Selling food from heart and home

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(Clockwise from top left) It’s Bonkas, Willy bagel sandwich, Murukku, beef wellington and dumplings.

While restaurant chefs and owners were scrambling to transform their businesses from dine-in to takeaway and delivery during the circuit breaker, a revolution was happening in home kitchens across Singapore.

Cooks and bakers were doing a roaring trade supplying hungry – and bored – Singaporeans stuck at home.

There was, of course, a heartstopping moment for these entrepreneurs, because home-based food businesses had to cease and desist when enhanced circuit breaker measures were announced in the later part of April. When they could start operating from May 12, there was no holding back.

Certainly, there have always been home-based food businesses – people who make cookies, cakes and other food for festive occasions.

But the coronavirus pandemic unleashed a tidal wave of such outfits, with many starting up in April and May.

The entrepreneurs behind them know exactly how to target their audience.

Some offer baked goods that are having a moment, like Basque cheesecakes. Others put a spin on classics – truffle caneles and Mao Shan Wang caneles, for example. Yet others modernise tradition – parmesan murukku.

Savvy business owners also make sure their food looks good. How do you jazz up a pork and chive dumpling? Tinge the handmade skin with pink at the edges. Instant click bait. And, of course, comfort always sells. Who would say no to a slab of tender braised pork belly? Or beef Wellington?

Such businesses are fast becoming an important part of Singapore’s food scene; a force to be reckoned with, judging from the quality of the food, the swish packaging and the mostly efficient way of taking and delivering orders. Ordering food online intensified during the circuit breaker, and people are not letting go of this new habit.

 

 

Singapore, a nation of people constantly in search of the next hot thing to eat, has embraced these upstarts so thoroughly that many wait patiently by their laptops for ordering windows to open. Many of the businesses have a wait list.

The 12 brands The Sunday Times spoke to report that orders have not let up, even though dine-in at hawker centres, coffee shops and restaurants has been allowed since June 19.

All said they intend to continue doing business.

HUNGER MARKETING

The ingredients for the perfect storm helped home-based food businesses take off like never before.

The biggest factor appears to be the circuit breaker restrictions on dining out and plain going out. Stay home was the message, and Singaporeans heard it loud and clear. But they also had to keep themselves and their family members fed and watered.

Meanwhile, social media was flooded with images of beautiful baked goods and comfort food. It was clever hunger marketing – creating desire with images calculated to elicit an emotional response, to trigger buying. All a hungry person had to do was scroll through the comments and pick and choose according to the yeas and nays.

The food could all be ordered easily online and paid for electronically via PayNow, PayLah or bank transfers.

People who lost jobs in the pandemic turned to delivering parcels and food to make ends meet, giving food businesses more ways to get their product to customers.

When boasting on social media about getting into a hot restaurant is not possible, the next best thing would be to score an impossible-to-get box of pastries or a super luxe steamed radish cake that a celebrity had posted on Instagram. Or a trio of truffle caneles.

Word of mouth helped businesses take flight, and Instagram became the platform of choice for many of them.

Then certain brands started getting so popular it became impossible to get their wares. “Sold out” is a hunger marketer’s dream. There is nothing like scarcity to whet the appetite.

“Fomo,” says one business owner, using the acronym for “fear of missing out”, when asked what he thinks drives sales.

SIDE HUSTLE

The people behind the businesses come from diverse backgrounds, and started their brands for different reasons.

Ms Christine Yue, 39, started Lor Bak Mama in late May because her nail salon, Dollhouse Nails in CityLink Mall, was closed to customers during the circuit breaker.

The mother of one says: “Due to Covid-19, my nail business began suffering losses in February. We had zero income, while still incurring overheads. I wanted to cover some of my business expenses and retain my staff. I also have a baby at home. This was the only way I could think of to earn some supplementary income.”

Senior legal secretary Brindha Vishwanathan, 62, wanted a project to keep active when she segues into retirement. She started Batter Matters in March, selling murukku, a spicy, savoury Indian snack.

