When my colleague and I arrived at the wet market for the interview, we were greeted by rows of closed shutters.
A given, as it was already around 3pm, way past the market’s peak hours.
Heading towards the row where the Ang Mo Kio branch of Anthony The Spice Maker is located, we noticed that two shop lots still remained open.
The one on the left looked more like a Muji pop-up store with warm lighting, wooden shelves, and brown paper packets.
The one on the right looked more like your typical wet market stall with fluorescent lighting, and steel shelves with huge plastic boxes neatly arranged on them.
It was on the ‘old school’ side where we met Jack Leow, the son of Anthony The Spice Maker and 3rd-gen owner of the family business.
Huddled over a steel bowl, Jack was busy mixing spices when we arrived. Next to him was an auntie, who too was busy weighing and packing spice mixes.
“Hey! Give me just 5 minutes, I’m almost done with this mix,” he chirped, his enthusiasm not muffled by the white mask that covered most of his face.
Apart from keeping spice prep sanitary, the mask protects him from the pungent smells and fine powders he deals with on a daily basis.
But it’s not just his mask or age that makes him stand out from his neighbours.
In a world of rubber boots, plastic aprons and dialects, Jack is a distinct figure with his sneakers, full sleeves of tattoos, and near-impeccable English.
A 3rd-Gen Spice Maker Of A 39-Year-Old Business
Jack is 28 this year, and his father, Anthony, is the namesake and ‘face’ of the business.
While the older Leow helms their first store at Chinatown Complex, Jack runs the show at their newer Ang Mo Kio stall.
But the family didn’t always deal with spices, and were previously selling textiles and washing shark fins for restaurants at their kampong house.
However, the 1960s and 70s were a time of change for Singapore and Singaporeans, and the Leow family was soon asked to vacate their kampong and move into the newly-built HDB flats.
“We actually brought that trade with us, and we tried to clean the sharks’ fin at the HDB,” shared Jack.
“It was a very, very smelly business.”
[Unfortunately,] neighbours started to complain to the authorities and we had no choice but to stop the business.
With one business closed comes another business opportunity, and Jack’s grandfather quickly realised the potential of selling spices.
“He saw that there’s a very big market for spices, because we had many homecooks around at that point of time.”
In 1979, the Leow family started their first market stall.
Not knowing anything about spices, Jack’s uncle and grandmother went to Tekka market to learn some basics from Indian spice merchants.
Jack’s grandfather’s gamble paid off, and their business flourished.
However, it was Anthony who concocted the special spice mixes that define the brand.
Then a young man in his 20s, he picked up spice recipes from the customers that patronised them.
Their clientele, a mix of Malay, Peranakan, Hainanese, and Indian homecooks, unwittingly contributed to young Anthony’s repertoire with their orders.
For example, a nyonya would come and say, “Ah boy, I want 2 scoops of tumeric, and a little bit of chilli, some black pepper and some candlenut.” And my father (Anthony) would ask, “What do you want to cook with this?”
“That’s how my dad was able to come up with these unique blends,” shared Jack proudly.
With the pressure of carrying on a long established family business on him, I asked Jack if being a spice maker was something he aspired towards.
“I had no interest at all,” he quipped.
“When I was very young I wanted to be a firefighter or policeman to fight the bad guys and save people,” he recalled.
“When I grew older, I wanted to become a professional fighter.”
I love fighting! I loved getting into fights – not so much about torturing or abusing people, but I used to watch a lot of action movies, haha!
While his older ambitions were simply whims, Jack revealed that one of his greatest dreams was to become an abstract artist.
“I loved sketching and photography,” he recalled.
He even pursued it for a short period “about 4 years or so ago” while he was undergoing depression.
Currently, Jack is working full-time for the family business, and is constantly thinking of new ways to make it more successful than it already is.
“I Was Actually A Blind Businessman – I Knew Nothing”
Just like his grandparents in the 70s, Jack too joined the business without any knowledge of spices and how to mix them.
There was one thing he was great in, though – sales.
“I was very very good at doing sales…because I can mingle with the aunties!”
He credits his ‘auntie-killer’ reputation to his flair for languages and dialects.
“I can speak Teochew, I can speak Hokkien, I can speak English – my Mandarin is not that good, but I can still speak it.”
