Founder Charles Ng from Lean Bento weighed more than 70 kg when he was eleven years old and was forced to enter TAF club. Determined to change this, he tried all sorts of fad diets; he even tried the yoyo diet – a repeated cycle of weight loss and weight gain – which left him feeling worse than before. He also confesses to devour any information on health he could get his hands on at that time, and even relied on the occasional health column in Reader’s Digest.
Despite having no clear roadmap to shed excess pounds, Charles managed to breakthrough and find a way. In the end, it wasn’t all the diets that helped him achieve the transformation he wanted: it was his simple love for cooking and creating wholesome, healthful recipes for himself. He quickly realized the truth in the philosophy you are what you eat, and that changed everything.
“I believe what you eat, beauty and good mental health are all synonymous with each other,” Charles says. He also attributes his youthful looks entirely to eating clean.
After learning about botany in skincare formulation, Charles used this knowledge to experiment with recipes and fell in love with making food from scratch. Together with his partner, Dionis Chua, they started Lean Bento as a passion project to serve up healthy and tasty foods that are not salads.
From low-calorie to low-carb bentos, Lean Bento does not shy away from carbs entirely and includes them in the form of rice or noodles in small quantities. Pick from an array of choices like the Petit Honey Chicken Rice ($9.90), Petit Miso Chicken Noodles ($9.90) to gluten-free options like Classic Sea Salt Salmon Noodles ($16.50). Vegetarian options are also available, with a variety of tofu options. Their menus come complete with vital (food) stats, showing the count on calorie, protein, carbs, fat and fibre for each bento.
For the sweet tooth, Lean Bento also offers healthier protein bakes like their Banana Protein, Blueberry Protein and Apple Protein muffins ($4.90 each). They also serve protein waffles – in caramel miso, chocolate and caramel corn ($4.90 each).
1. What’s your story?
I graduated from the department of Engineering at NUS in 2003 and started my skincare practice in plant-based treatments in the same year. In my course of study as a researcher, I was in touch the knowledge of Botany, which was a rather lesser-known branch of Science and Nutrition. I grew up in a very humble household which I had to help my grandmother take care of housework, numerous younger cousins and food preparation. Circa 1983, I remember fondly of myself as a petite 6 year old kid dragging bags of fresh produce back home before I went to school for morning assembly. Grandma is a Nyonya and from her, I picked up her flair for cooking and was ingrained that every dish I cook must be filled with love and honesty.
2. Why did you start Lean Bento?
Life wasn’t a bed of roses growing up, but my parents never made me go hungry. In fact, I grew up “too nourished”. At 11 years old, of height less than 1.4 metres, I was already weighing past 70kg. I had no choice but to enter “TAF club” which was a program to help overweight and obese students lose weight. My grades plummeted along with self-esteem.
Over the next few years, I tried all sorts of (fad) diets – from the pasta diet to the cabbage diet and the most traumatic of all was the yoyo diet. I never quite lost weight, but I sure lost a lot of hope. Knowledge on a sustainable, balanced and healthy diet was scarce. We had no Internet, almost zero health magazines. The only publication remotely close to a trusted health guide was the occasional feature in Reader’s Digest. It took me at least another 6 years of dieting to finally shed some pounds.
In an era of limited healthcare and nutrition-related knowledge for the public, I realised that moderation of every food, made from wholesome ingredients paired with a reasonably active lifestyle will help me stay on track. “I am what I eat.” Nutrition played a huge role in developing me as a person and had saved me from the brink of a chronic heart condition.
I started Lean Bento out of frustration. I was frustrated at the lack in healthful food choices around us; and the lack of informed knowledge, leading to poor dietary choices. I felt that no one should undergo the health risks, the unhealthy sense of being overweight, and to suffer from bullying which could lead to low self-esteem. Lean Bento was in many ways, a passion project. Being exposed to Botany and using my knowledge in plant-science and skincare formulation definitely helped a lot in creating many of my classic recipes. I love hosting laid back dinner gatherings with food made from scratch using these recipes. As what appreciative friends would say to one another, “Hey you should start a food business!” Well yes, I took that up and here I am!
3. How did you start the business?
Lean Bento was incorporated in 2014 and opened its doors at The Arcade (Raffles Place) in April 2015. My business partner and I each came up with our own money to fund the start up. From the initial budget of 50k for a “push cart” kiosk, it eventually materialised as a 20-seat eatery at The Arcade. I believe we blew up at least six times of the initial budget for that. Just for a brand new F&B start up. It was rather daunting.
4. What were your biggest challenges launching your F&B business?
The biggest challenge in my F&B business was the choice to let it go out of business, or let it thrive. I chose to let it thrive.
Singapore was already a very crowded place when it comes to the F&B business, back in 2015. My biggest challenge when Lean Bento was launched wasn’t “to be noticed”, but more so on how my menu (R&D) evolves, how the skill set of my staff evolves, how my operation evolves, how my customers’ user experience evolves, and lastly how well I can retain my customers. Everything has to be set right from Day 0. Till today, I am still living and breathing it.
5. Describe what is Lean Bento is all about.
Lean Bento is all about wholefood goodness! A guilt-free place to go for all meals delicious and nutritious.
6. Why healthy food?
Many lifestyle diseases we face today are deeply rooted in our dietary choices and dietary patterns. Common diseases such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular conditions. Because such diseases do not form overnight, we actually have a lot of time to work around and avoid it.
We are used to being sold “fortified”, “enriched” foods that come in fancy packaging because we think, “if its expensive, it must be good”. Most of us hardly take a closer look or ask, “How is this produced?” Many of the foods we are exposed to are highly processed, pre-processed, and then re-processed many times over. Preservatives, industrial colourings, and neurotoxins are so commonly added; most of us don’t really think about it.
Studies have shown that individuals with the highest quality of life and with the least ailments adopt a moderate diet consisting of many different sources of whole foods. I cherish my life and I cherish the lives of others. I want to play a part in empowering people with knowledge and offer them a healthier option. Starting a business is one thing, but to keep the soul within the business is another, and it’s what I have to do.
7. What do you envision the future of healthy food to be in Singapore?
I believe there will be many players entering the market to offer Singaporeans more healthful food options. Fellow Singaporeans have also proved to be more informed and savvy with their choices. This actually makes my job as an “entrepreneur with passion” at Lean Bento much easier – what we practise is in fact more relatable to our customers and potential customers. I have seen many competitors come and go. Some have evolved with a very different set of values which they had first started with. I’m glad that my team and I have stayed true to the DNA which I had in my kindest intentions, set out to be.
8. What is your secret health/wellness hack or tip?
What I consume shows in my physical and mental self. I stick to a 80/20 diet. I eat clean(er) 80% of the time and eat anything I feel like having for the remaining 20%. It seems to contribute to an anti-aging effect on my body and I seldom feel the urge to snack, nor do I feel deprived of a treat. I believe a sustainable diet, beauty, and good mental health are synonymous with each other. I hope that everyone would be able to enjoy good health and to wake up every day with a happy heart.
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Jolene lives for avo toasts, yoga and is a little more OCD than she cares to admit. She never fails to start her day with morning coffee and is very partial to flat whites. She is obsessed with interiors and homeware, and is currently taking her RYT 200h yoga teacher training course as an aspiring ashtangi.