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SME Diaries: I opened an ang ku kueh stall amid Covid-19. Here’s how I got younger customers to take a bite

In this instalment, Mr Kelvin Toh Aik Long, 40, who opened a new branch of his parents’ traditional ang ku kueh stall during the pandemic, struggled to win over younger customers who did not find the product “cool”. Listening to what they wanted and reinventing his kueh helped turn things around.

SME Diaries: I opened an ang ku kueh stall amid Covid-19. Here’s how I got younger customers to take a bite

Mr Kelvin Toh Aik Long, 40, who opened a new branch of his parents’ traditional ang ku kueh stall during the pandemic, struggled to win over younger customers who did not find the product “cool”.

Kelvin Toh Aik Long

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which form 99 per cent of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 keenly. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts from SME owners and managers on the highs and lows of running a business in the pandemic.

In this instalment, Mr Kelvin Toh Aik Long, 40, who opened a new branch of his parents’ traditional ang ku kueh stall during the pandemic, struggled to win over younger customers who did not find the product “cool”. Listening to what they wanted and reinventing his kueh helped turn things around.

When Covid-19 hit Singapore, I was in the midst of opening an F&B outlet, but I was recklessly optimistic. 

How hard could it be? I would be selling my parents’ ang ku kuehs, or red tortoise cakes, known to be one of the best in Singapore. 

Lockdown? Food is an essential service which wouldn’t be forced to close. No dine in? No problem, it’s a takeaway shop.

With that, I opened Ji Xiang Ang Ku Kueh (Bugis) in February 2021 — in the middle of the pandemic. 

It was our first expansion, more than 30 years since my parents opened their only shop in Everton Park in 1988.

My mum was at the new shop every day, helping to set things up and train the staff to make the kuehs by hand. But in the first six months, we struggled. 

Reality hit hard. We realised that our customers would rather endure the snaking queues at Everton, than come to Bugis to get their kuehs. 

And even though they were made to the same standard (zealously ensured by my mum), some customers complained that the new ones were not as good.

I guess that’s life with a customer base of mainly 50 to 60 year-olds.

At Everton, we sold our kuehs for S$1 each, close to cost price, relying solely on the volume of sales to make a living. At Bugis, we initially priced them at S$1 too and only recently raised it to $1.10 each due to the higher rent, new employees’ lower productivity, inflation and safe distancing measures. 

Still, we were only breaking even every month. It was stressful having to maintain our reputation, and the workload for the new shop was very taxing. 

We took 30 years to open a new shop, and I didn’t want to see my parents’ hard work go down the drain. We had to do something about it. 

The crowd at Bugis was a lot younger. To them, ang ku kuehs were not cool and were for old people to use for prayers. We had to reinvent ourselves.

I decided to do what mattered the most — listen to the customer. 

I hired a few staff dedicated to contacting hundreds of our customers to gather their feedback. We also took customised orders, making our kuehs in all shapes and sizes. We tried our best to give our customers anything they wanted. 

We are now getting a lot more corporate and customised orders. This year, we also introduced new products such as rainbow and pastel coloured ang ku kuehs, kuehs covered with gold leaf, and even Mao Shan Wang durian-filled ones.

These are well received by our customers at Bugis, because they are exactly what they want.

Covid-19 brought about many changes to our way of living, and we learnt that we have to take our customers’ feedback very seriously, and to adapt quickly to their needs. After all, we only survive because of them.

 

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Kelvin Toh Aik Long, 40, is the second-generation co-owner of Ji Xiang Ang Ku Kueh, which specialises in the traditional handmade pastry. He is also part of the ongoing One of Us, All of Us exhibition which features over 20 individuals who are making waves in dialect culture. The free exhibition will be held at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre’s Ho Bee Concourse, Level 1, until March 31, 2022.

If you are an SME owner or manager with an experience to share or know someone who wishes to contribute to this series, write to voices [at] mediacorp.com.sg with your full name, address and phone number.

 

 

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SME Diaries SME food business

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