked about the positive side, Emily shared how the team has grown stronger and better at dealing with different issues. The need to constantly react and adapt has allowed them to come up with different ideas when they couldn’t operate. For example, when everyone had to stay at home due to the lockdowns, the AndSoForth team came up with a wacky version of “Late Night Bingo” over zoom call to continue engaging with customers. Experimenting with different ideas online has also opened opportunities for them to get corporate clients who look for a digital experience of ‘Around the world in 80 days’ workshop.
“If I were to use one word to sum everything up, it would be adaptation,” Emily said. “Many people think that it is easier because it is our own business and money, but there were also plenty of times whereby we had to live without an income for six months and more. We didn’t have any capital at all and had to hustle a lot. We just have to adapt and change accordingly. We need to do anything to survive.”
We managed to finish the interview right before the announcement of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. However, there were no precise indications on when restaurants would be allowed to welcome diners again, but only an assurance that Singapore is on track to easing tightened restrictions after June 13.
The road ahead remains unclear, but for businesses as unique as AndSoForth, tenacity and endless passion are the most essential skills for pushing them through hard times.