Botak Jones founder Bernie explains why working in the restaurant business is an “addiction”


Bernie Utchenik with his signature Cajun chicken. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

SINGAPORE – “It’s an addiction,” laughed Bernie Utchenik of the food and drink industry, “in the sense that it’s a ‘terrible’ job”.

“You work harder than anyone [who is not in the F&B industry] might even think. You’ve certainly put in some odd hours. You miss all the holidays, birthdays, things like that. “

Utchenik, who turns 69 this year, is the man who opened Botak Jones in 2003, the popular western food stall chain with large portions and unique offerings. After leaving Botak Jones, he started another chain called Big Bern’s American Grill, with outlets at Timbre + and Gluttons Bay (they also had an outlet in Toa Payoh in 2017), before closing it earlier. this year.

Today he reopened Botak Jones as “The Original Botak Jones”, at a cafe in 118 Depot Lane, with many return favorites on the menu such as his fish and chips, chicken soup and cheese. . Cajun chicken.

Fish and Chips (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

Fish and Chips (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

On why F&B is addictive, Utchenik had this to say. “There is very little, outside of the stage or the restaurant business, that gives you a very immediate response to what you are doing. I had the chance to experience this both on stage and in the kitchen. It hits you like few things can, so you tend to want it again. It’s a high that you keep getting. “

On the scene? Utchenik is a man of many talents, it seems.

He used to stay in Malaysia, where he met a dear friend who performed in the same pub as him. When Utchenik moved to Singapore (he was then in the oil industry), his friend, who had also moved here, called him on stage. “Oh my gumbo babies, come over here and sing a song with me!” his deceased friend would say. This is how he started singing in Singapore.

Cajun chicken burger (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

Cajun chicken burger (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

Utchenik’s adventure in the food business began with a group of close friends he had made in the oil industry.

“I thought at the time I was getting old. But I was actually in my forties, he laughed. “And we were always talking about what we would do if we weren’t in the oil business. One of the things was that we would like to bring the real food that we grew up with here, where people didn’t really do it. ‘experience it. “

In 1996, this seed germinated in a place called Bernie’s, located across from Changi Prison. Utchenik quickly expanded it to three outlets and eventually ran the business full time.

After trying another business at Boat Quay in 1999, he finally got his idea: Botak Jones.

Chicken okra (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

Chicken okra (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

“I don’t know why I came up with the name, other than being a botak,” Utchenik smirked, pointing to his bald head. “But I thought Jones is such a western name. And it has other meanings, like if you have a ‘jones’ for something, you need it.”

As a result, Botak Jones has both local and western influences in the name. “Besides, you want people to go out and get food, good food.”

The original Botak Jones at Depot Lane.  (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

The original Botak Jones at Depot Lane. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

The Original Botak Jones opened on June 14, 2021 – right in the middle of Phase 2 (High Alert), when meals in grocery stores weren’t allowed and restaurants struggled. This presented its own set of issues, especially for a fledgling F&B brand.

“The challenge is to have a launch without dinner,” Utchenik said with a laugh. But even under such circumstances, the opening saw long lines and the food ran out by 3pm.

“We are totally overwhelmed with the response. There have been so many people who sent their support and wishes,” he said ahead of the launch. “I didn’t think our brand was remembered so much as it had been a long time since I had been involved with the Botak Jones brand.

But the good thing is that the Depot Lane cafe has a lot of seating capacity because it used to be an industrial canteen. So when things get back to normal, they’ll be ready.

Queues on the first day.  (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

Queues on the first day. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

So what does the founder of Botak Jones think about all of this?

“One thing that comes with age is moderation in expectations. At least for me it is. So it’s more like that, expectations were pretty low, but my hopes were pretty high,” explained Utchenik. The first Facebook posts before launch experienced an overwhelming and unexpected level of virality,

“I know when we were Botak Jones a long time ago we touched a lot of people. And trust me, we felt it ourselves. We felt their love, we tried to give back as much as possible. I hadn’t realized how many people had grown up with the brand, and so many people now, they’re in their 20s and 30s, were toddlers and teens when they first started eating Botak Jones food. So that’s something that’s very strong in their minds, ”he said of the Botak Jones nostalgia factor.

A candid photo of Bernie.  (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

A candid photo of Bernie. (PHOTO: Bernie Utchenik)

For those who are interested in entering the F&B industry, Utchenik has some great tips.

“Don’t do it! You’ll spend your whole life doing something that a lot of people won’t enjoy,” he joked.

He went on to share that a strong fire, dynamism and passion are needed for those entering the restaurant business.

“[Being in] F&B has to be something you can’t live without. If you don’t have that feeling after trying it, then don’t. You will be doing yourself a disservice, you will not be doing your customers a favor, because you will not be able to meet their expectations, ”he advises her.

The Original Botak Jones is now open at 112 Depot Lane from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is closed on Tuesday.

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