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How this zi char brand bounced back from a six-figure debt, now runs 7 outlets across S’pore

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buey tahan see-food blake chan

Buey Tahan See-Food has garnered a reputation for being a popular local seafood zi char (a Hokkien term used to describe dishes influenced by home-cooked Chinese food) brand in Singapore. 

However, not many are aware that the business almost didn’t make it in their early days.

It was originally called Shi Fu Ge – which also specialises in seafood fare – and was owned by the parents of  Blake Chan, 33, founder and director of Buey Tahan See-Food. Unfortunately, business was not performing well at that time despite it being located along a very popular food street in Sembawang area. 

“For some reason, we just weren’t getting customers,” lamented Blake.

“We tried everything from feng shui, flyer distribution to seven month rites… We just couldn’t get enough customers, so over the course of nine months to a year, we racked up a huge debt.”

Shutting down the business seemed to be the only option left, but not one to be easily daunted, Blake decided to take over the ailing business and rebuild it. 

Delivery business was the unexpected lifeline out of a hefty debt

Taking over a business that’s deep in the red was the biggest business challenge for Blake yet. 

He contemplated many different ways of getting new customers, and finally decided to offer customers the option of delivery. 

He observed that only major fast food brands were providing delivery at the time, so he wanted to bridge this gap and become the first seafood zi char delivery service provider in Singapore.

Buey Tahan See-Food started offering delivery services / Image Credit: Buey Tahan See-Food

“I was called naive (for) dreaming big. We (received) no support on the idea, just plenty of negative comments. This was what pushed us forward — we wanted to prove to others that nothing is impossible, as long as we have the right attitude to work on it.”

Thankfully, a close friend of Blake’s — whom he regards as his benefactor — provided a starting capital of S$300, which allowed him to print 12,000 flyers to promote his delivery service. 

He would distribute these fliers daily from 6am to 10pm, sometimes even stretching to 2am. It was laborious work, but each time the business received a new delivery order, he knew that they were on the right track and this fuelled his motivation. 

With the surge of sales from the deliveries, he managed to repay his friend and still have enough money to do a second round of marketing push. This time round, he doubled the flyer quantity and distributed them to HDB estates in Sembawang. 

“(Although this helped to generate more sales), it was still insufficient to pay our rent and the old debts,” he said.

Fortunately, another one of Blake’s friends reached out to him with a business opportunity. His factory was looking for an operator to provide meals for his workers at a low price, and the cherry on top was that there were no rental costs involved. 

The offer was a no-brainer for Blake. He ended up making the big decision to leave the previous premises of his restaurant and shifted into a kitchen located in an industrial area, offering a full-fledged delivery service.

It was this rudimentary version of a ‘cloud kitchen’ that helped enhance his business. 

It was a rollercoaster ride full of ups and downs, but after five years, he finally earned enough to clear the debt and turn a profit, with plans to expand the business.

Juggling business and deliveries at the same time is not easy

Blake started out as the only driver in the early days of Buey Tahan See-Food’s delivery service, but as orders increased, his chef had to step in and help conduct the deliveries. 

“As takeaway orders grew to about 20 to 25 orders a day, I had to hire one of my good friends to be the third driver,” said Blake.

“In the initial stages, we did everything manually (with) paper and pen, and we would tell customers to expect their food to arrive between two and two and a half hours.”

They encountered several delivery mishaps along the way, such as delivering incorrect orders and food delays due to various reasons such as bad weather. 

“Imagine having to be on the road delivering food while being on the Bluetooth speaker and taking in customer complaints and queries. At the same time, I am also trying to update other customers on their orders. This is even harder when it is raining,” Blake shared.

Juggling the roles of running the business and managing his own pool of drivers was difficult, and it became even more so when their delivery orders and dine-in crowd grew, along with Blake’s ambition to deliver orders to his customers in an even shorter timeframe. 

Buey Tahan See-Food is also available on GrabFood / Image Credit: GrabFood Singapore

Thus, Blake took the leap to work with third-party food delivery platforms like GrabFood. It has helped them expand their own delivery service by tapping on a ready fleet of drivers that they did not have to invest extra time, effort, or manpower to manage. 

“Honestly, setting up and maintaining a delivery fleet is not easy. When drivers suddenly say they cannot work, then how? You need to re-arrange (deliveries) on the spot,” said Blake. 

“But a delivery platform can help with this and the commission fees are about the same as what I would need to maintain my own fleet.”

Coping with Covid-19 challenges with deliveries 

Buey Tahan See-Food’s wide array of offerings / Image Credit: Buey Tahan See-Food

Blake described the Covid-19 pandemic as a “deadly blow” to Buey Tahan See-Food’s dine-in crowd, with business revenue declining by 50 per cent. However, the brand’s familiarity with delivery services and strong online presence bolstered their earnings. 

“The pandemic has been bad for everyone, but we do what we can to adapt. I decided to invest a bit more in trying out different campaigns and promotions. On my Grab app, I can see what is working well and I also ask (Grab) for recommendations on which campaigns I should try or why some don’t work as well,” said Blake. 

Sales from GrabFood alone consistently contributed about 35 per cent of Buey Tahan See-Food’s total revenue. Blake also took the chance to join more of GrabFood’s marketing campaigns to further grow their online sales in the midst of the pandemic. 

Today, Buey Tahan See-Food has successfully expanded to seven ‘kopitiam’ outlets across Singapore. Blake plans to open more outlets in the future, and is also exploring the idea of venturing out to another type of cuisine to cater to customer demands. 

This article was written in collaboration with Grab Singapore.

Featured Image Credit: Grab Singapore

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