F&B group Tenderfresh started off as a hawker stall at Whitley Road Hawker Centre in the 1970s.
However, business was “really bad”, according to founder and managing director Jimmy Soh. His stall recorded poor sales of S$50 to S$60 daily.
Fast forward to 2020, Tenderfresh now owns 18 brands and 64 outlets. They plan to increase their portfolio to 24 brands and 75 outlets by the end of this year despite the pandemic.
Here’s how the Singaporean hawker rose through the ranks to helm a culinary empire.
From Hawker Stall To F&B Chains
Jimmy was inspired to sell fried chicken when he was working as a salesman for a poultry company.
The 62-year-old noticed that his customers were rejecting undersized chickens for larger ones. He then decided to sell them as fried chickens as he did not want to let them go to waste.
At that time, nobody sold fried spring chicken at all. We were the only one.– Jimmy Soh, founder and Managing Director of Tenderfresh Group
However, the idea did not take off immediately and he was forced to innovate and add new products to the menu such as barbecued chicken wings.
Customers love the recipes so much that they would preorder as many as 300 BBQ wings and spring chicken.
A few years later, he opened a second Tenderfresh outlet at a Jurong coffeeshop.
Tenderfresh expanded through coffeeshops but later moved on to helming its own eateries such as its flagship store on Cheong Chin Nam Road and hawker-themed restaurant Hawkerman.
It also went on to launch 18 other F&B brands such as Amigo’s, ToriGo!, Tenderbest, Golden Rooster and i chicks.
Kiosk concept Tenderfresh Xpress was also created for those looking for a lunchtime quick-fix or dinner extras.
Tenderfresh announced yesterday (4 November) that they are teaming up with Kimly Coffeeshop, one of the largest traditional coffee shop operators in Singapore to develop Kedai Kopi, a new halal coffeeshop concept at Clementi.
Spanning approximately 5,000 sq ft with up to 144 seatings, it is slated to open in mid-December 2020.
The coffeeshop will house nine food stalls including Tenderbest, Mr Teh Tarik Group, Istimewa Nasi Padang, Hawkerman Street Kitchen, 380 Nasi Lemak and Mee Bagus.
Scaling Up And Diversifying
Jimmy shared that the consistency of food quality is a challenge. That was why in 2018, he invested in a 25,000 sq ft central kitchen facility with automation machinery.
“This is to help develop OEM products of our sauces, marinated raw meats, salads et cetera to achieve best consistency and less reliance on manpower.”
Setting up a central kitchen also allows the business to scale up and diversify to other businesses, he added.
Another challenge is catering to customers’ evolving tastes. Restaurant chains also have to evolve in order to cater to the dining experience.
That is why the Group decided three years ago to introduce various concepts with the key principle of maintaining 60 to 80 per cent of Tenderfresh’s core menu of signature fried and roasted chicken; and introduce another 20 to 40 per cent consisting of new menu items suitable to each concept.– Jimmy Soh, founder and Managing Director of Tenderfresh Group
While all its brands differ in terms of looks and offerings, Tenderfresh’s core menu is featured in each and every one of their brands, with a focus on great taste at great value.
The team had also focused on introducing different dining experiences through store design — every store has a different look and feel to it.
Among so many milestones, Jimmy shared that one of his proudest achievements was attaining halal certification in 1993 so they could capture a bigger demographic.
Maintaining Tenderfresh’s Core Menu In Each Concept
No doubt you would find Tenderfresh’s signature chicken items in every concept they have launched.
For one, Hawkerman is a curation of Singapore’s heritage hawker recipes, paired with Tenderfresh’s offerings.
We had worked with actual hawkers whose recipes have been in Singapore for more than 40 years like Hokkien Mee and Hokkien Popiah paired with Tenderfresh’s signature chicken and Nanyang kopi and teh.– Jimmy Soh, founder and Managing Director of Tenderfresh Group
In addition, Tenderbest Makcik Tuckshop is a cafe setting serving nostalgic tuckshop fare and barista coffee such as its popular Smoky Iced Caramel Macchiato.
They also recently collaborated with Singaporean-based cheesecake brand Cat & the Fiddle at their Jalan Kayu outlet to introduce their famous cheesecake to diners.
Diners can expect their favourite teh tarik, roti prata and tze char menu.
The dining experience is very different from those of international brands and we offer more localised menus offering various options such as Asian fusion pasta, chicken chop, fish & chips and steak.
Only at Tenderfresh can you enjoy your favourite fried chicken and a nice bowl of Chendol at the same time.– Jimmy Soh, founder and Managing Director of Tenderfresh Group
How They Survived COVID-19
Most of their restaurants experienced a 30 to 40 per cent drop in dine-in sales.
“We also have three catering brands: Caterfresh (Halal Catering), Good Chance Catering and White Lily (Funeral Catering), which experienced more than 80 per cent drop in sales,” shared Jimmy.
However, they saw a silver lining when more companies approached their central kitchen for food solutions during the circuit breaker period.
They helped them manufacture their products ranging from sauces, soup, pastries fillings, karaage to “something simple yet labour-intensive such as cutting of vegetables”.
Their retail products including marinated meats, coleslaw and pasta have also experienced a surge in sales with more families purchasing them for home-cooked meals.
“The growth in this area has helped the group sustain over this period,” added Jimmy.
Opening More Halal Joints
Many of our Muslim friends have been sharing that whenever they visit malls, food options are limited to major QSR (quick service restaurant) brands serving the same options everywhere or only at the food court.– Jimmy Soh, founder and Managing Director of Tenderfresh Group
As a result, they are working on providing more halal options.
In the next two months, the group is opening 11 outlets and six new brands including the halal-certified coffeeshop Kedai Kopi.
“We have also seen a surge in our retail division and our R&D team are exploring more ready-to-eat meals, retail packs and revamping some of our current restaurant space to provide more for our guests,” he said.
A Hawker’s Sheer Grit
As Jimmy was once a hawker, he understands the tough work behind and the paper-thin margins in the F&B industry. This was how he was able to push his way to success.
He started the business from the ground-up and is used to putting in long and hard hours into his business.
So how is the hawker or F&B landscape different from back then, and what opportunities and challenges are in store for upcoming entrepreneurs?
In the past, the hawker is expected to be the chef, order taker and cashier.
Nowadays, they must also handle delivery orders, need to learn how to execute effective promotions on the delivery platform to stay competitive and even don on the marketing hat to maintain social media presence, etc.
The task is getting tougher even for an experienced hawker. They should, however, still need to grasp how digital tools should be applied and realise there are limits to how much they can gain from doing so.– Jimmy Soh, founder and Managing Director of Tenderfresh Group
Featured Image Credit: Tenderfresh Group / DanielFoodDiary