It's a bit of a stereotype that all Singaporeans are obsessed with food, and my family leans hard into that stereotype. Our mealtime conversation almost always includes discussing what else we ate recently, what we're going to eat next, and what we heard about that we should eat at some point. So I was completely unsurprised when my parents finally decided they were going to open their own Singaporean eatery; my mum often cooked special treats for Canadian Singaporeans who missed home-style Singaporean food but with a home kitchen there were only so many people she could feed, so the obvious solution was to convince my dad to take on a new adventure into the food and beverage industry.
Since I have no culinary skills worth mentioning, I happily took on the branding and general design for the restaurant. As with any project, the first thing I needed to understand was what the clients were envisioning:
Something homey and comfortable
Something nostalgic and reminiscent of Singapore, but nothing too kitschy
Not too fancy, more kopitiam* and less atas*
*(Kopitiams are neighbourhood open-air coffee shops, and atas is a Malay word frequently used in Singapore to describe something high class and a little bit snooty)
Let's get visual!
I began with a wordmark, as we needed to get a website up and a logo of any type would help provide a strong touchpoint for every other design component. After going down a bit of a rabbit hole of fonts, I settled on Verveine by Dalton Maag as a base, and got down to the tweaking.
After a bit of a family brainstorm, we'd decided on the name Shiok, which is a very versatile Singlish word used when something is really fantastic. Because it would be an unfamiliar word for most people in Vancouver, I wanted to include a little food-related icon in the wordmark to help build the culinary association, but at the same time it couldn't be something too specific or so detailed as to become a bit of a blob at smaller sizes. In the end, the "o" in Shiok was transformed into a bowl of... something.
With a few more iterations and some adjusting of the "S" to balance the rest of the word, we finally settled on the final logo with a little footed bowl of rice. This meant I could now design business cards with a little Peranakan-style repeating border pattern to use with suppliers and contacts, which was also an enormous amount of fun to imagine up.
I also did some delicious market research into some of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver to figure out what was necessary in a website, and quickly put together some messy sketches for what needed to go into a simple single page website for a small family restaurant. And then I made an even more basic version so that we could have an interest-checking placeholder up in place at shiok.ca while my mum iterated on her ever-growing menu.
In the end, of course, the current site is now only a vaguely related cousin of the original plan, as the purpose of the site shifted a little from an online menu to somewhere customers could place orders and learn more about our covid measures.
Getting ready to open our doors
An unexpectedly fun part of helping out with Shiok lay in getting the interior design sorted out as well. The commercial space we were moving into needed to be fully renovated, which also meant I got a say in every single aspect of what the customers would see, from the walls to the flooring all the way up to the ceiling. Because it would be very expensive and very difficult to make any changes once we were properly open, I started doing even more delicious research, visiting lots of restaurants and paying close attention to all their interior design choices and their customer flows and menus and dishes and so on. (To this day, every time I visit a new restaurant I still pay particular attention to their ceilings and their toilets...)
While my mum worked on refining her menu and our long-suffering contractor worked on getting my vaguely pseudo-Peranakan tiles, raw edge wood counters and bench backs, and complicated wooden ceiling fixture built and put in place, I started plotting wall and window decor and hunting for Singapore-themed art to spruce up the bare walls.
As things started to get closer to done, we began planning for a few soft openings to do trial runs with family, friends, and then eventually some of our potential customers that had expressed early interest in our menu. The plan was to formally open to the general public at the end of May 2019, with a very limited menu that we'd slowly grow over time. Based on the amount of organic foot traffic past our windows, we were expecting a slow first few weeks.
And then, to our enormous surprise, Daily Hive picked up on our opening and posted a very kind article which resulted in an unexpected deluge of customers on our official opening day. Some of our very patient customers wound up waiting nearly 2 hours to order and receive their food, and we ran out of ingredients entirely twice, once during the lunch rush and again during dinner in spite of an emergency resupply run. All told, a very successful first day!
Where are we now?
Shiok is now well on our way to our 3rd anniversary, and so far we've weathered the Covid crisis relatively well. My mum has continued to experiment with new dishes and grow her menu, and my dad has settled very comfortably into his role as a friendly "uncle". Every year, my mum makes special Nonya bazhang (pyramid-shaped leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumplings) during Dragon Boat Festival season, and special pineapple tarts around Lunar New Year. Check out what we have on our menu now at shiok.ca!