They say to make success out of something, you need to start young. That was what Max Ahmad, the founder of The Halal Mixologist, did.
From selling Digimon and Pokemon cards to his secondary school classmates, to teaching tennis as a Junior College student, Max knew that he wanted to run his own business one day.
His interest in business spurred him to pursue a Business degree at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where he landed his first job at the Singapore Exchange Limited (SGX).
Little did Max know that this career path would soon change with a seemingly unassuming phone call. It turned out that a recruiter from Workforce Singapore (WSG) reached out to him for a job interview in the hospitality sector.
Max shared that he initially was not keen, given that he had already secured a job. Nonetheless, he decided to take a leap of faith. This chance encounter opened the doors for Max to enter the hospitality industry, where he worked with the Tourism department at WSG.
As a Senior Manager, Max worked closely with established industry partners and academies, notably Marina Bay Sands, and the Singapore Tourism Board. Through this experience, he not only learned from industry veterans but also honed his leadership and management skills, which will come in handy down the road.
Striking out on his own
Max knew that deep down, he still held onto his entrepreneurial dream, and it was just a matter of time.
At first, he dreamed of having his own themed boutique hotel while working with food on the premises. However, that also meant needing a large sum of money to be invested to launch and sustain the business.
Hence, Max decided to end his six-year stint at WSG and start small by opening backpacker hostels: Moni Gallery Hostel at Lavender Street, and The Shophouse Hostel at Arab Street—both of which required lower investment capital than hotels.
While managing his hostels, Max kept his gears running, coming up with new ideas that could bring something unique to Singapore’s hospitality industry. He turned back to his experiences for inspiration and remembered conducting meetings at hotel lounges and bars.
“As I do not drink alcohol, I felt a little out of place being in such places,” lamented Max, and added that he participated in celebrations with a glass of soft drink or juice to replace champagne.
It was also at that moment that Max noticed that the rooftop of The Shophouse Hostel was underutilised. “Why not make it a place that can generate revenue?” he said.
Coupled with a mission to create more inclusive wine and dining experiences, Max invested S$150,000 of his savings and converted the rooftop space into Singapore’s first halal bar, Atap Bar, in 2017.
He has also sold his two hostels to fully focus on his restaurants. As of now, Moni Gallery Hostel is still operating and The Shophouse Hostel has closed.
At this point, one might wonder how The Halal Mixologist is related to Atap Bar. To put it simply, The Halal Mixologist started as a marketing tool to promote the bar’s concept.
“What sets us apart from others is that we are a halal bar concept with a mission of bringing fun to halal. We believe in delivering a fun and wholesome experience while being inclusive.”
Max Ahmad, founder of The Halal Mixologist
Opening his halal bars was not a walk in the park
However, Max found himself getting off to a shaky start.
Despite his background in hospitality, Atap Bar was his first foray into the F&B industry. As a result, Max experienced many struggles, including licensing, leading up to the bar’s launch.
The scarcity of manpower is also a prevalent problem in the industry, as few harbour the desire to pursue a long-term career in food—an obstacle that Max was all too familiar with.
“It was very difficult to hire the right people, and one of the mistakes we made was hiring the wrong people who were not a good fit for the organisation.
While we are still facing this problem, we have managed to include a way to identify people who would buy into our mission and values in the selection process. Having a team that believes in your mission and the direction you are working towards is important.”
Max Ahmad, founder of The Halal Mixologist
Max added that as Atap Bar was located on a hidden rooftop, it was challenging for the business to gain a natural footfall. Fortunately, the bar gained traction amongst Singaporeans after a month of opening.
With a consistent stream of customers, The Halal Mixologist achieved profitability within seven months and broke even after a year of operations.
2018 was also a year of change for Atap Bar, as the bar temporarily occupied The Great Mischief, another cafe in Singapore for two months.
However, two months after the move, Atap Bar closed its doors, to the dismay of many loyal customers. Max revealed to us at Vulcan Post that the landlord wanted to increase the rental by 50 per cent, a cost he was not ready to bear.
Atap Bar’s closure did not discourage Max, as he continued to open more halal speakeasies: first with Wanderlost Bar in late 2018, and Fairytail Bar slated to open in April 2020.
But the businesses hit a sudden roadblock due to the COVID-19 pandemic, inevitably delaying Fairytail Bar’s opening. Max described the Circuit Breaker as a “difficult time” for his businesses, as dine-ins were prohibited.
Fortunately, post Circuit Breaker, both Wanderlost Bar and Fairytail Bar saw increased traffic as Singaporeans started to explore more within the country due to the travel restrictions.
Out with the old, in with the new
If 2020 was the year of change, 2023 could be described as a rebirth for The Halal Mixologist.
The brand decided to close another chapter with Fairytail Bar, as D’Hotel was slated for renovations. “I guess one lesson we can learn from this is that it is important to have control over the lease, so hopefully one day we will work towards becoming our own landlord!” joked Max.
Not willing to give up on the brand’s mission, The Halal Mixologist launched two new F&B establishments: Nauti Nauti, a poolside oyster bar; and R.I.B, which offers halal takes on Southern soul food.
The business also ventured into e-commerce with Mockohol, an online platform aiming to make premium halal bottled beverages accessible to the masses at their doorstep.
With the three fledgling businesses, one might wonder how Max balances them altogether.
He elaborated to Vulcan Post that social media engagement remains critical to promoting the brand. The Halal Mixologist has since implemented a loyalty programme with a reward point system that allows future customers to offset their future bills when they visit their outlets.
The Halal Mixologist’s one-of-a-kind bars and restaurants not only caught the attention of Singaporeans but also film and television giants United International Pictures and Hollywood for the live movie adaptation of the well-loved game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
For a month, Wanderlost was converted into a tavern reminiscent of the game, and a new menu of themed food and drinks was created. The bar also ran D&D games to commemorate the movie, which garnered much love from fans and new customers.
The Halal Mixologist offers new services such as mixology workshops and pop-up live bar stations to diversify their revenue streams further and hold youth development programs.
According to Max, the Youth Development Programs are the perfect platform for youths to get hands-on experiences working in bars and kitchens without handling alcohol. Through this initiative, he hopes to shape the future generation of the halal industry and attract more talent.
Despite all odds, The Halal Mixologist has evolved into a brand that champions inclusivity with their unorthodox halal F&B outlets and services. Looking forward, Max aims to solidify their businesses within the Singapore food scene.
Max also expressed his ambition to head upstream for his businesses, where he can develop his own production line and create his halal beverages, which he hopes will become a household brand in Singapore.
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Featured Image Credit: The Halal Mixologist