Song Fa Bak Kut Teh started out as a pushcart stall along Johore Road in Singapore back in 1969.
Founded by Yeo Eng Song, the stall serves bowls of peppery bak kut teh. Other items on the menu included pork rib, pig tail, liver, kidney soup and braised pig’s trotters.
Eng Song is the second oldest of nine siblings in a Teochew family, who picked up cooking skills at 19 when he worked for a zi char stall. He started up Song Fa Bak Kut Teh when he turned 21.
The pushcart stall is now defunct as it relocated to a stall within a coffeeshop along Victoria Street in 1975, which is next to the current site of Raffles Hospital.
After the coffeeshop was demolished, it shifted to Rochor Centre. Song Fa’s popularity skyrocketed further, attracting a queue of regulars such as taxi drivers and and constantly drawing in the lunchtime crowd.
Today, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh is helmed by second-generation owners Diana Yeo, 43; Yeo Hart Pong, 40; and Yeo Zhi Yong, 37.
Taking Over Their Family Business
As the managing director, Hart Pong oversees the company’s day-to-day operations. He took over the stewardship of the brand in 2007 and opened the first restaurant-style outlet at 11 New Bridge Road.
Before he graduated in 2006, his father had actually asked him about his future plans and offered him to take over his shop.
Hart Pong described the shop as a “memorable place” where he, along with his siblings, would help out with the business after school and during school holidays.
While he spared time to help out at the stall, he would still take on other F&B stints during his school holidays.
“My father always thought it was good for us to work elsewhere so we could gain new experience and learn how different businesses were run,” said the Business Administration graduate.
I had initially wanted to launch my own business, but then I saw the opportunity to revamp Song Fa. I told my father that if I were to take over the business, I would want to introduce a concept store.
At that point, all our competitors were also running stalls in coffeeshops, so I was thinking of coming up with something different. My father agreed to my plan and I decided to work full-time at the outlet for a year before launching the concept store in 2007.– Yeo Hart Pong, managing director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
His younger brother Zhi Yong joined him in 2011, leading the research and development efforts such as coming up with new dishes. His older sister Diana joined him the following year, managing the corporate and marketing departments.
Although the Yeo siblings often helped at the stall since their childhood days, when it came to learning how to cook the bak kut teh and dealing with any potential problems that may arise, they had to “learn the nitty-gritty,” said Hart Pong.
“That was when we realised the hardship my father had to endure and what a perfectionist he was. There was no shortcuts to what was passed down, and consistency was stressed.”
Invested S$30K To Set Up Song Fa’s First Restaurant
When he took over the business, Hart Pong and his father started scouting for available shop space to house the new concept store.
They viewed many potential units, but none of them were suitable — not until they chanced upon an ad for a shop space at 11 New Bridge Road, which is located directly across The Central mall at Clarke Quay.
My father and I used to walk past that shop and he always had this gut feeling that having a shop at that corner was good and its visibility was an advantage.
It used to be a coffeeshop, but it had changed hands several times. My dad called in to enquire and when the owner said it would cost $30,000 to take over the existing lease, my dad agreed to it immediately.– Yeo Hart Pong, managing director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
His intuition proved to be spot-on as the shop attracted huge crowds since opening, which is why they quickly expanded to start up a second outlet just a few units away.
Hart Pong attributed the success of the restaurant concept to “good food combined with great service, accompanied by a 1960s roadside-dining ambience (which is) true to the original stall.”
“I was just trying to retain the delicacy of my father’s legacy whilst introducing something new,” he added.
He further described Song Fa as a game-changer as “none of (their) competitors was doing anything comparable” at that time.
By offering customers a retro concept that’s reminiscent of the bak kut teh scene in the ’60s and ’70s, they managed to attract a younger audience. Previously, the age demographic of their customers was between 50 and 60 years old.
Moving With The Times
As they capture a younger market, they also stepped up their innovation efforts to drive sales.
They started out by revamping the menu. Back in the day, Song Fa used to serve pork ribs that is slightly firmer and with more texture, as that’s the way the older generations like their pork ribs.
Now, Song Fa serves tender pork ribs that falls off the bone easily, simmered with garlic and Sarawak white pepper to yield the trademark Teochew-style clear and peppery soup.
They also added other signature and seasonal dishes to complement their signature bak kut teh.
