Jay Gray and Desiree Silva
Co-founders of Sago House, Singapore
How did you meet?
Desiree: I went to an industry event and saw Jay bartending and thought he was kinda cute. Like a skater boy that was trouble. I said “hey”, and that was it.
Jay: She was the unmissable shining light at 28 HongKong Street, playfully having fun with her guests, talking shop with the industry folk and making sure everyone had a good time. I didn’t so much as approach her to make friends rather than was attacked by her friendliness like everyone else. We never had any romance towards each other until during one Fastest Hands In the East competition, she kissed me out of nowhere! I had always had a soft spot for her but to put it bluntly I had only ever known her to date women so I had always respected that and never pursued anything other than friendship.
What made you decide to open a bar together?
Jay: We were actually looking for a new home together. We had – what we thought then – was a clever idea to find a commercial shop house that we could renovate together and build a small bar to host events three days a week. We never thought of it as a full time gig. It was something fun and creative, like a passion project. We felt that bringing both our strengths in the industry together would make for a pretty awesome place, while doing what we love. It got out of hand very fast. The small bar vs large living space became a fully fledged project when we decided to bring our friend and now business partner George Abhishek into the mix.
Desiree: We spoke many times about how hard it was going to be: working, sleeping, deciding, planning, organising, painting, everything together. Almost like we were preparing ourselves for everything that could possibly go wrong and trying to see if the other would back out. But hey, here we are. Don’t try, just do.
Jay: Just knowing Dez and how she operated, I knew whatever we did together was going to be all heart. That’s something incredibly important to me from a business perspective. I knew we could overcome any difference if she could stay with me through the year long build, living in sawdust, with nowhere to keep our things, with no space for “us”. She had so many opportunities to call it quits on both me and the project and I would never have blamed her. She never did, she barely even complained. Especially when I was still travelling for my old role and then coming back and throwing myself into the build. She is so strong.
What has been the hardest part about working together?
Desiree: Definitely the separation between church and state. It’s hard to tell what our partner needs from us when we’re in the moment. Sometimes you really just need to be the partner and listen instead of being the colleague. We also spend so much time planning, thinking, dreaming and talking about Sago House, that we leave little of ourselves for each other.
Communication is also important – being in constant sync and communicating well all the time is pretty hard when couples work together.
Jay: Church and state for sure. It’s incredibly hard when two passionate, stubborn and driven people work together with no defined roles. We manage and run the bar together, with our team. That doesn’t mean we alway agree on systems straight away. Give and take is something that needs to be instilled and drilled into our heads. Also leaving work at work is difficult. Not letting a decision that didn’t go in your favour play on your mind when you are at home together can be tough. All in all, we both always want the same things, but sometimes the road to get there can have forks in it. One day she will need to hold my hand and follow me into the unknown with trust, another day I’ll need to do the same. Swallowing one’s pride is tough in those moments. However, I feel like some of the best parts of Sago House are borne from the disagreements that took the longest to solve.
What has been the greatest part about working together?
Desiree: Seeing how far we’ve come together. It’s like watching a really long and dramatic season of The Amazing Race. I constantly find myself looking at the wrecked bar and dirty dishes after a killer service thinking, “Damn, look what we did Jay Gray”. And I feel super full and proud of us.
Jay: I think raising the bar and raising our team together, despite any petty dispute or operations decision. Seeing our team grow with us and stand by us and knowing that we made the decision to stand by these awesome people and that they trust us enough to be a part of our family. I think that’s something that’s hard to come by if you aren’t in a relationship and business partnership. Our love for each other spills over to those who work alongside us.
How do you separate work and your relationship both while at work and at home?
Jay: Still working on that. It’s been a crazy year and I honestly don’t think we have even had that time to create distance from a toddler bar that needs round the clock attention.
Desiree: We try not to talk about work when we’re at home, but we always do. I guess at work it’s way harder than at home. Mainly because for me – once I step through those doors – I’m in my zone: work mode on, Dezzy face, little to no personal feelings. Jay hates that! But hey, it’s definitely way easier, now that we moved out and have a separate space from the bar. We are both still learning how to not take things so personally while at work, and how to not be so “professional” whilst hearing the other person out at home.
What’s some solid advice you’d give to couples looking to go into business together?
Jay: Have a clear and defined set of rules. Set out who is in control of what from the beginning. Surround yourself with understanding peers. Always have a partner like George! You need someone to keep you both in check when the lines get blurred. Make time for each other, even the smallest amount. Make it your time and protect it. You can’t help your bar or your staff if your personal life is falling apart.
Desiree: Communicate! Before you jump into anything together, make sure that both of you have a very strong foundation, friendship, trust and a common end goal and dream. And yes, a third person was a must for us. The mediator, the deciding vote, the peacemaker, the glue. So this person is very important. Thank you George and Joe (Hayward).