‘Botak Jones’ On Why He’s Reopening His Famed Western Hawker Stall After 10 Years
Bernie Utchenik sold his shares in the popular noughties chain in 2011.
Long before American burger chains like Shake Shack and Five Guys came to our shores, there was coffee shop Western chain Botak Jones. It was founded in 2003 by Bernard ‘Bernie’ Utchenik, 68.
The Detroit native, who became a Singaporean in 2009, made a name for himself serving hearty, generously-portioned ‘ang moh' hawker food. He’s also known for his magnificent bald head, from which sprung an iconic shop logo and name. Bernie had chosen Jones as it’s “a very common Western name”, and therefore easily identifiable.
His marketing paid off. At the height of its popularity in the noughties, Botak Jones had as many as 14 outlets islandwide. In 2011, Bernie and his wife, Faudziah ‘Zee’ Mohd Ali, sold their company shares to their business partners, who had invested in the brand and expanded it into a big chain. “The business came to a point where it was not something I had in mind,” Bernie tells 8days.sg. “Our partners were nice enough to allow us [to sell our shares], and it was a relief.”
Bernie and Zee, who’s in her fifties (“my wife’s age is one of those mysteries”), went on to open their own Western food stalls at hawker centres Timbre+ and Makansutra Gluttons Bay under a new name, Big Bern’s American Grill.
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This year, the couple (pictured) closed Big Bern’s two outlets. The Timbre+ branch shuttered in April, followed by Gluttons Bay in May. “We were trying to keep our heads above water like a lot of people during the pandemic, and it wasn’t looking good,” Bernie reveals.
Covid-19 had presented challenges, he notes, like a lack of live performances at Timbre+ which usually attracted customers, and the dearth of tourists at Gluttons Bay due to border closures.
When he approached his biz partners about the future of his eateries, they came to an agreement that “it was better to revive Botak Jones” than to reopen Big Bern’s elsewhere. “A lot of people didn’t realise that we [became] Big Bern’s American Grill, even though we went to a lot of trouble [to promote the brand] on Facebook,” explains Bernie.
According to him, the revival was possible because the OG Botak Jones chain had already left the market. “There was no live business that owned the [Botak Jones] name and trademark,” Bernie says. “We decided to start afresh and let people know that Botak Jones is still alive.”
The comeback stall is located in an ulu industrial canteen at 118 Depot Lane, where Botak Jones also once had an outlet. According to Bernie, the location was chosen as the coffee shop is owned by one of his partners’ father. It will start serving takeaway and delivery orders on June 14.
Botak Jones fans will notice some subtle updates to its name and logo. It’s now called The Original Botak Jones, with the tagline “Still Damn Good” (instead of its previous “Damn Good Food at a Damn Good Price”). According to Bernie, that’s because prices have been adjusted for the current times, but more about that later.
“The menu is 80 to 90 per cent similar to our old one, even down to the amount of stirring [for our recipes],” Bernie shares. He shows us his revamped menu, displayed in an old-school clear folder. It appears that he had simply updated his Microsoft Word file from 2003 — in the same retro Comic Sans font — and reprinted it on yellow A4-sized paper. Charming.
Like the old days, it’s replete with his playful food descriptions. The white basa Fish Burger (from $8.50 a la carte) has a “satisfyingly firm yet flakey fillet inside, not that soft mushy stuff”. Random jokes are still scattered throughout the pages (“Exaggerations have become epidemic. They went up by a million percent last year!”).
“We want people to understand that [Botak Jones] was coming back to myself, my wife, and we aim to give people the same Botak Jones experience they remember,” states Bernie. As for whether he’s planning to launch a F&B empire again, he muses: “My view is a much smaller number [of outlets], so that each outlet can enjoy a healthy customer base. Entrepreneurship is not just about money.”
Response to Botak Jones’ comeback has been “heartening”, he says, though he also hopes that the revived stall lives up to nostalgic expectations. “I hope people don’t inflate their imaginations!” he exclaims.
