How Music Fa BKT Grew From A Pushcart Stall To A Chain Of 13 Retailers

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Song Fa Bak Kut Teh began in 1969 as a handcart stand along Johore Road in Singapore.

The stall founded by Yeo Eng Song serves bowls of peppery bak kut. Other menu items were pork ribs, pork tail, liver, kidney soup and braised pork trotters.

Eng Song is the second oldest of nine siblings in a Teochew family who learned cooking when he was 19 while working for a Zi-Char stand. He founded Song Fa Bak Kut Teh when he was 21.

The handcart stand no longer exists today as it was relocated to a stand in a coffee shop along Victoria Street in 1975, which is adjacent to the current location of Raffles Hospital.

After the coffee shop was demolished, it was moved to the Rochor Center. Song Fa continued to grow in popularity, attracting a number of regulars such as taxi drivers, and constantly attracting the noon crowd.

Today, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh is run by the second generation owner, Diana Yeo, 43. Yeo Hart Pong, 40; and Yeo Zhi Yong, 37.

Takeover of her family business

Yeo Hart Pong, 2nd generation owner of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh / Photo credit: Nicholas Ee via Michelin Guide

As managing director, Hart Pong oversees the company’s ongoing business. In 2007 he took over the management of the brand and opened the first restaurant-style outlet at 11 New Bridge Road.

Before he graduated in 2006, his father had actually asked him about his future plans and offered him to take over his business.

Hart Pong described the store as a “memorable place” where he and his siblings would help with business after school and during the school holidays.

While saving time to help with the booth, he still took on other F&B stays during his school holidays.

“My father always found it good to work elsewhere to gain new experience and learn how different companies are run,” said the business administration graduate.

I originally wanted to start my own business, but then saw an opportunity to revise Song Fa. I told my dad that if I took over the business I would want to start a concept store.

At that point, all of our competitors had stalls in coffee shops too, so I thought of coming up with something else. My dad agreed to my plan and I decided to work full time in the outlet for a year before opening the concept store in 2007.

– Yeo Hart Pong, Managing Director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh

His younger brother Zhi Yong joined him in 2011 and directed research and development efforts such as new dish development. His older sister Diana joined him the following year, heading the corporate and marketing departments.

Although the Yeo siblings have often helped at the booth since childhood, when it came to learning to cook Bak Kut Teh and dealing with potential problems, Hart Pong said they had to “learn the basics”.

“It was then that we realized the difficulties my father had to endure and what a perfectionist he was. There were no shortcuts to what was passed, and consistency was emphasized. “

Invested S $ 30,000 to set up Song Fa’s first restaurant

When he took over the business, Hart Pong and his father looked for available retail space for the new concept store.

They looked at many potential units, but none of them were suitable – only when they came across an advertisement for a store on 11 New Bridge Road, which is directly across from The Central Mall on Clarke Quay.

My father and I walked past this store and he always had the feeling that a store on this corner was good and its visibility was an advantage.

It used to be a coffee shop, but it had changed hands several times. My father called to inquire, and when the owner said the existing lease would cost $ 30,000 to take over, my father immediately agreed.

– Yeo Hart Pong, Managing Director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
Song fa bak kut the new bridgeSong Fa Bak Kut Teh’s New Bridge Outlet / Photo credit: Song Fa Bak Kut Teh

His intuition turned out to be spot on, as the store has attracted large crowds since it opened, which is why it quickly expanded to open a second store just a few units away.

Hart Pong attributed the success of the restaurant concept to “good food combined with great service, accompanied by a roadside ambience from the 1960s (which corresponds to the original stand)”.

“I was just trying to keep the delicacy of my father’s legacy while I was introducing something new,” he added.

He went on to describe Song Fa as a game changer when “none of his competitors did anything like it at the time”.

By offering their clients a retro concept reminiscent of the bak-kut scene of the 60s and 70s, they managed to attract a younger audience. Previously, their customers’ age group was between 50 and 60 years old.

Move with the times

As they enter a younger market, they have also stepped up their innovation efforts to increase sales.

They started revising the menu. Song Fa used to serve pork ribs that are a bit firmer and more structured, as older generations like their pork ribs that much.

Now Song Fa serves tender pork ribs that easily fall off the bone and are cooked with garlic and white Sarawak pepper to make the typical Teochew-esque clear and peppery soup.

They also added other signature and seasonal dishes to compliment their signature Bak Kut Teh.

In addition, Zhi Yong worked on researching and developing a range of spices that customers could take home.

