Meet our January That Girl, Sharon Lee!
There are many badass female restauranteurs in the culinary world today who have levelled the playing field and shattered the ceiling and one of our favourites is the cheerful and humble Sharon Lee, co-founder of Kilo. With restaurants in Singapore and a newly-opened chain in Bali, Sharon is a powerhouse by any standard. Together with her partner in business and in life Javier Perez, this power couple have curated an unforgettable brand, a hearty menu and homely space that’s unlike any other. Read on for Sharon’s take on being a boss in the food and beverage industry, keeping perspective, and what’s next – including, ahem, a baby girl!
Hi Sharon! Tell us more about your background. What inspired you to get into F&B and open Kilo?
Hi Sassy! I was born in Singapore but moved away when I was 5 and have grown up in Toronto, Cebu & Orange County, California. My initial degree was in Accounting & Accounting Info Systems but I soon realised after working several years in investment accounting, that there was a different calling for me. I discovered that what I enjoyed most was people, different cultures and travelling. I soon found myself moving to Switzerland to pursue a second degree in International Hospitality. After completing an intensive management training program in the F&B department of the Peninsula Manila, I decided to try my hand at operating a small café in Singapore. When Javier moved to Singapore, we set our sights on creating a restaurant that felt like everyone’s second home. Our focus was on simple, tasty comfort food and friendly attentive service.
Tell us about Kilos’ décor. What was the though process behind designing it?
Throughout all our restaurants, we always believed in simplicity, yet playing into our surroundings. For Kilo Kallang and the Lounge, we wanted to use materials such as cement, glass and wood to accentuate the naturalistic décor. For the restaurant, we kept it open-air so that diners could enjoy the views of the trees and river from all sides. With Kilo Orchard, we had to take into account that it was situated in a shopping mall, yet there was an element of greenery that you can see from the main dining area. There we kept with natural materials as well – and designed the seating in mind with a quicker style of dining.
Kampung Bugis isn’t the most obvious place to open a buzzy restaurant. What about it, for you, made it the spot to set up shop?
Haha, it was definitely a more central location than our last restaurant, Raw. The appeal of Kampong Bugis was the natural surroundings of the park and the river. There was a certain serenity in this somewhat forgotten area of Singapore. The building that Kilo is in has a beautiful aesthetic appeal in its lofty spaces, warehouse feel, and unexpected charm.
Lots of people dream of starting a business with a significant other. How did yours come about and how has it affected your relationship?
Interestingly enough, Javier and I met studying in Switzerland – we were good friends but we were also paired together in our final project which involved setting up a small hotel business. We soon learned that our strengths and skills were very diverse from each other yet, it worked really well. When a real-life opportunity came about to start a business together, we drew from that experience. Javier is the creative, design oriented risk-taker. I am the behind the scenes, paper-pushing “how much will that cost” person. But what we both share is the love for people – whether it is making our guests happy or seeing our employees succeed. We have learned to trust each other to make decisions in our roles and remind ourselves constantly that our goal outweighs any small disagreements or obstacles that we may face. Through this, we have realised that we work better together – not only through business, but also in our relationship.
What has been the most rewarding things about starting your own restaurant?
Wow, it’s amazing – I really can’t see my life taking a different path. I love working in operations, I love seeing people enjoy themselves because of a space that we’ve created. I’ve met so many great people of such diverse backgrounds and personalities and I’ve worked with some of the greatest team members that fully support and love the company as much as we do. To be able to provide a place where both guests and staff can call home, that would be the most rewarding.
Which dish on the Kilo’s menu do you love the most? Why?
That’s tough. I go through phases. At one point, I was only eating seafood ceviche, at another, it was the seared scallops. Recently, it’s been the squid ink rice or the gnocchi. I’m sorry, I can’t just choose one.
Okay, down to business. It’s a customer’s first time at Kilo. What should she order?
I highly encourage sharing dishes – you get a little of everything! I would tell them to start with the ceviche or the tuna tartare and move on to the beef tongue tacos and seared scallops. Then it would be the ebiko pasta and the bbq pork riblets. Finally, to top it off, the lava cake.
We’ve heard about Kilo’s expansion to Bali – Congratulations! What made you decide to open up a restaurant there?
Thanks! Bali has changed so much in the last few years – the food scene there never ceases to intrigue me, whether it is the fresh local food to the finer dining style. The lifestyle there is very laidback and casual, the architecture/design is always intricate and pleasing, and the sun is always shining. Opening Kilo there felt like an ideal match.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I try to start my mornings as early as possible, which allows me time to work out, do some house errands and have a full breakfast. I make my way to our office where my team and I manage all our company’s Accounting, HR, Payroll and Admin. In the evenings, if I don’t stop by the restaurants, I find myself either catching up with friends or just putting my feet up at home.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
In the F&B industry, there is definitely no shortage of challenges! As the business grows, we find ourselves shifting from a more personal, hands-on approach to one that is focused more on training and developing managers/team members to take on various roles within the companies. The transition needs to be smooth and structured and the training needs to be comprehensive. More importantly, the company culture needs to be upheld and maintained through the whole organisation no matter our size.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by other women entrepreneurs who lead their own company and at the same time, be a mother and a wife. Women have so many roles to play in their lives and to be able to devote their life not just to work and family, but also to their own continued personal growth, that’s truly inspirational.
What are you looking forward to in the next few years?
Definitely, I am looking forward to meeting our baby girl (who is due in March!) and to the experience of parenthood and bringing up a child in the best way we possibly can. I’m also excited to plan the path for growth within our companies and restaurants. Singapore’s dining and entertainment scene has evolved and changed so much through the years and people are so much more open to new experiences and tastes.
Do you have any advice for aspiring #girlbosses?
Keep learning and improving yourself, always. We have endless resources around us that we can tap into. I strongly believe that there’s nothing that we can’t do if we put our minds and focus towards it.
Read every day. And always make personal time for yourself, whether it is as simple as getting up early and taking a quick jog around the neighbourhood or a quality coffee (or wine!) conversation with a friend, it works wonders on your motivation and your well-being.
Thanks so much for your insight, Sharon! You’re a real inspiration to all us Sassy Girls! Special thanks to the vivacious Shamsydar Ani Photography for the awesome images of Sharon!