This is how it works. You ‘camp’ out at a particular website just before the critical time. The more savvy ones have reinforcements in the form of cousins, assorted relatives or friends, fingers at the ready. At the witching hour, your favourite snack drops and the race is on to get your order in and processed before the shopping cart seizes up and displays that devastating update: “Sold out”. This entire process, mind you, can be over in just one minute, leaving you gobsmacked, frustrated and just fuming mad. Yet, when the next round of orders is released, there you are, sweating and fumbling anxiously in the hope of snagging that insanely popular baked good that you’ve never even tasted before.
Even if being left consistently empty-handed turns you off, it’s this thrill of the chase – fuelled by social media hype and circuit breaker measures – that has turned several small F&B businesses into overnight successes in an industry that’s desperately struggling to stay afloat. Whether it’s fad, genuine deliciousness or FOMO, no one is more surprised at their popularity than the individual operators themselves who started out simply by wanting to make tasty treats. But what is it that makes a food go ‘viral’? Some of them share their experiences.
Unfortunately – for those who really want it – Brotherbird Bakehouse’s mochi croissants really are worth the hype that has led to its boxes of multi-flavoured pastries being sold out two weeks in advance, in just one minute after opening for pre-orders. That means a total of 1120 boxes of six pastries each – or 80 boxes a day – snapped up in less time than it takes to even decide which one to eat first.
But Brotherbird has been a cult favourite ever since it came into the scene in 2018 with its creation of shatteringly crisp croissants with a lightly sweet, glistening surface that lead into many buttery, crisp-chewy layers enhanced by the use of glutinous rice flour. The pastries are filled with rich matcha ganache, creamy ham and cheese or some other creation of ‘Bird’ – the nickname of cofounder Yeo Chem Yu. Its physical shops at CTHub 2 and Bali Lane had always had long queues, which it managed with reservations and pre-orders but that all went out the window when circuit breaker measures came into being.
“Since the virus hit, we’ve been trying to minimize physical exposure between our staff and customers, which is why sales had to be shifted online,” says Mr Yeo, a talented, largely self-taught baker who developed the recipe for the croissants. But what he expected to be a straightforward ordering system instead became a free-for-all frenzy.
“Our website was delayed because of the virus, so we created Google Forms and told everyone the time of release on a Friday morning thinking people would be at work and take their time to order. But somehow it spiralled into FFF – which took me some time to realise meant Fastest Fingers First.”
They started with one week’s worth of pre-orders but were overwhelmed with orders, and they recently expanded it into two weeks’ worth, but even that sold out within a couple of minutes of release.
Mr Yeo says that they are doing pretty much the same amount of business as before Covid-19 – “we didn’t expand or scale down” – but rather it was a shift of customers from corporate orders and catering, to individuals.
He readily admits that the Google Forms ordering system has been far from efficient. But with phase 2 coming up and when the website finally falls into place, he expects to be able to increase production capacity which will be good news for fans current and future. “To us, it’s all about saying, hey, we have something nice here that we’re confident about, so let’s get more people to taste them and hopefully, they’ll stay converted.”
Burnt Basque cheesecake – a burnished, caramelised topped dessert originating in Spain’s Basque region – first appeared in restaurants’ takeaway menus when Circuit Breaker took effect. Yet, despite the proliferation of variations freely available everywhere, one particular version – Paparch – has been consistently sold out to the point that monthly pre-orders are snapped up within three minutes of release.
Paparch – a play on the parchment that the cheesecake is baked in – is now sold out until July. Created by a chef who would only give his name as Lufi, it’s a home business that started quietly in February but “we truly did not anticipate the response and support we’ve received – the whole experience so far has been surreal”.
Despite burnt cheesecake being around for a while, Lufi “added a twist by making it with a molten centre, which has a ‘sweet, melted ooze’ effect when you slice the cake”.
The effect gives it a distinctive resemblance to Camembert cheese, with a delicious molten centre that maintains its runny consistency even though the cake is chilled.
Paparch started out small, but soon built up its clientele through Instagram and influencers who would spread the word on social media. Business grew to the point that it could no longer manage the orders that were coming through direct messaging, which was why the pre-order system was adopted.