Song Fa Bak Kut The soup spicesSong Fa Bak Kut The Soup Spices / Photo Credit: Song Fa Bak Kut Teh

This resulted in Song Fa Bak Kut Teh Soup Spices and the newly introduced Braised Spices that are currently retailing in their stores, market stalls and select supermarkets.

The existing formula was reinvented by our father who started packaging the spices for sale in damp markets. The strategy worked and the spice packets are a huge hit with tourists and even locals.

Bak kut teh is a dish that is only found in Southeast Asia. When it comes to spices, there are (not) many places you can find them. It has become another source of income and sales are growing steadily.

– Yeo Hart Pong, Managing Director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh

In addition, the brothers introduced an ordering and payment system for sales outlets in their branches.

Although initially faced with “some resistance” from their traditional father, it proved to maximize efficiency, reduce waiting times for customers, and alleviate the staffing crisis.

Grow to a chain of 13 sales outlets

From a humble handcart stand, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh now has 13 branches in Singapore. It has even partnered with the BreadTalk Group to fuel its expansion ambitions.

Bread conversation song fa bak kut tehBreadTalk Group Song Fa Bak Kut The Joint Venture Signing Ceremony / Photo credit: BreadTalk Group

George Quek, the founder of the BreadTalk Group, is a Teochew. (He) loves Bak Kut Teh and shares the same passion for bringing Singapore food overseas.

(Because) they have so much experience, skills and networks in overseas expansion and franchising, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to partner and venture into Taipei, Bangkok, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

– Yeo Hart Pong, Managing Director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh

Song Fa also received the Michelin Bib Gourmand Award for three consecutive years from 2016 to 2019.

They broke the series in 2020 due to the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in the event being canceled.

COVID-19 also brought a number of other challenges. Due to the ban on eating during the breaker, they lost their main source of income: walk-in customers.

Even though they quickly ventured into grocery delivery, there have still been some setbacks such as supply and demand problems and fierce competition.

In addition, most of the Singaporeans chose to be prudent during this difficult time, preferring to cook at home instead of ordering food delivery.

“As time went by and the measures waned from phase to phase, we were still bound by guidelines and strict controls that did not allow our operations to run as they were before Covid-19 days,” lamented Hart Pong.

With their income “falling significantly,” they had to temporarily close some of their branches even if the F&B operators were allowed to eat again.

Given the high rental costs, they had to deal with re-consolidating their resources and thinking about ways to increase customer footfall, such as introducing a cashback system for loyal customers.

“We’re very grateful for the government’s Job Support Scheme and rent relief bill, but business is still grim as we speak,” said Hart Pong.

“In order to get through this ordeal, the fallback plan is likely to be scaled down in many ways, but we hope we don’t go there.”

Diversification of the 52-year-old company

Since Hart Pong took over the business, he said his “big plan” has always been to diversify the business.

“Both Zhi Yong and I felt that we could offer the Singaporeans even more besides Bak Kut Teh.”

“In mid-2019 we piloted Downstairs, a restaurant that mainly serves warm, hearty, local dishes – similar to what you would normally buy ‘downstairs’ but with a funny twist,” he added.

Song fa bak kut that belowPhoto credit: Lied Fa Bak Kut Teh

This new company has existed for two years. It was piloted at Changi Business Park for a year before it was recently relocated to Suntec City shopping mall.

It adopts a novel HDB void deck concept that the brothers believe will be well received by Singaporeans, along with its affordable convenience food offerings.

Song fa bak kut that belowPhoto credit: below

Some of the dishes served include salted egg and chicken nasi lemak, braised pork belly rice (lu rou fan), and mi tai mak soup.

In the future, the Yeo siblings will continue to look for opportunities to “expand in every area”.

“The fact is, this pandemic has affected our plans. Now we need to change our approach, taking small steps at a time, to assess and evaluate the support we are receiving during these difficult times, ”said Hort Pang.

He added that his father always taught them to be “prudent and grounded” because he himself had the experience of running a business in the midst of a pandemic.

During his tenure, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh suffered from swine flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). He advised us not to rush to expand.

“If you think you can afford to expand, expand,” his father once said.

He also pointed out that the “right mindset” is also important for running a company. It is important to take criticism positively and to constantly improve to take the brand to a higher level.

These golden words of wisdom have made Song Fa Bak Kut Teh a popular traditional brand with over 50 years of history.

Selected image source: DanielFoodDiary / Song Fa Bak Kut Teh

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