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You Tiao Man founder on redefining a traditional snack and pivoting the biz amid Covid-19

you tiao man audrey chew

You Tiao Man started out as a humble hawker stall that sells fried you tiao (Chinese-style fried dough sticks) in the 1940s. It is currently located in Toa Payoh, and is one of the very few hawker stalls that make fresh dough from scratch.

It is founded by fourth-generation hawker Audrey Chew, who is now 37. The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) graduate previously worked in “one of the top trading firms in the world” and after spending five years working in China, she finally returned to Singapore in 2017.

Upon her return, she realised that a lot of things have changed over the years.

“Some of the traditional foods that I used to love as a child were already fading out, and I felt that it is very important to preserve our hawker heritage. The hawker culture is such an integral part of our daily lives and if we do not revive it, many of the recipes and crafts of the past will be lost in our generation,” she said.

“So at 32 years old, I decided to start a business that would change the way people perceive and consume traditional food. I wanted to modernise techniques and business methodologies to rejuvenate a traditional industry.”

Today, You Tiao Man is one of Singapore’s largest you tiao manufacturers, with business-to-business (B2B) customers including hotels, caterers, restaurants, cafes, food courts, coffee shops, hawkers, e-commerce businesses and supermarkets.

She started manufacturing her own you tiaos

you tiao man
Image Credit: You Tiao Man

Without any prior experience in F&B or manufacturing, she took a leap of faith to start up her own you tiao manufacturing business that same year.

In the early days, she would visit multiple restaurants and companies in a day to talk to chefs and restaurant owners, and promote her product to them. Their reactions weren’t always positive — some took pity on her and tried to listen to her pitch, many were “amused” at her, but most shoo-ed her out of their offices and kitchens.

These rejections motivated me and made me a stronger person. They remind me that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Rejections inspire us to work harder to achieve our goals. I am often reminded that if I can achieve one per cent more each day, then I would be 30 per cent better off after a month, and 365 per cent better off in a year.

– Audrey Chew, founder of You Tiao Man

Besides facing constant rejection in the early days, Audrey also worked hard to build up their reputation as “reliable suppliers who behaved with integrity, listened deeply, and treated customers with respect.”

“If there was a last minute order from a customer, I would fulfil it no matter if it was 10pm or on Christmas eve. If there was a tough and demanding customer, I would do my best to serve them with sincerity and a smile. If there was a customer complaint about my (product) quality, I would give a refund — no questions asked,” she recounted.

Although it was definitely difficult at the start, she persevered and readily took on whatever challenges that was thrown her way. Now, she is focused on growing her young company and trying to redefine a traditional food like you tiao.

“In just four years, we have diversified our business into a multi-channel business,” she added.

Business revenue plunged 50% during circuit breaker

When Covid-19 first hit the shores of Singapore in 2020, many industries were severely impacted, including the hospitality and events sector.

We see fellow manufacturers and B2B customers threw in the towel and closed down their businesses. Everyone was afraid, and so were we.

Within two months of the circuit breaker Phase 1 lockdown, You Tiao Man’s business (revenue) had fallen by over 50 per cent. Hotels, event caterers and restaurants reached out to (us), asking for credit extension from the usual 30 days to 90 days.

– Audrey Chew, founder of You Tiao Man

To show support and solidarity, You Tiao Man agreed to every single one of them and even volunteered to cut down on their product prices.

“To reduce prices during a pandemic is counter-intuitive for some business owners, but here at You Tiao Man, we adhere to a different way of thinking. As business owners, we believe in friendship and supporting each other when times are hard. We believe that with collaboration, we all stand a greater chance of survival. By sharing information and helping each other during tough times, the entire business community benefits,” she added.

In an effort to keep the business afloat, Audrey also decided to adopt a customer-to-customer (C2C) business model instead.

“We pivoted our business to the online and offline consumer markets, selling directly to the customer. By listening carefully and observing the market, we realised that consumption habits had changed and customers were more accepting of frozen you tiao as part of their meals,” she explained.

“In order to make the product convenient for the consumer, we reformulated the product so that no deep frying was required. We also made the product mini-sized so that it would fit into all household appliances like oven, air fryers, toaster and even your cooking pan. This innovation would redefine that entire trajectory of the company.”

Ultimately, the pandemic gave her a chance to testbed her ideas. After all, innovation is one of the company’s pillars and she is set on a path to develop a range of frozen food products that caters to the modern consumer.

Their technology investment to launch their offerings into the e-commerce market paid off. Within five minutes of launching their website, they received their very first order.

They wrapped up their day with five humble orders, but Audrey saw it as a positive sign that their e-commerce strategy could work. Their products turned out to be a “hit in the market”, which significantly helped boost sales.

you tiao man
Image Credit: You Tiao Man

“Our Mini Traditional You Tiao were so popular that customers were demanding the products daily. Halal certified with a shelf life of nine months, our range of products — such as Sotong You Tiao, Otah Charcoal You Tiao, Mini Wholegrain You Tiao — allowed consumers to enjoy this beloved Singaporean snack in the comfort of their homes, 24/7,” she added.

Businesses need to learn to adapt and adjust

According to Audrey, the entire company had rallied together and spent a few months to reformulate and repackage its products for the B2C customers.

“The management team were all hands on deck, taking on tasks like packing the goods, delivering the products and answering customer service (queries). When the workers (worked) overtime, the entire management team would stay with them. There were times where we were so busy, we brought sleeping bags and slept in the office for three days straight!”

This particular phase marked a huge turning point for the business. Audrey described it as a “do or die” moment, and it was a stage that she felt was crucial for the business growth as they learnt to adjust and adapt to the changing landscape.

Because of the speed in which things change, it’s very difficult to plan on a long-term basis. How we overcome these challenges is to build a resilient business. We set fixed goals, but changed our trajectory in response to the changing terrains.

– Audrey Chew, founder of You Tiao Man

The pandemic also presented an opportunity for the brand to go digital as a business. It developed a digital strategy and applied digital solutions to its business model to form new and differentiated business capabilities.

In July 2020, You Tiao Man expanded its online presence with social media pages on Facebook and Instagram. In less than two years, it has amassed a following of over 10,000 followers.

The brand has also gone on to tap on other social media platforms such as Pinterest and TikTok as part of its brand building strategy.

“We began leveraging big data and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to understand and segment our customers. Covid-19 has helped the company become a digital native F&B company,” said Audrey.

you tiao man founder audrey chew
Image Credit: You Tiao Man

Despite the challenging pandemic times, You Tiao Man has continued to drive year-on-year revenue growth for the business. It has expanded its production site into a new facility to cope with the growing demands, and was awarded the ‘Made With Passion’ brand mark by Singapore Tourism Board in 2021.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, NTUC FairPrice Finest also invited them to launch their frozen you tiaos in its outlets. By next year, You Tiao Man aims to expand its product presence and have it available at supermarkets islandwide.

Once they have strengthened their brand presence in Singapore, You Tiao Man aims to export its frozen products into overseas market.

Looking back on her journey thus far, Audrey said that there’s no shortcut to success, adding that it all boils down to hard work. Regardless of which industry a business belongs to, the way to thrive is simple: “good product, strong focus on customers, and a great team.”

“By following the above with discipline, we have managed to grow the business steadily and consistently in the last four years. Today, we are one of the largest suppliers of frozen you tiao in Singapore. Our strong track record of customers is a testament to our good quality.”


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Featured Image Credit: You Tiao Man

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