Filling our stomachs and hearts with hot curry puffs and fried snacks for as long as we can remember, beloved local brand Old Chang Kee has been all the talk lately.
On 4 June, Singaporeans working or studying in the United Kingdom rejoiced at the news that they opened their first outlet in London.
In May, we also heard about the opening of the brand’s 50-seater flagship coffee house, located along Mackenzie Road where their business first began.
We pick up our favourite Curry’O for breakfast, and grab sticks of fried sotong head for a midday snack.
In almost any part of Singapore, you’re sure to find one of over 70 stalls to satiate your appetite.
But how much do you know about the company’s beginnings and journey to success?
It’s time to get properly acquainted with one of Singapore’s most notable F&B brands.
The Hainanese Curry Puff Since 1956
It all started from a humble little curry puff stall opened by Chang Chuan Boon, an immigrant from Hainan.
While we associate Old Chang Kee’s origins with Rex Cinema, Chang actually set up in two other places before moving to that famous location.
In 1956, he set up his first stall at Koek Road, before moving to Albert Street until the hawkers were relocated by the Environment Ministry between 1981.
It was around 1973 when Chang opened a stall at a coffee shop on Mackenzie Road, near Rex Cinema.
One curry puff went for 35 cents then, and they became affectionately known as the “Rex curry puffs”.
Said current owner, Han Keen Juan in an interview, “Old Chang Kee was doing so well when Rex Theatre was still performing movies.”
Those days, movies were not like today — one show [seated] a few hundred people. The moment the show ended, people would rush out to pick up the curry puffs already.
He recognised the stall’s early popularity, and also knew Chang personally through the Hainanese Association.
When Chang decided to retire to Hainan in 1986, Han gathered a small group of investors and bought over the stall for $70,000.
Beginning A New Era of Leadership
Coming from a corporate background, Han gave up a comfortable job in an established MNC when he decided to take over Old Chang Kee.
He always dreamt of becoming a businessman, an aspiration he credits his Chinese upbringing for.
At the age of 36, he told himself it was time to act.
Mr Han wasted no time turning Old Chang Kee into a modern business. Within his first year, he moved operations to a central kitchen.
It was an unfamiliar concept to the public then, as people valued the idea of authenticity in handmade food.
However, Mr Han was clear about his decision, placing consistency above all else. Everything was controlled and standardised, from potato peeling to deep frying.
Han has admitted he never liked cooking, and couldn’t even fry an egg.
After taking over Old Chang Kee, he got his hands dirty, learning every step of the production. He also travelled to India and Sri Lanka to educate himself about spices.
Shareholders Turned Their Backs On $12,000 Branding
Consistency was the reason Mr Han believed Old Chang Kee was worthy of being called “the better puff”.
He sought to create a brand identity that communicated this value.
At first, he found someone who could design a logo on a budget of $300, an amount he said was considered “substantial” at the time.
When the design came back unsatisfactory, Han turned to a friend he knew from his corporate job, who was able to offer him a “special discount price” — $12,000 for a logo.
Confidence wavered by the hefty price, four shareholders pulled out and left Han and his cousin, Bugs Tan, to support the business alone.
Han’s nephew, William Lim, later invested $5,000 in the business. He joined the company as a managing director in 1995 upon completing his degree, and eventually took on the role of CEO.
Expansion Despite A Bumpy Road
Going into this venture, Han had nothing.
“I had to borrow from friends, and ask my wife to pawn all the jewellery,” he said.
To make things tougher, the stall at Mackenzie Road faced a rental hike from $600 to $3,000 per month.
Still, Han managed to make things work by adopting a strategy of gradual expansion. He first opened outlets at Shenton Way and Serangoon Gardens.
By 1991, Old Chang Kee had 12 outlets around Singapore and its sales turnover had surged to $1.6 million, from $700,000 in 1987.
Mr Han once again decided to relocate operations to a more modern, 20,000 sq. feet facility in Woodlands to increase production capacity.
The first time Old Chang Kee made its way across borders was in 1993, when franchise outlets opened in Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Japan.
They were followed by stores opened in Myanmar, South Africa, India and New Zealand by 1997.
However, complaints flooded in about poor quality puffs overseas, forcing Old Chang Kee to withdraw all overseas franchises at a loss of $50,000 in 2002.
Selling 35,000 Puffs And Beyond
The organisation worked on growth in Singapore for that period, with William Lim leading the expansion of stores locally.
Previously, most Old Chang Kee stalls were opened in MRT stations.
Lim began opening outlets at street level, doubling them to almost 40 by 2005.
The company’s annual turnover reached $20 million in 2004. At the same time, it secured halal certification.
Old Chang Kee was ready to re-enter overseas markets, opening three factories in Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines, to maintain production quality.
By 2008, the company boasted of 60 outlets in Singapore, and 11 overseas.
Old Chang Kee had gone from selling 700 curry puffs to 35,000 curry puffs a day.
And they didn’t stop there.
Not only did they go on to offer 30 other products, including the fried nuggets and fish balls we love. The company also started night deliveries to cater to early-morning customers, and opened dine-in cafés like Curry Times and Mushroom Café.
Said Mr Han, “We started the cafes to gain more market share as many Singaporeans like to dine out. Our customers can make payments, including Nets transactions, and collect their food on their own.”
Old Chang Kee was the only Singaporean company to be selected as one of the world’s 20 best fast food chains by US based Travel & Leisure Magazine in 2017.
Qualities of The Successful Businessman
Whenever we talk about visionary businesspeople who built successful brands from small beginnings, we know there’s something to learn from them.
There’s much we can look up to Mr Han for, like his determination to press forward even when others have backed out.
Mr Han himself looked up to late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew so much that he had the MM’s portrait hung up at Old Chang Kee’s headquarters instead of his own.
Alongside it was the quote, “The day you can’t adjust and change, that day you begin to shrivel and die…that’s all. The day I’m unable to learn new things, I’m out of touch with the world, then I’m useless.”
While Mr Han was constantly adapting to modern technologies to support Old Chang Kee’s operations, he was also known for providing job opportunities to the elderly to help them support themselves.
At least 80% of Old Chang Kee’s staff are said to be 45 and above.
Thankful for the success Old Chang Kee has experienced, Han said in an interview, “I have been the beneficiary of taxpayer money, and this nation is where my fortunes grew.”
Businesses succeed thanks to good conditions. We have to give back to the environment that helped us rise from nothing.
Featured Image Credit: Old Chang Kee