Budding corporate lawyer Liow Xuan Rong, 25, used to make dumplings when she was studying in London, and started Dizzy Dumplings in the middle of last month to turn that hobby into a small business. She is keeping her day job; making her pork and chive dumplings during weekends and delivering them on Sundays.

Others were looking to transition into new careers.

Mr Pah Qi Fan, 27, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Singapore in 2016, and was a marketing manager in the food and beverage industry. He started The Crane Grain last month, selling Basque cheesecakes and salt-sprinkled dark chocolate chip cookies, and has since quit his day job to focus on the business.

Cousins I-Wen Whang, 24, and Jonathan Tang, 27, both of whom went to university in the United States, started Able Bagel in April because they missed the bagels they enjoyed there and also wanted to raise money for their favourite causes.

All these businesses operate under the Housing Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority’s schemes for home-based businesses. The Singapore Food Agency has a list of food safety guidelines they have to stick to, plus additional ones for the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, only people in the same household can be involved in the business, they have to ensure that delivery or collection is contactless and there can be no physical exchange of cash, among other rules.

LEARNING CURVE

Their stories and backgrounds are diverse, but many of them had the same thought when they started: What if people do not like my food?

Ms Kyer Say, 31, started Tiky Mochi Muffin in February to sell the mochi muffins she had created because she loves the chewy texture of the rice-flour treats she had on regular trips to Japan and Taiwan.

She says: “I wasn’t sure if mochi is well-liked by Singaporeans. Even though my friends and family had given me excellent feedback, I felt my bakes weren’t good enough and was worried that customers may not enjoy them.”

Ms Karen Yuen, who is in her 30s and a former marketing director for a cruise company, started Munch-Kins in December last year to sell the steamed carrot cake she recreated from memories of watching her grandmother make the savoury cakes, and of eating them.

“I’ll be nervous after my customers pick up the food and always ask them for feedback. And when they say nice things, I’m also quite worried that they are doing the ‘paiseh thumbs-up’,” she says. “But it has been very encouraging so far.”

The entrepreneurs also face demand and supply issues.

Occupational therapist Samuel Lam, 30, who started Small Town Sourdough last month to sell loaves of his bread, made with flour he mills himself at home, says: “Sourcing quality flour and whole grains for milling has been a challenge. When I find what I’m looking for, I usually try to buy in bulk.”

Lor Bak Mama’s Ms Yue adds: “In the beginning, it was definitely about maintaining food quality while cooking in big quantities and getting our food delivered promptly. I was also worried about demand, as lor bak is a very homecooked dish and everyone has their own recipe. So I wasn’t sure if people would purchase it from a home-based business.

“I also realised it is difficult to order stock because you have to gauge demand and make sure you have enough space at home to keep the ingredients fresh.”

Ms Jane Ng, 36, whose Keen Bakery sells dairy-, gluten-and soya-free bakes, adds: “I don’t bake with regular wheat flour, so it’s more difficult to source all my ingredients and I usually have to go to multiple shops. As a home baker, I don’t have the space to keep a massive stock of ingredients on hand. So it’s hard to find that sweet spot of ‘just enough’ supplies.”

CUSTOMER 101

The caged Singaporean is an appreciative Singaporean.

Ms May Young, 36, whose Bolognaiise sells Bolognese sauce, made with pork and beef and simmered over six hours, roast chicken, beef Wellington and other comfort food, says: “It has been a rewarding journey; long conversations with customers who really make the effort to provide constructive feedback and share photos and compliments.”

Keen Bakery’s Ms Ng adds: “Singapore customers will buy anything Instagrammable or hard to obtain. My mini bundts are quite popular because they’re Instagrammable.”

The movement to eat more healthily did not wane during the circuit breaker either.

Small Town Sourdough’s Mr Lam says: “There is a growing number of like-minded foodies who appreciate where food comes from and want to eat well-crafted bread which is healthy and tasty.”

Able Bagel has also found a broad-minded audience.

The business has given money to organisations doing work for minority groups in Singapore and overseas. Beneficiaries have included gender equality advocacy group Aware; Hagar, an international organisation that works to rid the world of human trafficking, slavery and abuse; New Naratif, which is working towards freedom of expression and information in South-east Asia; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the US.

