This tenacious entrepreneur surges ahead with budding business offshoots – despite pandemic challenges

After 25 years in the hospitality industry, Mr Julian Serna has done it all – clocking experience at five-star hotels, casinos, pubs, exclusive cocktail bars and fine-dining restaurants around the world.

His career first brought him to Singapore in 2008 as a freelance operational consultant for the Conrad Hotel and restaurants Brewerkz, Bedrock and Oriole. He left a year later to open his own restaurant in Sydney.

Missing the nation state’s rich diversity and vibrant food and beverage (F&B) scene, he returned in 2014 as a group bar mentor for hospitality conglomerate The Lo and Behold Group, which owns popular establishments Tanjong Beach Club, Loof and OverEasy.

But Mr Serna wanted a bigger challenge: starting a successful restaurant from scratch. In 2018, he opened Panamericana. Named after a highway that stretches over 14 countries and 15,000km across North, Central and South America, the restaurant is inspired by Mr Serna’s Colombian heritage.

At Panamericana, diners get to savour breathtaking views while enjoying a diverse feast of flavours and cuisines. PHOTO: JULIAN SERNA

Sitting on the pristinely manicured lawns of the Sentosa Golf Club, against the boundless view of the South China Sea, Panamericana is an extraordinary backdrop for events and weddings. Tables were often booked out, with a waiting list for weekend tables often extending months in advance.

Then, the pandemic struck.

As a restaurant that depended heavily on its superb dine-in experience, Mr Serna had to think fast to save his business. Besides quickly pivoting to deliveries due to Covid-19 restrictions, he wanted Panamericana to offer more.

“The transition from dine-in to deliveries was fairly easy. However, delivery orders could not match up with dine-in earnings, and we would much prefer to serve our guests in-person to offer them the true Panamericana experience,” he says.

Looking at new areas where they could grow the business, he opened a bakery selling the restaurant’s highly coveted sourdough, along with brioche buns, pies and pizzas for delivery.

These efforts kept Panamericana afloat during the toughest periods, including Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) when eating out was not allowed.

Growth through hardships

With restrictions easing again as vaccination levels rise, Panamericana is wooing diners again.

“Once we reopened for dine-in, Panamericana thrived. Our location and setting offer customers the feeling of being away on holiday,” says Mr Serna.

“It provides a welcome escape, and the space and surroundings complement our dining experience. This year was tough on us, but the business grew exponentially over the periods we managed to stay open.”

It hasn’t been easy however. Panamericana’s second outlet at Boat Quay was forced to shut after just six months; Covid-19 restrictions meant it could not offer customers bar bites and retro music past midnight.

Panamericana boasts 7,000 sq ft of indoor and outdoor dining space that packs a fully-stocked bar and grill, as well as a breezy verandah against a panoramic backdrop. PHOTO: JULIAN SERNA

But through the lockdowns, restrictions and volatility, Mr Serna’s experience and perseverance gave him the edge to overcome a multitude of hurdles including staffing difficulties and limited marketing opportunities.

He recalls: “The business took a good year and a half to really take off, and difficult decisions had to be made along the way,” he shares.

“But it’s precisely these hardships that enable you to learn the most about yourself, the brand and the business. And the success after the early struggles tastes all the more sweet.”

Leaping ahead with digitalisation

For someone who has always looked to adapt and change with the times, taking on technology to improve the business came naturally.

He made the decision to switch to Xero’s digital accounting software after struggling with other accounting and bookkeeping software, which failed to keep up with the fast-paced business.

Taking advantage of cloud accounting platform Xero allows Mr Serna to keep his business nimble in the new normal. PHOTO: JULIAN SERNA

With Xero, Panamericana reconciles transactions easily. The software provides real-time bank feeds and reconciliation, allowing the business to do away with previously laborious manual processes, such as painstakingly updating Excel sheets.

At the same time, stakeholders can access live data online via a smartphone, and generate financial reports quickly. This helps the restaurant allocate and manage costs more efficiently and “allows companies to compete better in an economic environment that is constantly changing in response to evolving technology”, according to Mr Serna.

Opportunities still abound

Xero’s software provides the automation and financial visibility Mr Serna needed to launch his latest venture: plant-based, sugarless, affordable and contactless eatery chain Bamboo Bowls, which serves protein and rice bowls created by some of the top chefs in Asia from the central kitchen at Panamericana. It will offer deliveries and serve diners at its pilot store at China Square from October.

While the past year has posed significant challenges for many, particularly the F&B industry, Mr Serna sees opportunity amid the challenges and continues to be willing to adapt and learn from experience.

He surmises: “There is no fast track to success. It takes time, preparation, intuition and a bit of luck. Not to mention, a ton of hard work.”