Luxury retail veteran Manoj Murjani loves his chicken rice so much that he used to order the dish on his flights back from overseas trips to Singapore. The Hong Kong-born businessman, who recently became a Singapore citizen, says: “Singapore is my home and I missed the taste of home so much. In the 1990s, my then-girlfriend-now-wife and I used to love going to Chatterbox in Mandarin Orchard for chicken rice dates.”
This insatiable love for Singapore food has spurred Murjani, who is the CEO of luxury and lifestyle company Group MMM, to delve into the Singapore food and beverage scene. He is best known as the co-found and former CEO of luxury tea brand TWG. Over the past five years, he has partnered and developed home-grown food brands such as Singapore-Peranakan restaurant chain Violet Oon Singapore and confectionery chain Janice Wong Singapore. Recently, he has also set up Singapore Tea & Coffee Company.
The debonair businessman, who is known for his consummate elegance, is often photographed in sleek suits. However, Murjani is dressed casually in a button-downed navy blue T-shirt and jeans, as he joined The MICHELIN Guide Digital for lunch recently at the fifth and largest outlet of Violet Oon Singapore at Jewel Changi Airport.
At 3,800 square feet, the restaurant incorporates different elements from various outlets of the chain, which serves Singapore and Peranakan dishes by Singapore cooking doyenne Violet Oon. The menu includes grilled meat and satay, and Hainanese dishes, which are key staples in Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill and Violet Oon ION Orchard respectively. About 30% of the dishes in the Jewel outlet are vegetarian, such as the Nyonya Popiah Party set, barbecued eggplant with sambal and Sate Lilit (minced meat satay) that is made with the plant-based Impossible meat.
Violet Oon Singapore May Expand Overseas Next Year
Like in the flagship at ION Orchard, there is a retail corner in the Jewel outlet that sells more than 15 types of cookies, sweets and kaya spread. Murjani is far from being done with his plans for Violet Oon Singapore, which he co-manages with Oon and her children, Tay Su-lyn and Tay Yiming. Murjani is capitalising on the huge influx of tourists at the Jewel outlet, which is “a test of international waters” before venturing overseas next year. Possible cities on his radar include London, New York and Hong Kong.
Murjani is not in a hurry to take the brand abroad. In fact, it took the chain two years to set up the processes and infrastructure, such as a central kitchen to prepare the ingredients and sauces, and the bottling system. He adds: “We have also sourced various ingredients that are used in our signature dishes from London, New York and Asia to see how they match up in terms of flavours.”
Ramping Up Retail Plans
For the Violet Oon Singapore’s retail line, the astute businessman shares that the range is currently 10 to 15% of what he envisions. Later this month, the chain will launch its series of jams in flavours such as pineapple, calamansi and guava. A chilli sauce that has been tailored to pair with chicken rice, soya sauce and sambal is also in the works.
Ramping up Violet Oon Singapore’s retail offerings is part of his global expansion strategy. Drawing the analogy of the ubiquitous salt and pepper shakers on every dining table in Western restaurants, he hopes to create his version of the Asian equivalent of these condiments — chilli and soya sauces. He says with a chuckle: “Growing up, I remember how these sauces were decanted and poured into fine porcelain ware on the dining table at home.”
He adds: “Having a retail line allows the brand to be in overseas locations overnight, be it Le Bon Marché in Paris or Fortnum & Mason in London,” he adds.
On sharpening his focus on brands that revolve around Singapore food, he says that Singapore food has a potential to go global. He says: “People always miss and yearn for food here whenever they are abroad. There is a distinct quality of Singapore food that people around the world can relate to.
Having lived in Hong Kong, London and New York, Murjani is putting his “international palate” to good use by being involved in deciding which dishes make the cut, together with the Oon and her children. He shares: “We tweaked the Hainanese pork chop six times and some dishes needed a touch of lime to lift the flavours up.”
“When people eat something good, there is a sparkle in their eyes. Walt Disney does it with fireworks on a castle. For me, I do it with the palate.”
Over the past four years, Violet Oon Singapore has blossomed from a family-run restaurant into a brand. He explains that the focus of running the restaurant is more operations-based, in which “people come for the chef”. He adds: “When you become a brand, it's more than just filling up spaces; you need to build up a strong team that is guided by strong brand principles and values with a stronger focus to deliver consistent flavours and ambience across the outlets.
He adds that an enduring success factor of the brand lies in the pull factor of Oon (right) herself, who was also a food critic, cookbook author and television presenter over the past three decades. He says: “Violet is an ambassador for Singapore food. She tells the history of Singapore and has met lots of people and heard many stories from food personalities throughout her career.”
Having a personality front a brand is critical to its success, according to Murjani. It is not surprising that both food brands under his charge are fronted by familiar faces in the Singapore food scene. Besides Oon, he has also tied up with local desserts chef Janice Wong in 2014 to develop the Janice Wong Singapore brand. It has since expanded to Tokyo and Macau. Last year, its products debuted in famed department store Harrods in London.
On co-creating brands with well-known personalities, he says: "When I create a brand, I already have a very clear vision in mind and from then, it depends on the timing and consumer environment how best to articulate the brand and then finding the right talent to complete this vision. At times, it interests me greatly to be able to nurture and grow specialised talent and to work alongside to evolve and elevate the brand to another level."
Murjani is taking a leaf out of his family’s business guidebook. His family runs a fashion empire, The Murjani Group, which has developed renowned fashion brands such as Gloria Vanderbilt and Tommy Hilfiger. He points out these fashion brands were also fronted and co-created with well-known personalities, who did not designed the collections entirely.
Growing up in a family of prolific entrepreneurs, his home was frequently graced by luminaries such as Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. On what he has picked up from rubbing shoulders with these famous figures, he reflects: “Being bold to believe that dreams can become a reality. These personalities have had tremendous courage to be themselves.”
That boldness seem to have rubbed from him, as he is further cements his family’s legacy while forging his very own success by building up well-established food and beverage brands here.
Murjani, who is also the sole shareholder of the Asian version of Great Taste, a fine food and drink award by the Guild of Fine Food, aspires to create culinary magic.
With a twinkle in his eye, he quips: “When people something good, there is a sparkle in their eyes and that’s when you know that you’ve touched magic. Walt Disney does it with fireworks on a castle. For me, I do it with the palate.”