Ms Whang says: “We have been donating to many minority and marginalised groups in need, and we’re thrilled to see our customers showing their support for these groups of people. Admittedly, we’re sometimes unsure of how our consumers might react to our beneficiary choices, but their support has been reassuring.”

And then there is the confirmation that Singapore is, indeed, a food-mad nation.

Munch-Kins’ Ms Yuen says: “Food really binds Singaporeans, especially during this difficult period. It is heart-warming when we get a repeat order, just seconds after a customer takes his first bite.

“We had texts saying, ‘I just took a bite and I knew I had to order two more immediately. I’ve got two friends that I know would go crazy for this’. This really gives us the motivation to keep going.”

FUTURE SO BRIGHT

All the entrepreneurs interviewed say they are working to expand their menus.

Lor Bak Mama’s Ms Yue recently gave samples of her chilli dip to regular customers for feedback. There might be double-boiled soups in the future too.

Munch-Kins will offer fruit cake for Christmas, and Dizzy Dumpling’s Ms Liow is testing new fillings for her dumplings. The Crane Grain’s Mr Pah is working on a tasting box of pastries, and Able Bagel is looking to offer oatmilk cold brew coffee to go with the bagels.

Ms Young from Bolognaiise says she is looking for a commercial kitchen space to scale up her operations to do delivery and takeaway, and hopes to do that by September.

Not all of them are keen to set up dine-in restaurants or shopfronts, knowing they can keep overheads and operations lean and mean without the burden of dealing with landlords and grappling with scarce manpower.

The days sound tough – hand-chopping ingredients, waking up at 3am to bake, managing logistics, testing new products.

But this is worthwhile work, they say.

Tiky Mochi Muffin’s Ms Say says: “This business has become my full-time job and I bake for 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week. It has consumed every bit of my time. I have no personal life.

“At the end of the day, I’m exhausted, but it brings my life so much meaning and joy. It also provides a supplementary income for my family, which is wonderful.”

Ms Vishwanathan from Batter Matters adds: “I have found new meaning in life. The business has encouraged me to upgrade my skills and taught me to become more digitally ready and literate. I have learnt how to use Instagram and Internet lingo, and watched a lot of YouTube videos to learn how to take photos that are aesthetically pleasing to the social-media generation.

“Without even realising, I also started understanding different aspects of the business, such as logistics, branding, customer service and working with different partners to get my product to the customer in a timely manner.

“Previously, I would return home from work and watch television shows. But now, I am more physically and mentally active. I’m constantly thinking about the business, managing orders, planning my schedule, coming up with a social-media plan – it keeps me very active.

“I have also made friends with fellow home-based business owners and widened my social network. Starting the business has improved my quality of life.”

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Where to find them 

ABLE BAGEL

Selling food from heart and home


PHOTO: ABLE BAGEL

Instagram: @able.bagel 

What: From-scratch bagels that are softer and more pillowy than commercial versions. Flavours include Everything, Sesame, Furikake, Cinnamon Raisin and Plain (two for $7). But the main attractions are the bagel sandwiches. A new offering is Lil Nasty ($14), stuffed with grilled Swiss and cheddar cheeses, housemade charsiew, pickled green chillies and a spicy sauce. Bol Is Life ($8) is a take on Hong Kong’s bolo buns, with the bagel sporting a crackly crumb topping and spread with salted egg cream cheese. 

BATTER MATTERS

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: BATTER MATTERS

Instagram: @ourbattermatters 

What: Homemade murukku, the crunchy, savoury Indian snack. Traditional flavours include Original and Spicy ribbon murukku ($10 a jar), and non-traditional flavours include Parmesan and Garlic ($12 a jar). Also on sale are Signature Spiced Cornflakes ($8), where the cereal is mixed with roasted cashews, raisins, curry leaves and spices. Also for sale are Chewy Fudgey Brownies ($30 for a 20cm x 20cm piece).

