It’s hard to miss Norman Hartono in a crowd. How can you when he flaunts a serious handlebar moustache? “I grew it out for Movember last year,” he explains with a laugh. “I held a competition among the Dancing Crab staff to grow the most impressive or longest moustache and the winner would get a prize from me. So I had to grow mine out too, since I was getting all my guys in on it.”
“Not many saw it all the way through. They’d grow it for two weeks then they’d shave. And people wonder why Asians can’t grow a moustache,” he says.
Rather than being content with being a hair above the rest, the third-generation restaurateur decided to see just how long he could go without shaving his upper lip. One month turned into three, four…and before long he had trained the whiskers into a full-on handlebar.
“And now I’m breaking stereotypes that Asians can’t grow a moustache,” he quips.
Granted, we’re talking facial hair, but it’s also a mark of Hartono’s determination and drive once he’s decided to see something through. It is this conviction that has seen the 28-year-old rise up the ranks of Tung Lok Group, a restaurant business founded by his grandfather, starting as a part-time waiter when he was 16. Looking back on his early experience, which included breaking his fair share of dishes and glasses, he says: “I learnt that the hard part is not about breaking things, it’s getting over the shock. I learned how to not freak out, stay calm and just do my job.”
But joining the business, was not something the family ever expected of him. Rather, he fell into it naturally.
A foodie since childhood, he recounts being brought along by his parents when they dined out, whether at the group’s restaurants, such as Charming Garden (which has since closed), or at other eateries of the day. “My parents would always give me some weird dish and I’d have to eat it,” the eldest of three shares, adding that as with any other kid his age, he would have preferred McDonald’s or A&W. “But I’m glad this was how I was raised. Consciously, I learnt how to appreciate food and the ingredients that go in it; whether this sauce goes well with that, or whether it was even necessary or not.”
By five, he was already a critic, voicing his disapproval when he witnessed his mother dipping everything she ate in chilli sauce. “She said: ‘Eat this with this chilli sauce. It’ll taste nicer.” But I said: ‘No, the flavours will clash.’” he recalls with a laugh. “And my uncle [Andrew Tjioe] was like: ‘Wah, how do you know these things?’ And I was really proud of myself. I knew what my uncle did, and after I got that approval, I thought: Nice, I have a future in the company.”
By university, the path in front of him was quite clear. Then in the US, and considering transfering to the University of California, Irvine — where he later graduated with a degree in International Studies — he even took a year off to pursue a management internship at Tung Lok. Post-graduation, he hit the ground running. “By then I was 24, 25. I didn’t want to waste any more time and get straight to work,” he says. “My end game was always to come back to Singapore anyway.”
His first role within the company was as a marketing manager tasked to develop a dining concept revolving around crabs. Taking inspiration from his own favourite eateries in the US, such as the Cajun-style Boiling Crab and The Kickin’ Crab, he thought the idea of a seafood diner could take off in Singapore. “When you talk about crabs or seafood, I’d usually go to these kinds of places in the US where I was going to school,” he shares. “What we’re doing [at Dancing Crab] is taking American comfort food that is a relative to Cajun and Creole cuisine, and taking the bits that could work in Singapore and importing the ideas here.”
And take off it did. Since opening at the Grand Stand in April 2014, the brand has grown by leaps and bounds, with three outlets and a fast food iteration opened in Singapore alone. Regionally, Dancing Crab has two outlets each in Indonesia and Japan, and plans are well underway to open another outlet in Fukuoka — “a franchise that we’re opening with a local partner” — as well as in Beijing by the end of the year.
Focused on creating dining concepts that people enjoy, and franchising them internationally, Hartono also conceptualised Lokkee. A Chinese diner, it repackages what we know and love about Chinese food in novel ways to reach out to his millennial cohort. Hartono explains: “Chinese restuarants are where we go to with our families for reunion dinner or birthday celebrations with the grandparents and what-not. So Lokkee aims to make Chinese food relevant again.” As part of the concept, the dishes are served Western-style, similar to popular eateries in cities including Melbourne, Sydney, Los Angeles and New York.
Most noticeable is that every dish is Instagram-worthy. “The older generation doesn’t take out their phones as much as younger diners, who need photo proof of what they eat” he observes. This is why Lokkee presents its dishes in a way that leaves a mark in your memory, whether physically or digitally.
Now general manager of Tung Lok, Hartono also develops trendy visual concepts for Lokkee, Dancing Crab and the group’s other restaurants.
With his aptitude for design — he was president of his school’s Design Club and also interned as a graphic designer while at university — he relishes in putting his creative skills to work. “For Lokkee, I provide the art direction and curation of the artwork inside the restaurant,” he says. “Right now, I’m just starting to develop my own art for Dancing Crab and I’ll be collaborating with artists on designs in the restaurants as well.”
Scrolling through his phone to show a few interesting design pieces he’s done up to adorn the interiors of Dancing Crab, which took him 12 hours to complete, Hartono shares: “I’m going to try to make these into posters, like vintage posters and silkscreen printed black and white on recycled paper, and find a place to put them in the restaurants. I hope to put them up by the end of the year but there’s a lot more to do. This is a whole series and I only have four.”
From his attention to even the minutiae, it’s clear that Hartono is driven by passion. But even then, there is no escaping the responsiblity he’s felt since his days as a part-time waiter, of holding himself to a higher standard just because he is a member of the founding family. “It’s that added pressure of performing and people looking at you because they know [I’m family],” he says. “And we’re a publicly liable company as well. We have to show that we can really work on the ground and that we’re interchangeable.”
This is why he not only sees the merits in working a frontline position within the company, but also enjoys it. “I still personally respond to customer complaints all the time. If you see a complaint on Facebook, I’m the one replying to that,” he shares. For Hartono, the joy is in the hands-on experience of “getting dirty in the trenches with the guys”.
“It gives not just an added sense of responsibility but also a purpose to be a better person for others,” he says. “They look up to me for something and it’s best that I don’t do anything to compromise that respect.”
But given the demands of a family business, does that mean work never ends? “In a way, yes,” he admits, though the work is rarely mundane anyway, he adds. “Work should feel like a part of your lifestyle. That way, it’s easier to be passionate about things — that’s when you produce the best results, when you don’t feel like you’re working.”
That said, there’s also a need to pursue other passions outside of work, in order to “have normalcy of life” and “find perspective”, he adds: “I still find time for recreational activities, like put on a movie, play computer games or go out with my regular group of friends.”
His latest craze is collecting World War II relics, a hobby that stems from his long interest in wartime history. Among the artefacts he’s amassed are military medals, hats and helmets from all around the world. As it is harder to find such pieces in Asia, he makes it a point to visit online auctions regularly, researching each piece and its historical significance before purchasing.
During his last Europe trip, he also spent four days in Normandy, the site of the largest amphibious invasion in history. “It was quite amazing to actually be there on Omaha beach, where 3,000 people died on that one stretch,” he says. “After you’ve stepped in the physical place, then you watch the documentaries and read the books, it feels completely different.”
With all his other interests, it’s hard not to wonder if Hartono will one day decide to do something else other than the family business. “If I had the time, I wouldn’t mind,” he says. “But for now, my full focus is this.”
And that means growing Dancing Crab as a brand, so that one day, it will be ready to make its debut in the US, ready to give authentic Cajun eateries a run for the money. “We’d like to go back to the States to compete with the people that we learnt from,” he reveals. “That way, we can take our branding to a whole new level and cuisine — that we’re not just making Cajun food that Singapore people like, but we’re making Cajun food that Americans like too.”
“I think that’s when we’ll have succeeded as a brand.”