In the past, there were several halal Botak Jones’ outlets (Zee is Muslim). Bernie intends to get his new stall certified halal. “We are waiting for our halal certification to be processed,” he shares. The process would take “three to six months”, though he says: “We’re coming from a halal environment so people shouldn't be nervous about our food.”
While he’s a “guiding hand” for his new stall, Bernie will not be personally cooking there. Zee is mainly running the business with their staff. “I haven’t been cooking for years,” he says. “My health has been failing since about 2014, so I’ve just been keeping myself vertical.”
He now gets around on a mobility scooter — which he calls “my legs” — after suffering a heart attack in 2017, and a pulmonary embolism that landed him in the ICU “for four or five days”. He quips: “I was dealing with respiratory issues before Covid-19.” But Bernie maintains that he prefers not to talk too much about his health issues. “I’m dealing with it. I’ve been dealing with it my whole life,” he states matter-of-factly.
The U-Crazy-What?! is Botak Jones’ version of a massive handmade triple-patty burger, which comes with 450g of ground beef chuck, cheddar, onions, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. “It felt like eating a cow,” notes a netizen who posted about his, er, insane feat finishing the burger solo.
The burger is so tall, we had to split it in half to attempt eating it. The patties are flame-grilled to a medium-well doneness, which is common for ground beef due to food safety reasons. Since we can’t dine in, we had to quickly whisk the burger home, wrapped snugly in a layer of parchment paper and aluminium foil for the journey.
Flame-grilled beef patties
The well-seasoned beef does not suffer too much from the travelling — it’s reasonably juicy, and satisfying with melted cheese and fresh crunchy veggies. The buns, which have absorbed some of the beef juices, still have a bit of fluff to them. As for whether it compares to the good ol’ days, we say this unpretentious burger is like what we remember about Botak Jones in its heyday: hawker Western fare that’s done better than most of its counterparts.
A set meal gets you Cajun fries and coleslaw, and you can also opt for add-ons like Garlic Sautéed Shiitake Mushroom ($2), Fried Egg ($1) and Whoopass Con Carne ($3, see below for our review).
On a copy of an old menu circa 2015 that we found online, this burger used to cost $15.90. It’s now $24.50. Apparently, supply costs have become crazy too. But since Bernie has dropped the “Damn Good Price” from his tagline, you can’t fault the man for being honest.
Slabs of basa fish are coated in panko crumbs and deep-fried till crispy in vegetable oil. The Vietnamese catfish has a soft, buttery texture similar to cod, though we find our slabs a little too thin for good bite. The fish & chips come with (pretty good) Cajun fries and coleslaw by default, though you could also swap ’em for regular sides like butter rice, white rice, baked beans or a salad.
Or you could top up for a fancier ‘premium side’ like this sinfully delish double-baked cheese potato gratin, which was an extremely popular Botak Jones dish that was offered as a regular side in the past. “But we were making a loss, because it took up three-quarters of our stall space to make this,” says Bernie of his decision to start charging for the cheesy potato side. Other premium sides include house-made Louisiana-style Gumbo ($3.50) and Mushroom Soup ($3).
Another Botak Jones signature is its Cajun Chicken, which consists of char-grilled marinated chicken breast blanketed with melted mozzarella cheese and Cajun sauce. Not bad if you like chicken, and you get the same selection of sides as the Fish & Chips, but we find Botak Jones’ delightfully messy burgers to be the highlight here.
It isn’t every day that you can get a bowl of Texan-style Chili Con Carne (say “kar nee”) at a local hawker stall. The chilli-meat stew is cooked without beans, the way it’s traditionally done in Texas for the spicy flavour to shine. We’re happy with Botak Jones’ faithful version, a robust, comforting blend of minced beef, jalapeños peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices. You can also order this as a sharing platter with cheese fries ($12.50).
Botak Jones opens June 14 at 118 Depot Lane, S109754. Open daily 11am-8pm. Delivery available via GrabFood and Foodpanda. Full menu on www.originalbotakjones.com. Facebook.
Photos: Kelvin Chia