CEO Series

Son Of Prime's Chairman Doesn't Just Do Supermarkets: He Lets S'poreans Enjoy Healthy Food From Farm-To-Table

  • Mahota Commune is a multi-concept store that helps people live healthier together, from organic food and groceries, to enriching group activities.
  • Son of Prime Group International’s Chairman, Tan Yong Shao, was inspired by his family’s farming background to create the wholesome retail and F&B space.

Last year, we wrote about how Singapore’s largest family-owned supermarket chain, Prime was founded, and took a peek into the truly unique ways of the Tan family.

Over 80 family members across generations live together in one house, and many hold jobs under the Prime umbrella too.

They believe in sharing a communal way of life, taking care of every member’s wellbeing, and existing as one complete ecosystem.

It may feel alien for most of us to imagine living in such an arrangement, but one of the Tans’ later business concepts does a fair job of bringing people together to experience community.

And thank goodness, it’s far less frightening than having all your relatives and entire kampong under one roof.

Occupying a 20,000 sq ft space, Mahota Commune is quite unlike its supermarket predecessor, Prime. It encompasses a gourmet grocer, cosy F&B spaces, nature-inspired preschool, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic, and activity studio.

mahota kitchener
Image Credit: Mahota Commune

The entire venue encourages people to make wholesome lifestyle choices, while also slowing down to dine, dwell, and engage together in one place.

Behind the idea, second generation of Prime Group International, 37-year-old Tan Yong Shao shares how Mahota Commune came to be.

Being The Son Of Prime Group’s Chairman

Before entering the supermarket business, the Tans had been farmers since the 1930s, at one point owning Singapore’s largest pig farm.

Their pivot was one made out of necessity, when the government completely phased out pig farming by 1990.

Growing up around this time, Yong Shao witnessed how his father, Tan Hong Khoon, led the family through a huge shift in their business and ensured they weren’t left without a livelihood.

“My earliest childhood memories consist of mucking about in the farm, [getting] up to no good,” he recalls.

When he was about 6 years old, Yong Shao vividly remembers a simple but impactful memory that took place on their old farm back in the 80’s.

tan hong khoon son
Father, Tan Hong Khoon, and son, Tan Yong Shao / Image Credit: Mahota Commune

“While my father was taking a break in the evening after a long day of labour, I heard the familiar melody of the ice-cream man [approaching] on the street outside and [asked if I could] get one.”

The elder Mr Tan at first refused, but eventually relented after seeing his son in tears. However, by the time young Yong Shao made a fuss and received twenty cents to buy his ice-cream, the man on the trishaw had already passed by.

With this anecdote, Yong Shao explains that his father, an authoritative figure and the Chairman of Prime Group International, had always been hardworking and strict, but ultimately loving.

Under Mr Tan’s leadership, the family was not just able to establish a chain of 20 supermarket outlets serving Singapore’s heartlands, but also revisited their agricultural roots with a new farm in Shanghai.

Leasing an entire island called Sun Island, Mr Tan spearheaded the business’ expansion to cover new grounds in hospitality and education too. He opened Sun Island Resorts and Golf Course, and Shanghai Singapore International School.

Switching To Healthier Habits In Shanghai

After Mr Tan suffered from a heart attack in 2007, it was a turning point for him and his family to integrate healthy habits into their lives.

He was never a smoker or drinker, but Chinese cooking tends to be high in carbs with plenty of rice and flour, and Mr Tan was also coping with diabetes since he was 40.

We knew that a plant-based diet was very important for him, so we started growing organic produce at [the farm we owned in Shanghai].

organic farm
Mahota Farm / Image Credit: Smart Shanghai

As the farm was situated on an island that was home to a pagoda (“mao ta” in Chinese), Yong Shao took inspiration to name the farm “Mahota”, and later on the name followed with their expansion.

Since initiating the farm’s organic transition in 2010, they went on to create Mahota Market, a fresh food grocer to sell their organic crops, and Mahota Kitchen, a restaurant using their own produce as ingredients.

These were housed together with a TCM clinic in a two-storey building in Shanghai, in what Yong Shao calls a “prototype concept store” that brings the farm into the city.

A Communal Effort Spanning 6 Years To Bring Mahota To S’pore

We had always been very keen to bring Mahota back to Singapore as we felt that Singaporeans would love what we do. So when the opportunity came calling in the form of the entire third floor of Kitchener Complex, we jumped right into the project.

Mahota Commune as the name suggests, is truly a collective effort,” Yong Shao says.

While he and his wife, Valerie Tan, formulated Mahota’s business template, they also worked closely with nutrition specialists, Japanese interior designers, and the Prime Supermarket retail team.

