It’s a Wednesday; the heat is unrelenting like it always is, and yet, the people waiting in line at Chin Mee Chin Confectionery were trying their best to be patient to get their hands on its famed kaya buns.
The day it was announced on Instagram that Chin Mee Chin Confectionery was making a comeback, the internet rejoiced and reminisced about all those mornings spent with the heritage F&B brand. After its mysterious and abrupt closure in 2018, everyone was yearning for those old school marble tables, sky-blue mosaic tiles, and scrumptious breakfast grub once again.
Reviving a well-loved heritage brand is no easy feat. Ebb & Flow took up this mantle, and while it took a couple of delays and a few U-turns, Chin Mee Chin Confectionery finally opened its doors on 15 September 2021. After almost a month of never-ending snaking queues and glorious slabs of butter melting on warm buns, it seems like there’s no slowing down.
We spoke to the CEO of Ebb & Flow, Lim Kian Chun, about how he re-introduced the brand to old fans and made new ones at the same time.
“It was an easy decision”
As far as brands go, Chin Mee Chin Confectionery had the full package. A household name that has been around since the 1940s, a spread of bread and pastries that never go out of style, and an excellent location in the heart of Katong — bringing back the brand was a no-brainer for Chun.
“Chin Mee Chin is a heritage brand (and) has quite a significant cultural importance in Singapore. I think it’s part of a shared tradition and history, especially for people who live in this Katong area. So yeah, the decision is quite easy.”
Indeed, there is nothing more comforting or familiar than a traditional breakfast of toast and coffee on a Sunday morning. We might have had dalliances with an egg benedict and a rather torrid affair with shakshuka at one point, but like moths to a flame, we come back to the unabashedly simple breakfast of eggs and toast every time.
The folks at Ebb & Flow understand those strong ties we have to our traditional food and worked together with the third-generation owners of Chin Mee Chin Confectionery to bring the beloved coffee shop back.
Adjusting Chin Mee Chin’s menu for the modern palate
With the slew of modern cafes and minimalistic coffee joints, the obvious inclination would be for Chin Mee Chin Confectionery to do the same.
“Our goal is not to modernise Chin Mee Chin into another brand, but to preserve the heritage and keep the spirit of the Hainanese bakery as far as possible,” shared Chun. Like all things, seeking that happy medium is a lot harder than one would think.
Not to mention, Chun was also faced with the incredible pressure to get this right. After all, hell hath no fury as Singaporeans scorned about breakfast.
To keep the menu items as authentic as possible, Chun and his team tried sourcing for the same suppliers that Chin Mee Chin Confectionery has used for the past years.
“Some of the suppliers that [Chin Mee Chin] used to use, they no longer carry some of these products. So we have sourced for higher quality items such as the pandan, coconut things like that.”
In terms of the menu, Ebb & Flow has kept about 80 to 90 per cent of the menu, much to everyone’s relief. Still, that is not without some necessary updates to bring these items into 2021.
Like any good proprietor of the brand, Chun tweaked some of these recipes to reduce the sugar content and adjust it to the modern palate.
To keep the menu fresh, Ebb & Flow has also enlisted the help of Chef Maxine Ngooi of the famous Tigerlily Patisserie, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Tigerlily and Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, to recreate some of these old favourites and whip up some new ones as well.
Not to worry, the crumbly sugee cakes, classic cream horns, and hae bee hiam bun are all crowd-favourites that made their return. The best thing about these items is that they mostly hover around S$1.60 to S$2.20 per item. It seems like nostalgia might not be too expensive after all.
The manpower crunch
For a bakery like Chin Mee Chin, they pride themselves on baking everything fresh every day. As a foodie, this is music to my ears and ensures that its food quality is top-notch. However, keeping to these standards have proven to be a challenge for the Hainanese bakery.
My staff come in quite early in the morning, around 4am. We bake everything fresh. Production and keeping up with demand has been an issue. Across the industry, there is manpower crunch right now. And then, because it’s fresh and baked daily, it’s not something that can be mass produced in a central kitchen.Lim Kian Chun, CEO of Ebb & Flow
Chun further explains that although these traditional bakes are might seem simple, they are highly labour-intensive to make. While it might be easier and more efficient to have them made in a larger, central kitchen, it just wouldn’t be authentic.
For example, the kaya bun is still toasted with charcoal as they were in the good old days, all in the quest for authenticity.
“And also, you must understand that we are producing more and seating a lot more people than what Chin Mee Chin used to see. So it’s quite a wide range of items that we have to adjust to.”
Understandably, Chin Mee Chin Confectionery has increased their seating to 50, so they were pretty overwhelmed in those first few days, which might have left a few disgruntled customers in their wake.
Teething issues are expected for any new F&B establishment that bursts onto the scene, but given Chin Mee Chin’s legacy, there is much more riding on that cup of kopi.
The role tech plays in F&B
Ebb & Flow acquiring older brands like Chin Mee Chin Confectionery gives us hope that these important parts of our food culture are not lost forever. Closures in the F&B industry have always been swift and sometimes unexpectedly cruel; with the pandemic, they are even more so.
However, Chun clarifies while technology does help to boost businesses in dire times, it is not simple math.
I think technology definitely helps. It opens up different streams of revenue for F&B brands and operators. Obviously, there’s some friction trying to onboard onto these technology platforms, but I think those who manage to do it now will find themselves not as affected by the kind of uncertainty that’s plaguing the industry.
That being said, a lot of existing operators have very high fixed costs, so it’s not so easy, even with delivery revenue and online sales. At the end of the day, dining in is still a lot of people’s bread and butter.Lim Kian Chun, CEO of Ebb & Flow
While cloud kitchens have been the holy grail for many brands and even launched some virtual brands into stardom, Chun asserts that a physical presence still trumps these virtual spaces.
“People need something to anchor their buying experience,” he said, adding that the success of cloud kitchens works better for large franchises or well-established brands.
“There is that brand equity and brand recognition, but trying to start a virtual brand, you need some sort of, I guess, selling point. There has to be something that can immediately appeal to the customer, whether visually or even viscerally.“
While fine dining at home was a thing for a while, Chun maintains that many F&B establishments are geared towards experiential dining. For Chun, pivoting to virtual platforms is only an ad-hoc measure, much like putting on a bandaid on the larger issue, which is the start-stop nature of lockdowns.
Despite the beating that the F&B industry has taken, Chun is still optimistic about the future of Singapore’s food scene. After all, the revival of Chin Mee Chin Confectionery proves that Singapore is not all about the donburi bowls and hamburgers (even though those are very good).
With this eclectic tapestry of different F&B establishments, burgeoning local talents, and advancements made in food tech, Chun believes that “Singapore can be a very quick launchpad for this kind of products”.
“I think we can become a global destination for F&B, which we already are. But I think in the years to come, if we get it right on par with the likes of Tokyo, London, and New York.”
Yes, an exciting and gastronomical forecast and one I will eagerly and hungrily await.
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Featured Image Credit: Chin Mee Chin Confectionery / Ebb & Flow