Mr Bernard Allen Utchenik, better known as Bernie or Botak, is almost 70. The founder of the well-liked Botak Jones brand survived a heart attack in 2017, and had to close his Big Bern’s American Grill outlets due to the impact from Covid-19.
Still, the spirited man, who hasn’t consumed red meat for about 40 years, is bent on bringing back The Original Botak Jones to continue serving his iconic American comfort food with the help of his wife, Faudziah ‘Zee’ Mohd Ali.
“My wife takes care of all the running,” said Mr Utchenik, who gets around on a four-wheeled scooter now.
“I did go into the kitchen a couple times, briefly, to demonstrate some of the things that weren’t easy to explain on paper,” he told The UrbanWire over Zoom. “I’m still doing a lot of the marketing, a lot of the posts on Facebook are coming from me.”
When his new outlet at 118 Depot Lane opened on 14 June, it drew a long queue of customers immediately. Mr Utchenik had to announce on Facebook that the food was sold out by around 3pm. In other words – do not bother coming at dinner time until further notice.
“When we reopened as The Original Botak Jones, I [was] just totally overwhelmed by the response and the amount of people [who] thought that we had kind of hidden away somewhere,” he said, adding that reviving his Botak Jones brand helps as the public are familiar with the name and feel assured that he and his wife are still at the helm.
Before Mr Utchenik had his first taste of success with Botak Jones in 2003, he had experienced his fair share of business flops. The Detroit-born oil field worker opened his first restaurant, Bernie’s, in Singapore at the former Changi Garden condominium in the late 90s.
With the help of business partners, he started another restaurant at Boat Quay called Bernie Goes To Town, but it lasted for only about a year. When he looks back, he thinks of this venture as “a marketing success but a business failure”.
While he was disheartened, he got back on his feet and began working on Botak Jones, but thanks to his wife’s continual encouragement.
“Before we started it, if you went to a coffee shop, a canteen or hawker centre, Western food was called just that. Western food. There was no background for the people cooking it. So my mission was to let the average Singaporean taste what we grew up with in America,” he said.
Instead of choosing a location that is easily accessible for most Singaporeans, Mr Utchenik took a calculated risk of opening the first Botak Jones outlet in Tuas.
When he used to work at the shipyards in Tuas, he noticed that his colleagues didn’t enjoy eating local food. They would drive to the nearest Burger King branch at Taman Jurong for lunch instead.
That helped him realise that selling western food in an industrial area in the far west of Singapore was “a no-brainer”. He reasoned that there were bound to be workers in the area who prefer having Western food for lunch.
Mr Utchenik’s business partners went on to expand his brand’s reach to areas such as Clementi, Toa Payoh and Woodlands. Botak Jones had 13 outlets in its prime between 2007 and 2008.
But he said “things got very, very stressful” after a group of local businessmen bought a majority stake in his business.
“They were making changes without asking [for] any feedback. I was feeling further and further pushed out,” he recalled.
In mid-2013, Mr Utchenik and his wife sold the business. “I realised that as an entrepreneur, you do things because you want to see the fruition of an idea. All they [want] is a return on investment and that’s a huge gap to fill in to make it work,” he said.
Previously, Mr Utchenik had converted a Botak Jones outlet in Balestier into an American-style diner restaurant to open it as Big Bern’s American Grill. The restaurant, however, was not profitable and he had to close it in June 2011.
Just two to three weeks after leaving the company that he founded, Mr Utchenik decided to have a second shot at Big Bern’s American Grill. He and wife were determined to continue making a living from running a food business.
But the new brand never became as popular as Botak Jones despite having similar menus. And even after his former business partners folded the Botak Jones chain of outlets in 2015, Big Bern’s still didn’t take off in the absence of competition.
“[For] five or six years, a huge number of people didn’t even know that Big Bern’s was me, Botak Jones,” he shared.
Mr Utchenik closed his last Big Bern’s outlets at Timbre+ and Makansutra Gluttons Bay in April and May respectively as the business was no longer sustainable.
Many long-time patrons express their disappointment on Facebook over the closure. Little did they know that Mr Utchenik was already preparing for the launch of The Original Botak Jones with new business partners.
“For our business, being over a decade [old] this mark, we need to progress as if we are a new business and only respond after enough response shows us what to do.”
Long-time fans of Botak Jones are glad to find familiar items such as The Botak Burger, Cajun Chicken Platter and Double-Baked Cheese Potato on Mr Utchenik’s new menu.
Those who are looking forward to his popular Stuffed Jalapenos will have to wait until he has enough staff, time and space to make them, according to his Facebook post.
Edited By: Charlotte Chang