Beyond that, Zhi Yong worked on researching and developing a range of spices for customers to take home.
This resulted in Song Fa Bak Kut Teh Soup Spices and the newly-launched Braised Spices, which are currently retailing in its outlets, market stalls and selected supermarkets.
The existing formula was reinvented from our father, who started packaging bak kut teh spices for sale at wet markets. The strategy worked and the spice packets are a big hit among tourists and even locals.
Bak kut teh is a dish that is unique to Southeast Asia so in terms of spices, there are (not) many places (where) you can find them. It has become another revenue stream and sales is growing at a steady rate.– Yeo Hart Pong, managing director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
Additionally, the brothers introduced a point-of-sale ordering and payment system at their outlets.
Although they initially faced “some resistance” from their traditional father, it proved to maximise efficiency, shorten waiting time for customers, as well as ease the manpower crunch.
Growing To A Chain Of 13 Outlets
From a humble pushcart stall, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh now has 13 outlets in Singapore. It even partnered with BreadTalk Group to propel its expansion ambitions.
George Quek, (who is the) founder of BreadTalk Group, is a Teochew. (He) absolutely loves bak kut teh and shared the same passion of bringing Singapore food overseas.
(Since) they have so much experience, capabilities, as well as networks in overseas expansion and franchise under their belt, we could not turn down the opportunity to partner up and venture into Taipei, Bangkok, Shanghai and Guangzhou.– Yeo Hart Pong, managing director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
Song Fa was also awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand award for three consecutive years, from 2016 to 2019.
They broke the streak in 2020 due to the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the cancellation of the event.
COVID-19 also brought about a set of other challenges. Due to the dining-in ban during the circuit breaker, they lost their main source of revenue: walk-in customers.
Although they quickly ventured into food delivery, it still posed some setbacks such as supply and demand problems and stiff competition.
Moreover, most Singaporeans chose to be prudent in this tough time and preferred to cook at home rather than ordering food delivery.
“As time went by and measures started to ease up phase by phase, we were still (bound) by guidelines and strict scrutiny which does not allow our operations to run like how it was pre-Covid-19 days,” lamented Hart Pong.
Since their revenue saw a “substantial decline”, they were forced to temporarily close some of their outlets even when F&B operators were allowed to resume dining in.
In view of high rental costs, they had to look into reconsolidating its resources and think of ways to increase footfall such as introducing a cashback scheme for loyal customers.
“We are very thankful for the government’s Job Support Scheme and the rental relief bill, but as we speak, business is still bleak,” said Hart Pong.
“To survive this ordeal, the fall-back plan is probably to size down in many aspects but we hope to not go there.”
Diversifying The 52-Year-Old Business
Since taking over the reins of the business, Hart Pong said that his “grand plan” was always to diversify the business.
“Both Zhi Yong and I felt that there is more we could offer to Singaporeans apart from bak kut teh.”
“In mid-2019, we piloted Downstairs, an eatery serving mainly hot, savoury, local dishes — much like what you would usually buy “downstairs”, but with a fun twist,” he added.
This new venture has been two years in the making. It was piloted for a year at Changi Business Park, before recently shifting to Suntec City mall.
It takes on a novel HDB void deck concept, which the brothers believe would resonate well with Singaporeans, along with its comfort food offerings at affordable prices.
Some of the dishes served include salted egg chicken nasi lemak, braised pork belly rice (lu rou fan), and mi tai mak soup.
Moving forward, the Yeo siblings will continue to be on the lookout for opportunities to “expand in every area”.
“But matter of fact is, this pandemic has put a dent in our plans. So now we’ve got to change our approach and take one small step at a time, assessing and evaluating the support we are getting along the way during these difficult times,” said Hart Pong.
He added that his father has always taught them to be “prudent and grounded” because he himself has experienced running a business amid a pandemic.
During his time, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh was plagued by swine flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). He advised them not to rush when it comes to expansion.
“If you think you can (afford to) expand, then you expand,” his father once said.
He also advised that adopting the “right attitude” is also important when it comes to running a business. It’s critical to take criticism positively and continually strive to improve to bring the brand to greater heights.
These golden words of wisdom is what turned Song Fa Bak Kut Teh into a well-loved heritage brand with over 50 years of history.
Featured Image Credit: DanielFoodDiary / Song Fa Bak Kut Teh