Have you ever loved a dish so much that you decided to turn it into a business?
I’m pretty sure that while it could’ve been a fleeting thought, many of us won’t actually do anything concrete about it.
For 25-going-on-26-year-old Tan Wee Yang, however, he managed to turn a lifelong fondness for fried chicken into a successful business.
When A Quest For The Best Fried Chicken Turns Into Inspiration
Just like many Singaporeans, Wee Yang is a self-professed foodie with a burning passion for good eats.
In particular, har cheong gai (prawn paste fried chicken).
“It was part of my growing up [years], and was shared over dinner at coffeeshops, restaurants, and at home. It was one of the local dishes that I never failed to order during [meals with family],” he shared with me.
Among the types of fried chicken that I’ve loved, har cheong gai holds a special place.
And his love for the dish is evident, even over email.
“Har cheong gai is one of those enigmatic foods – it smells so pungent when it’s raw, [but becomes] one of the most fragrant and umami tasting dishes [after it is cooked],” he swooned.
He even went on “food hunts around Singapore” in the search for the best fried chicken that was available out there.
However, he soon realised that none of the stalls could match the dedication he had for the dish.
“I ate and ate my way through all the best [stalls] and wondered why nobody wanted to specialise in har cheong gai.”
Tried “Hundreds Of Variations” Until He Got The Magic Recipe
Then, Wee Yang was a Polytechnic graduate in business studies, and he had started working as a machinery salesperson while waiting for the university term to begin.
While it felt like he had his years planned out for him, Wee Yang still harboured a wish to start an F&B business.
And he knew exactly where to begin – creating and selling har cheong gai that was “unforgettable”.
However, there was a problem – he was more a foodie than a cooking enthusiast.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love cooking, […] it’s just that I enjoy eating more!
“[Because of that,] I cook food that I want and like to eat…thankfully, I have discerning taste buds from years of hunting good food!”
With that, he turned his kitchen at home into a lab, and began the search for the perfect recipe.
“Cooking a decent har cheong gai was easy, finding ‘the recipe’ was crazily tough!”
I tried hundreds of variations and different methods before frying [the wings].
“[For example] sous vide, injections, braising, double dipping […] and any type of flour I could get my hands on.”
Eventually, Wee Yang’s hard work came to fruition – he had created the perfect har cheong gai.
Not wanting to keep it all to himself, he worked to bring his business dream to reality, calling his venture “Ah Tan Wings”, a nod to his surname and local culture.
It was around then that he also got acquainted with the Tiger Beer Street Food Support Fund, which hands out grants to stalls with innovative designs and “a view towards long-term expansion”.
Alongside his sister Yu Yan (28), Wee Yang’s social media marketing plan for Ah Tan Wings won over the judges and they got $10,000 from the homegrown beer company to grow their business.
In March 2017, they opened their first pop-up stall at the Kranji Countryside Farmers’ Market, and sold out all the stocks in spite of being rookie F&B entrepreneurs.
Bolstered by the confidence that their first rodeo gave them, they participated in more events, gaining fans along the way.
The crowds loved his take on a familiar dish, and were lapping up the wings as quickly as he could cook them.
“The response was good [at the start], and over a course of several events, [it became] overwhelming!”
Opening At ‘Hawkerpreneur Haven’ Yishun Park Hawker Centre
In September last year, Ah Tan Wings officially opened at the newly-built Yishun Park Hawker Centre.
The Tan siblings were lucky, because they were able to ride off all the media attention that the hawker centre was getting.
This was due to the unique make-up of its hawkers – out of 43, thirteen of them were first-time owners. Most of them were also in their 20s, and offering more “creative” dishes than the usual hawker fare.
Added Wee Yang, “I guess it was a great place to start, [because] the hawker centre has many young ‘startup’ hawkers [who thought like us].”
With the hype came crowds, and he admitted that the first 2-3 weeks were “crazy”, and they only managed to get 5 hours of sleep a day.
“[This was] mainly because I wasn’t culinary trained in a commercial kitchen and had difficulties cooking in large volumes.”
The first few weeks were also when he realised that he needed to tweak his menu because “everyone was [just] here for the har cheong gai“.
“I had a more extensive menu – fries, salad, Japanese okonomiyaki, [but] I scraped all the ‘extra dishes’ and put all my focus on the har cheong gai to maintain the quality.”
Wee Yang cites manpower and rental as the main challenges that he’s facing, factors that other hawkerpreneurs we interviewed mentioned as well.
“Margins are much slimmer since both of these are high,” he sighed.
And the sky is definitely not the limit for pricing in hawker centres.
However, he still stands firmly by his choice of location and has no plans to move to a more cushy location, like a mall or cafe.
“My favourite part [about a hawker centre] is the interaction with customers and other hawkers.”
“It’s informal, and you can easily sit down with anybody over kopi – it’s the closest thing to a kampung.”
I’ve always loved street food culture and in Singapore, hawker centres are our street food. It may not be all nice, clean, and organised, but the vibrancy and culture is still very much there.
Selling 600 To 900 Wings A Day
Wee Yang shared that currently, business is brisk and they sell 600 to 900 wings a day.
He credits the success to regulars and food bloggers – all of whom have raved over his har cheong gai.
Ah Tan Wings’ route to success has been brisk, but the long hours tackling tough problems and his team’s perseverance paying off is what fills the young hawkerpreneur with pride.
As for future plans, he reveals that he is currently planning for a second stall, and that there is “something very interesting brewing on the R&D side”.
Join Wee Yang in his mission to #MakeYishunGreatAgain, and remember to grab a wing or 2 along the way!
Ah Tan Wings
Yishun Park Hawker Centre
51, Yishun Avenue 11, #01-40