BOLOGNAIISE 

Selling food from heart and home

​ ​​ ​PHOTO: BOLOGNAIISE

Instagram: @bolognaiise 

What: Comfort dishes such as Beef Wellington ($50 or $88, serves two or four); Roasted Chicken ($48, serves two), with Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes roasted in duck fat; and Our Signature Bolognese ($38, sauce only, serves two to three), made with pork and beef and simmered for six hours. There is also a selection of sweets, including the best-selling Cheery Cherry Tart ($35). 

DIZZY DUMPLINGS

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: DIZZY DUMPLINGS

Instagram: @dizzydumplings 

What: Homemade dumplings with from-scratch skin tinged pink from red dragonfruit. Pork & Chive Dumplings are $13.90 for 20 and a new offering is Truffle Dumplings filled with pork, shiitake mushrooms, soup jelly and truffles from Croatia ($20 for 12).

FLOURCRAFTS

Instagram: @flourcrafts.sg

What: Kaiseki pastry boxes priced at $35 or $28, both of which serve two. The $28 box comes with houjicha and matcha caneles made in traditional copper moulds as well as slices of yuzu pound cake, while the $35 box includes matcha scones with yuzu curd and yuzu marshmallows.

KEEN BAKERY

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: KEEN BAKERY

Instagram: @keenbakery

What: Dairy-, gluten- and soya-free bakes include mini bundt cakes in lemon or orange flavour (six for $18), quinoa cookies ($14 for 12), chocolate chip cookies ($14 for 12) and banana bread ($12 for two mini loaves).

LEVELLED

Instagram: @levelled.sg

What: A tasting box of three caneles and four brownies costs $39. The caneles are filled with matcha, chocolate ganache and vanilla; and the brownies are stuffed with peanut butter and jelly, Ovomaltine, Nutella and Speculoos cookie butter. A new offering is Black Truffle Caneles ($29 for three).

LOR BAK MAMA

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: JERYL TAN

Instagram: @lorbakmama

What: Soya-sauce braised pork belly using an heirloom recipe passed down from Ms Christine Yue’s late grandmother to her mother and now, to her. Lu Rou Fan ($10) features the braised pork with rice, egg, firm tofu and shiitake mushrooms; Lor Bak ($18) has the pork, egg, firm tofu and mushrooms without the rice; and Kong Bak Bao ($12) comes with pork and four steamed buns. Customers can also order extras – eggs, mushrooms, firm tofu and taupok.

MUNCH-KINS

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: MUNCH-KINS

Instagram: @munchkins.sg

What: Ms Karen Yuen’s steamed daikon cake ($68) was recreated from memories of her grandmother’s lor pak kou. The savoury cake is made with Korean and Japanese radishes and topped with hand-chopped mushrooms, lup cheong and Jinhua ham; hand-shredded dried scallops; dried sakura ebi and dried shrimps.

SMALL TOWN SOURDOUGH

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: SMALL TOWN SOURDOUGH

Instagram: @smalltownsourdoughsg

What: Slow-fermented sourdough loaves made with a nine-month-old starter. Owner Samuel Lam mills his own flour at home using whole grains to supplement the bread flour he uses. Each loaf weighs 700g to 800g and costs $10 to $12.

THE CRANE GRAIN

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: THE CRANE GRAIN

Instagram: @thecranegrain

What: Mr Pah Qi Fan sells Sea Salt Basque Cheesecake ($48) and Sea Salt Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies ($10 for a 100g jar, and $18 for a 200g pouch). The cookies are made with French butter and chocolate, and sprinkled with Maldon sea salt.

TIKY MOCHI MUFFIN

Selling food from heart and home

PHOTO: TIKY MOCHI MUFFIN

Instagram: @tikymochimuffin

What: Owner Kyer Say, who likes mochi from Japan and Taiwan, developed recipes for muffins ($16 for six), which come in flavours such as Chocolate Chip, Double Chocolate and Matcha Adzuki, and cupcakes ($25.50 for six) in flavours such as Earl Grey Boba, Ondeh Ondeh and Salted Caramel.

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