What will we eat next? A chat with Grain’s CEO Yi Sung Yong on their online restaurant’s journey to $50 million in revenue and impressive profitability

Written by
Content Team
Last Modified on
December 19, 2023

What does it take to change the game in F&B? For Grain’s founders, it started with a quest for convenience and personalisation that led to their groundbreaking business idea. With transparency at its core, Grain's ascent to serve over $50 million of meals is marked by a devotion to customers, relentless pursuit of product excellence, and a people-first approach. 

Testament to this, Grain ranked #1 for Singapore’s Best Customer Service 2023/24 (Catering, Restaurants and Leisure) in a survey conducted by The Straits Times and Statista – for the second year in a row. Grain also made the list for The Strait Times’ Singapore’s fastest-growing companies, as well as FT Asia-Pacific’s High-Growth Companies, and one of LinkedIn’s Top Startups. Their investors include The Lo & Behold Group, Openspace Ventures, Singha, X-Inc, Koh Boon Hwee and Cento Ventures. 

Aspire sat down with Sung to discuss Grain’s inception and journey, and their secret sauce for their rapid success.

Aspire: Sung, how would you describe your journey with Grain so far?

Sung: It’s been a heck of a journey! My co-founders and I started Grain in one of the first co-working spaces in Singapore called “The Hub”. The four of us come from very diverse backgrounds. One from management consulting, another was doing freelance software development work, and only one of us was a trained chef. When we got together in the beginning, we never really thought of ourselves as a F&B company. We were focused on solving interesting and meaningful problems, and it happened to be a F&B one – getting food you can eat every day to you in a click. 

Aspire: What were your potential solutions to this problem?

Sung: We explored several options. We looked at personalised subscriptions, we looked at on-demand healthy food in 30 minutes because we were serving the Central Business District area initially. It’s still a key revenue stream for us now as these clients want Grain for their lunches, board meetings, workshops, town hall and even weddings. 

Aspire: Is that how Grain operates now?

Sung: Essentially. It’s an online restaurant and caterer present in Singapore and Thailand with four to five brands, across both countries. 

Aspire: On the subject of Grain being an ‘online restaurant’, where did this idea start?

Sung: Grain started when we found ourselves asking the same question every single day: What do we eat today? We realised a lot of people faced the same problem too, so we decided to do something about it. The core idea is that by being online, we know who’s eating, when they are eating, what they like or don’t like, and we can personalise and improve the food for everyone.

Aspire: Is that how you came up with the concept of a ‘full stack meal”?

Sung: Well, controlling the core supply chain of ordering, cooking and delivering your food helps us maintain tight control of our technology, production, and fulfilment. Grain makes it a point to own this entire process so that we can maintain the highest level of quality and can deliver a strong customer experience. 

Aspire: It’s definitely delivered. As a startup, Grain did achieve quick success, having served over $50 million of meals, which is no small feat in Singapore. What do you and your co-founders attribute to this rapid success? 

Sung: We were unprofitable for a long time. Sharing the same investors as Grab, Gojek, Redmart, we ran the venture-backed business mainly focusing on rapid growth. During COVID-19, we died multiple times. It was a horrifying experience as we had to revamp the business multiple times. There’s a saying that describes running a startup as “jumping off the cliff, and then building a parachute before you hit the ground”. It’s true. Few things that worked well for us on our journey — one, we focused on transforming with our customers’ needs throughout, that’s how we started with B2C and entered B2B. Two, we really love and care for the people we work with, and want everyone to succeed in their own way. Three, we only build products that we would love using ourselves. Or eating in this case. 

Aspire: A business’ first objective is always revenue and profit, but we’re starting to see other enterprises in the last few years set goals that transcend revenue and profitability. For Grain, how important is it for you and your co-founders to implement goals and objectives that go beyond the traditional bottom line?

Sung: Internally, we often talk about this concept of people over product over profits. First, focusing on the people we have at Grain, who will help us build a great product, which will help generate healthy revenues and profits. This should give you an idea of how we think about things here at Grain. That said, it’s essential that business fundamentals, specifically profitability, is something you design into the business from earlier days – we made a lot of near-fatal mistakes when we chose to grow too fast. I’m very glad that after transforming the business in the past few years, Grain sets the standard for profitability now in F&B with high double-digit profitability. 

Aspire: Trying to keep such a thriving business well-oiled must be challenging when you have 4 co-founders to drive alignment with, how do you ensure you’re all on the same page when it comes to the company direction?

Sung: We’re a very open company. That extends to us founders as well. We put all thoughts on the table, and we have healthy debates and discussions. We go back to a very principled way of thinking. If we align, that's great. If we don't align, we also follow a principled thinking that lets us move forward without 100% alignment, as long as we’re all facing the same general direction. 

Aspire: One final question. What's next for you and your co-founders either professionally or personally?

Sung: The next 12-24 months, we are laser sharp on perfecting our existing products, processes, space and everything else we are doing. We want to just have fun now. We want to be in a place where we love everything in Grain and have a machine that will keep on growing and improving.

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