Baking has always been in 46-year-old Daniel Tay’s blood.
In fact, his late father is a veteran baker and confectioner himself with 30 years of experience under his belt. And since young, Tay would spend his days in the kitchen helping out his father.
Naturally, it sparked a desire in him to take up baking professionally; so at age 28, he decided to get himself trained in the art of French pastry.
Now, he boasts an impressive resumé that includes stints at Fauchon, a renowned gourmet food retailer in Paris, and fine-dining restaurant Les Amis in Singapore.
From Baker’s Inn To Bakerzin
The award-winning pastry chef soon became a notable figure in the local pastry scene; and over the years, he noted a demand for good and affordable classic desserts – which at that point were only served in hotels.
So in 1998, he pumped in a “large investment” to set up his own business to fill a niche for this demand.
That was how he founded Baker’s Inn, a patisserie-cafe that was later renamed in 2004 to Bakerzin, as it is now known.
Tay did not disclose the exact business capital, but claimed that it took him almost three years to break even. Business did really well in fact, as the company’s annual turnover was approximately $13 million to $14 million.
“The response to Baker’s Inn was very positive and looked promising in terms of expansion plans. We were providing customers with products of high quality and finesse and they were responding enthusiastically to this. Like all businesses, the challenges came along when we decided to look at expanding the brand,” said Tay.
Additionally, increasing rentals began eating into profits and soon, sales were no longer substantial enough to cover rentals.
Tay ended up selling Bakerzin in 2007, but managed it until end-2013.
Investing In The Bigger Picture
After leaving the business in 2013, Tay went on to invest $2 million to start up Foodgnostic Pte Ltd, a food solutions company that focuses on food contract and manufacturing.
He had anticipated a market for food innovation and large-scale food supply contracting, so he built a centralised bakery and food production facility at Kampong Ampat to tap on this opportunity.
“I was proud of the reputation I had gained in the pastry and baking arena, and wanted to share this with the industry in a bigger way. There was definitely a demand for this service (food production facility) and expertise; and this is just another way for me to share my knowledge in the F&B business,” said Tay.
With his reputation and contacts, he soon amassed a client list substantial enough to get production going. He refused to disclose specific names, but hinted that most of them are well-known restaurants and café chains.
Essentially, Foodgnostic provides full contract and private label manufacturing solutions to help companies improve operational efficiency and cost control.
Through the use of sophisticated technology, Foodgnostic is able to reap the economy of scales to free up the manpower and heavy capital investment required to produce the products while allowing companies the ability to focus on other strategic business concerns.
Right now, Tay said that they are looking at expanding their central kitchen and production floor to handle more business.
He is also toying with the idea to go regional and is in the midst of entering the Chinese market, though he refused to disclose further details.
Specialising In Cheesecakes
The following year in 2014, he launched an e-commerce platform that specialises in retailing cheesecakes called Cat & The Fiddle.
“It was born out of two things – my passion for creating some of the best cheesecakes in Singapore, and wanting to continue my relationship with my customers who love my cakes and bakes. It is my way of staying in touch with them, showing them that I am still very much a pastry chef at heart through a good cheesecake repertoire,” said Tay.
“It was also an opportunity for us to look at a business that ran solely online, and we are very pleased at how well it is doing. We are the only premium online cheesecake business in Singapore.”
So why did he choose to focus on only cheesecakes instead of diversifying his bakes?
“The possibilities are endless when it come to cheesecake creations. The first step was to have a fantastic classic cheesecake recipe, which we perfected. Then with this, we started to create clever cheesecake flavours including several that had an interesting Asian and local twist such as Mao Shan Wang durian and Milo Dinosaur.”
“Many people are armchair shoppers, so it made sense for us to go online and so far, the results are very good.”
Being an online retailer also meant that customers have the flexibility to choose the most convenient means of obtaining their purchases, including doorstep delivery.
Cat & The Fiddle currently offers a curated variety of 17 cheesecake flavours so there is bound to be something for every craving and occasion.
Thanks to their wide selection of flavours, some first-time customers have trouble deciding on which cake to buy.
Hence, the team created Fickle Feline, whereby ten slices of different flavours are put together to craft a whole cake. This gives the customer the opportunity to ‘taste test’ several selections before settling on a favourite flavour.
The idea took off, and this cheesecake is now one of the top sellers at Cat & The Fiddle. A non-alcoholic version of this special cheesecake is also created, called Fickle Feline 2.0.
Commenting on the business growth, Tay said that they “produce 500 cakes a day, and rake in an annual turnover of between $1 and $2 million.”
He recently established a branch in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and is looking to branch out even further and export his cakes worldwide.
Continuing His Father’s Legacy
Besides Cat & The Fiddle, Tay started up another online business venture, called Old Seng Choong.
Launched in January 2016, Old Seng Choong retails traditional bakes and cakes online such as red date cake, carrot cake, yam cake, and pineapple tarts.
“I created this as a tribute to my father because I wanted to carry on my father’s legacy as a dedicated baker. It is named after the well-loved Seng Choong Confectionary, which was established in 1965 and run by my parents until its closure in 1996,” said Tay.
In 1995, Tay had come onboard to expand his father’s business but didn’t succeed in doing so then.
He converted the shop into the retail arm of his wholesale bakery business that supplied frozen bread dough to restaurants and hotels. However, poor sales and a heavy investment in high-end baking equipment led to its closure within a year.
The shop even had to be sold to pay off part of his debts.
Tay ended up racking up debts of “a few hundred thousands”, which was a rather substantial sum back then.
To recoup the losses, he reverted to being a home baker, selling homemade Oreo cheesecakes at $24 each. He finally managed to clear his debts within two years.
Closing down his dad’s business was one of the biggest regrets of his life, and Tay had always wanted to make it up to his father.
This was why he wanted to revive the brand and launch this online platform to continue his father’s legacy.
At its launch, Tay could feel that his father was immensely proud of him and felt then that he had finally done right by him after all these years. It was unfortunate that his father passed on a few months after that.
“After spending the past two decades further honing my skills as a baker and sharpening my business acumen, I’m ready to revive the Seng Choong brand in his honour. And this time, I will do him proud,” said Tay.
Business was booming from the get-go, with about 1,000 cakes sold in its first week.
Lessons From A Serial F&B Entrepreneur
It certainly has been a rollercoaster ride for Tay all these years, as he tasted the sweetness of success and the bitterness of failure.
And one takeaway from his years of experience is to “practice more financial restraint.”
Tay confessed that he faced many constraints in his entrepreneurial journey, especially financial ones, so a smart entrepreneur should be more prudent so you don’t end up ‘burning’ your business.
When asked about a business mantra that he lives by, Tay stressed that “integrity” is very important to him.
If you are intent on growing ventures off bad business practices, it will come back to bite you. Focus on building a reputable brand name before you think of building profits.
That said, be honest with your customers and clients. You can always pump money into a business, but you can never recover from a bad reputation.
Featured Image Credit: Daniel Tay