“Whenever I encounter Teochew aunties – you can hear from their accent if they are Teochew – I converse in Teochew with them, and they will LOVE you to bits man!”
But at the start, that was all I knew – doing sales. I was actually a blind businessman. I knew nothing.
And just like his father, Jack turned to the best source of advice – his customers.
“We have a lot of chefs and homecooks [at the Ang Mo Kio market], and it was more of me asking them questions initially.”
“When most people come to us, they actually don’t really care about what we know, they want to tell you what they know. And it’s always more interesting to find out more from them!”
In spite of his enthusiasm in both dealing with clients and speaking with us, Jack admitted matter-of-factly that he’s actually “not really passionate about spices”.
“But that doesn’t mean that I suck at what I’m doing!”
I feel [that managing a business doesn’t mean that] you must be passionate. It’s about knowing, in very practical terms, what to do to make it thrive.
For example, rehauling the packaging for the spices was something Jack came up with after realising that cheap plastic bags didn’t do their products justice.
“We’ve been using the best quality of spices all along, so it doesn’t make any sense that we’re putting something that is so good in such lousy packaging.”
This overhaul was accepted by Anthony, but Jack revealed that the father-son duo also had their fair share of disagreements over the years.
“We clashed a lot, because you can’t have two captains on the ship.”
But these were very small fights. We understand that the main reason [we fight] is because we are very emotionally invested in this, and we really mean business.
The duo now take on very different roles.
“I’m more of the director in layman terms,” he explained. “I envision things, and my job is to facilitate that to happen.”
“But my father is the founder – he’s that guy.”
Recently, Jack’s younger sister also jumped on board, taking charge of their recipe videos and social media channels.
With the popularity of recipe videos from channels like Tasty and The MeatMen especially among millennial home cooks, I asked Jack if their videos have brought any new customers.
“I don’t think we’re very bothered about whether or not it brings us more customers.”
My stance is always: ‘We will execute what we think is necessary and get it done. If it works, then good for us. If it doesn’t then no harm trying.’
Customers Now Also Include Expats And Young Parents
While the business is mostly based at their two physical stores, they also make regular appearances at flea markets and festivals, and are stocked at Huber’s Butchery, Singapore’s largest gourmet meat market.
Jack declines to reveal any figures, but business seems to be brisk.
He explained, “We started off by learning from an Indian guy, [but] these recipes are a combination of our different ethnic groups, and we are going through a time when a lot of Singaporeans are living overseas for school or career.”
“We also have an influx of foreigners, […] that’s one of the reasons why these products are moving so quickly.”
Not just the typical auntie/makcik crowd, Jack shared that he has also seen an influx of young parents patronising their store.
“It’s actually very expensive to eat out these days. I have a wife and two kids, so I know how tough it is to eat out every meal. Especially [if you want to find meals] without MSG and preservatives.”
“Ultimately, It’s Not Easy To Perfect A Spice Blend”
For Jack, his favourite part of running the business is getting the chance to meet “all sorts of people”, and feels heartened whenever he receives compliments.
“[The regular customers] are very encouraging.”
They’ll say, ‘My family members love your spices so much. I’m so glad that you even bother to carry on the family business, or else we won’t get to eat these down the road.’
Despite their popularity amongst local and international homecooks, complacency is something the family of spice makers avoid, and they constantly look to improve their mixes.
When I talk about improving the blend, I talk about bringing the costs down, I talk about using ingredients of better quality, and how to make it look nicer, how to make this place feel more inviting.
“But ultimately, it’s not easy to perfect a spice blend, because perfection doesn’t lie here.”
As for future plans, Jack shared that he’s not a fan of setting goals for the business.
“I always tell my sister and father not to digress or look to far. I tell them to look at what we’re having, what’s in our arsenal, and how to improve on everything that we’re having.”
“[It’s always just about] how to improve productivity, how to drive costs down, how to drive retail prices down so that we can attract more customers – that’s all!”
I’d like to thank Jack for his time!
Interested in their spices? Check out their website here, or visit them at their stores below:
Anthony The Spice Maker (Ang Mo Kio)
Blk 160, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4
#01-77/78, Singapore 560160
Anthony The Spice Maker (Chinatown)
335 Smith Street, #B1-169
Chinatown Complex, Singapore 050335