“Don’t bother,” they told her. “It’s too difficult. Don’t drag your elderly mother into this.” As if she was trying to move mountains, many dissuaded Elizabeth Chan when she decided to go into the F&B business. Her mum had been selling home-made kuehs since 2011, so she decided to join her in Kueh Ho Jiak.
Her goal was simple: expand the business by repositioning the traditional sweets for a younger audience. Think ang ku kueh – soft, sticky glutinous rice flour skin wrapped around a sweet filling – in the shape of teddy bears instead of tortoises and png kueh – glutinous savoury rice cake usually in a uniform pink or white – with a rainbow-hued skin.
“Nine out of 10 people I spoke to told me not to do it,” says the 31-year-old. “Nobody would buy such modern kuehs, they said.” But the feisty Chan wasn’t about to have her fire doused by naysayers. “My mother always insists on making the kuehs from scratch and using traditional methods and all-natural ingredients so they not only taste good and authentic but are wholesome, too.
“It was more difficult than making kuehs look good by using chemical additives but I saw the value in her logic.” So, with no previous experience in the industry, she dived in head first, pouring effort into R&D and working with her mother to give the traditional kuehs a modern outlook.
At the same time, she set up a hawker stall in Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market, giving Kueh Ho Jiak its first commercial address.
“I worked from 4am to 11pm, doing prep in the early mornings and marketing work at night after we closed. It was mind over
matter, every day.” While supportive clients, including nearby residents who volunteered to help with the prep during the hectic festive seasons, cheered her on, Chan continued to face obstacles.
For instance, at a roadshow in Orchard Road, her attempts to draw younger customers were met with condescending remarks such as “Sorry, I don’t eat kueh”. Well, that just got her even more fired up. “Kuehs might not be as trendy as macarons, but they are a part of our food culture and something to be proud of.” Then she lost a large amount of capital when Kueh Ho Jiak Cafe, set up in 2018, closed last year. “That was tough, but when forced into a corner, you will focus all your energies on finding a way out.”
And she did, by leveraging on technology. Working through her personal social media network, she found effective ways to get to her target audience and expand Kueh Ho Jiak’s reach. Through aggressive social marketing, the stall’s clientele steadily shifted from an older crowd to customers 20 years younger. Kueh Ho Jiak’s bespoke service also drew the attention of corporate clients. Some of its unique confections include camera-shaped ang ku kueh for Leica and airplane-shaped kuehs for the Singapore Airshow.
Though Chan insists on keeping things lo-fi when it comes to production, the corporate clientele propelled her to scale production to up to 5,000 pieces a day. “Technology might have helped us grow our business and get ahead of market trends, but we still keep it out of production. We feel equipment will affect the taste and texture of our kuehs,” shares Chan. Apart from setting up an e-commerce platform, the brand is launching a second outlet in Smith Street, too. Chan estimates the business has grown by 80 per cent since 2017. “My dream is to be the gift of choice for overseas travellers to take home – and to be a brand Singapore can be proud of.”