Entrepreneur

Tong Heng: How This 4th Gen S'pore Biz Owner Revamped Her Family's 100-Year-Old Bakery

There’s a popular bakery in Chinatown that sells dairy-free, diamond-shaped egg tarts in pretty, brightly-coloured packaging.

Ana Fong, the bakery’s 4th-generation successor and General Manager, wants you to know that the brand has a name: Tong Heng.

This 100-year-old Cantonese pastry has been making the rounds on Singapore’s food-crazed scene. This year, it has been listed as one of the heritage brands selling a hybrid cake/pastry for the upcoming National Day.

But it’s modern-day success wasn’t always the case. At one point, Tong Heng risked disappearing into the annals of Singaporean F&B history.

Tong Heng Almost Faded Into The Background After The 70s

Starting from humble origins, Tong Heng used to be a street stall run by Ana’s great-grandfather in the 1920s. The bakery only made its official debut in 1935, at a shop on Smith street.

Tong Heng bakery singapore famous custard tart
Image Credit: Tong Heng

The shop shifted to Chinatown when an eviction notice came from the government in the late 70s. Today, it has a second outlet in Tanjong Pagar.

Over time, Tong Heng earned a loyal group of customers hailing from the Merdeka generation.

“But the design of Tong Heng stopped at the 70s or 80s,” Ana recounts. “It did not evolve.”

“We captured customers of that era who remain loyal till today. However, these customers aged — and I observed that not a single young person batted an eyelid when they walked past our shop.”

Winning The Trust Of An Old-School Team

Concerned, Ana explained to her aunts and bosses, Rebecca and Constance Fong, that they needed to change to defend the continuity of the brand.

“We’ll disappear otherwise — so we should just go for the facelift,” she reasons to them.

Ana rejoined Tong Heng as a full-timer in 2011, a family bakery woven into the background of her life. She had worked there on and off as a young adult.

But her initial attempts to implement change were met with skepticism from the team. “I think they felt threatened — they didn’t trust that the revamp would work,” Ana recounts.

“When I tried to discuss changes, my bosses looked at me and said: ‘you know, this is a very Chinese brand.'”

tong heng bakery chinatown
Tong Heng’s flagship store at Chinatown / Image Credit: Kenneth Goh via Michelin Guide Singapore

But Ana’s passion and sincerity won her bosses and colleagues over, and the Tong Heng brand has since grown in popularity.

“The ladies worked so hard, and found it wasteful that no one wanted to learn and perfect the skill of running Tong Heng properly.”

“I wanted to fulfil their dreams.”

The Three Cardinal Rules Of A Tong Heng Facelift

In April 2018, Tong Heng was due for its makeover. Ana’s strategy was simple: “the packaging needed to do the product justice.”

The goal was to recreate a new design for Tong Heng, in a style and layout that could cater to millennial customers. The right marketing would expand Tong Heng’s audience to a new target demographic.

tong heng brand logo
Tong Heng’s brand logo / Image Credit: Tong Heng

The execution was simple. “I looked for the right creative agency (&Larry) that could deliver. To the creative director, I said: ‘I trust what you’re doing. I only have three expectations.'”

Firstly, do not change the logo. You can tweak it, but it was designed by our boss, and is special to our brand.

Secondly, the design should not intimidate our older customers. Thirdly, people must know Tong Heng’s name.

– Ana Fong, general manager of Tong Heng

Change The Packaging, Not The Product

Tong Heng’s new, colourful image was a success — it sparked collaborations with government agencies and turned the bakery into a heritage icon in the tourism industry.

The brand began to employ younger frontline staff in its new, fashionably retro store. Its digital presence also grew as Tong Heng became active on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

Tong Heng started getting media attention and received rave reviews on Hungrygowhere, Burple and SethLui. It was also featured on the Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore’s Michelin Star Guide.

“We want to also reconnect young people to Chinese cultures and traditions through food,” says Ana.

tong heng bakery packaging
Image Credit: Packaging of the World

That’s why there’s no dairy used for any of their pastries. The only other difference is that less sugar is used, to create healthier pastries and cater to the taste buds of younger generations.

The bakery’s new aesthetic captures a modern nostalgia for days gone by, but its recipes remain true to their Cantonese roots. All of Tong Heng’s products use ingredients unique to the Chinese culture, she adds.

Covid-19: Doing Delivery The Tong Heng Way

After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s circuit breaker announcement on 3 April, Tong Heng’s revenue dropped by more than half from about 50 to 60 percent.

“Business was so slow that we were worried whether or not it could be sustained,” Ana laments.

However, Tong Heng’s newfound ability to adapt to changing times came in useful when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “It brought everybody on Earth out of their comfort zones.”

The solution was food delivery. The F&B industry has gone digital, with firms like Tiffinlabs launching over 1000 cloud kitchens worldwide. Social enterprises have also innovated new ways of aiding the ailing F&B industry.

Unlike other F&Bs, Tong Heng didn’t turn to distributors like Grab, but worked with a partner that they had onboard for several years.

Our pastries are fragile, and we trusted that our guy would handle them with care. You can’t pull stunts with them — that’s why we don’t tangle with the big boys.

– Ana Fong, general manager of Tong Heng

Tong Heng quickly recovered and maintained their sales figures at a normal, healthy rate. Digital outreach and engagement also increased their sales by 10 per cent.

Business Changes, Family Stays

constance fong and ana fong, tong heng bakery
Constance Fong (left) and Ana Fong (right) / Image Credit: Tung Pham via The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore

Ana is now in her 50s, but there are currently no plans for successors to Tong Heng. The business also has no plans to expand beyond two outlets.

“Singapore is highly accessible and delivery is growing,” says Ana.

“Ultimately, it depends on what my family wants. They have to be keen to take it on–we can’t force them at gunpoint.”

“I regard my aunties as my bosses. Since I’m both family and employee, I should give them even more. At the end of the day, it’s not about what my family can give me, but what I can give my family.”

Featured Image Credit: Kenneth Goh via Michelin Guide Singapore / @dairyandcream via Instagram

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