But, “we’re working hard to increase our production,” says Lufi, who is currently running Paparch by himself. “It’s a work in progress but I hope to increase the order slots soon by moving into a commercial space instead of operating solely from home.”
Le Matin Patisserie
With a name like Noma in his resume, it’s no surprise that Mohamed Al-Matin would create a stir when he returned to Singapore in January after two years in the iconic Copenhagen restaurant as pastry sous chef.
After several sell-out pre-Circuit Breaker pop-ups, Chef Al-Matin is firmly in cult favourite category with his eponymous Le Matin Patisserie, which makes 60 boxes of pastries a day but is sold out until the end of this month.
Each box contains a selection of five pastries including the very popular Kouign Aman – a very buttery, dense flaky sweet pastry – and Smoked Cruffin, the best of the lot with its smoke-infused cream in a muffin-shaped croissant topped with a eucalyptus meringue.
He doesn’t believe his pastries have gone ‘viral’, even though his website nearly crashed one Sunday when he released his slots for orders and was sold out within three minutes. “My business partner said it was like buying Jay Chou concert tickets,” he quips. The circuit breaker measures definitely helped to boost business, he adds. “Although I wasn’t producing pastries in favourable conditions, the fact that there was rapidly growing demand helped to push the business along.”
Despite charging S$49 a box inclusive of delivery, “I won’t say it’s been very profitable because the operating costs are still very high and I haven’t been drawing a salary since I came back. Having worked in fine dining restaurants in the past six years (he also worked at the now defunct Restaurant Andre) I only want the best ingredients and equipment, which leads to higher operating costs.”
He is currently working out of rented kitchen premises, but will be moving into his own “minimalist” space in Raeburn Park “where I hope to produce a few temperature-sensitive items, bring back my highly popular seaweed tart and have a few hot pastry items”.
Until that happens, it will still be fastest fingers first to snag a box of his pastries. He has already increased production from 30 to 60 boxes, which might make it a bit easier when his next slots open up. But success aside, “my strategy is purely to make tasty food from the heart and do my best to cater to the local palate.”
Shibapo mee siam
Circuit Breaker measures have turned out to be a boon for Janet Ng’s fledgling dry mee siam business, with her daily slots of 300 packets and other dishes sold out within one minute of being released.
It’s been a change of fortune for the plucky and bubbly 34-year-old mother of three who quit her job as an assistant accountant at Razer and decided to open a stall in Dunman Hawker Centre selling stir-fried mee siam made according to her mother’s recipe. But business was poor as diners who were more used to conventional mee siam with gravy did not want to take the chance on the dry version. She closed shop soon after. “It was quite disheartening because of the food wastage, even though those who tried my food would come back,” says Ms Ng, who chose the quirky name Shibapo.
After closing shop, she befriended an influencer who tasted her mee siam and posted about it on social media. Interest started picking up just about the time that Circuit Breaker came about and more people were stuck at home. “Once people tried my food, they loved it and word spread.” To maintain quality and minimise wastage, she capped her orders at 300 packets daily, and split cooking duties with her cousin who gave up his own hawker stall to help out. He now does all the cooking while Ms Ng manages the orders. She says that initially, orders would sell out in around 15 minutes, but of late, she has been selling out within one minute. “It’s quite scary,” she admits. But she reckons that with CB keeping most people at home, “they’re quite bored and like the thrill of playing this ‘fastest fingers first’ game”.
There is a trick to get around the one minute sell out hurdle though. “I have customers who do group buys of 30 packets. If they give me three days’ advance notice, I will try and slot them in.” She also feels bad about people not being able to get their orders, which is why she does try to fit people in here and there when she can.
Her mee siam is spicy and very sour, with a strong tomato ketchup flavour and underlying infusion of dried shrimp. For a milder flavour, the chee cheong fan is enjoyable for its tender noodle sheets doused in a unique sweet-spicy sauce with dried prawns.
Although she’s earning more money now than when she had a full-time job, “I haven’t been able to rest for the past two months,” she says. But she dismisses any suggestions of opening a shop for dine-in customers. “I’m working at my comfort level now and I don’t want the stress of having overheads. I failed once before so I don’t want to go that route again.” So if you have a craving, start practising your finger speed, or appeal to Ms Ng’s good nature and maybe, just maybe, she’ll slot you in.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
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