Fully up and running in 2016, the result was a comfortable and welcoming space for people to gather surrounded by lush greenery, easing them in to enjoy some good food and company.

mahota commune
Image Credit: Mahota Commune

“We believed that a new diet will only be sustainable with the support of a community of like-minded people, so we set out to build Mahota as a platform for good food, good ingredients and good people.”

True to their aim, customers don’t stop at having cups of organic coffee at the Pantry, or a plate of handmade pasta at the Kitchen, but also book the venues to host intimate parties, baby showers and weddings.

Mahota’s activity studio is also frequently filled with bustle, as people come to attend cooking classes, aromatherapy workshops, group workouts, and the like.

kokedama singapore
‘Kokedama’ workshop / Image Credit: Mahota Commune

Healthy lifestyle changes sometimes come and go with trends, but Yong Shao feels encouraged to see a continually positive turn-up whenever Mahota organises events like “keto” nutrition courses, and wellness retreat camps.

People aren’t just giving attention to their diets either, they also sign up to learn about preventive self care through do-it-yourself traditional Chinese “gua sha” or acupressure classes with Mahota’s certified TCM physicians.

tcm singapore
Mahota Clinic / Image Credit: Mahota Commune

While the adults take part in these holistic activities, some also send their young ones to Mahota Preschool.

The school can take children from playgroup to kindergarten (18 months to 6 years of age), getting kids started early on learning compassion and coexistence with the environment.

Aside from teaching skills in language, mathematics, and social interaction, the preschool also weaves in farming, cooking, calligraphy, and nature excursions into their programme.

preschool singapore
Students holding their seedlings / Image Credit: Mahota Preschool

Understanding Our Relationship With The Environment

Beyond organic food, the Mahota Market and restaurants also source a wider variety of groceries, ingredients and products.

“Organic is not the only yardstick for how we define good food,” Yong Shao says. “We also curate and source from reputable farms and suppliers. We use a large range of chef-made pastas, whole foods and products that are sustainably grown.”

At any one time, they have over 500 suppliers that are constantly changing and updating.

Born into a farming family, we take pride in what we produce, enjoy good food and lead a communal life,” he says, crediting his upbringing for teaching him many lessons in life and business.

It’s also the reason why he hopes Mahota Commune will help people understand that our environment is “not just for consumption”, but to see ourselves as “part of the environment” we live in.

Assemble A Business, Then Take It Apart

When asked about Mahota’s biggest milestone, Yong Shao is proudest of how the store has gone against the conventional understanding of retail and F&B, and overcome the challenging task of integrating various verticals into a coherent experience.

That said, it seems ironic then, that their next challenge was to work out how Mahota Commune could be dissected into its separate parts to open a second outlet in a mall that allowed for less space.

Now, in addition to their flagship store at Kitchener Complex, Yong Shao and his team brought Mahota Market and Mahota Kitchen to Century Square in 2018.

Unlike before, the two sections are located on different floors in this new location.

We worked closely with AsiaMalls (Century Square’s management) on the clustering of the businesses. This is the first time the tried and tested components in Mahota Commune were modularised and realised as independent stores.

mahota century square
Gourmet Food Station at the entrance to Mahota Market / Image Credit: Mahota Commune

Found on the basement floor, Mahota Market features a Gourmet Food Station at the entrance, where shoppers can get chefs to whip an order up for them while they pick up their groceries.

Some other unique offerings also include a juice bar and a build-your-own bento kiosk!

Up on the first level is Mahota Kitchen, serving diners with an eclectic curation of delectable dishes. Likewise, ingredients used mainly come from Mahota Farm, really bringing “farm-to-table”.

The restaurant also features a kombucha bar, in collaboration with a rotation of various local breweries, such as Craft & Culture.

Customers can enjoy the health benefits in a fresh cup of fermented tea together with their meal.

mahota century square
Mahota Kitchen at Century Square / Image Credit: Mahota Commune

Throughout his challenges, Yong Shao always remembers how his family overcame their obstacles since switching from pig farming to supermarkets in 1984, and subsequently expanding into resort hospitality, education, health and wellness and F&B.

Since then, I believe it is etched into our business DNA that industry diversity is the true solution to the ever changing business environment.

In line with that, he plans for Mahota Commune to continue growing and adapting like a living organism—with new locations, pop-up stores, and collaborations coming up in the future!

Learn more about Mahota Commune here, and become a part of their community here.

Mahota Commune
809 French Road, Kitchener Complex, Level 3
Singapore 200809

Mahota Market & Kitchen
2 Tampines Central 5, Century Square, #B1-07 & #01-11
Singapore 529509

 

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