Some would say that opening an F&B business in this climate of uncertainty would be foolhardy. They are not wrong. Though risky, there's really nothing like setting up shop in these times to prepare you for the prerequisite grit and tenacity needed to run an enterprise successfully. So while it might be a tired trope, all this precaution, I say if you have the funds and a heart of steel, go ahead and carpe diem, please.
If you do, then you will be joining the ranks of Gen Lee of Sourbombe whose home-based bakery, Sourbombe Artisanal Bakery, took off so spectacularly that within a year of its founding, she had to consider setting up a physical shop to cater to skyrocketing demand. The business has thus far been brisk, at least from the last time I popped by for a piece of her fluffy bombolinis, bringing some much-needed life to 9 Penang Road.
As an alumnus of the inaugural Masterchef Singapore, Gen has huge shoes to fill, which probably explains the furrowed brows and unrelenting focus as she whips up pastry after pastry behind a glass partition in the shop. In this interview, Gen shares with me what it's like pursuing an F&B business as a scion of a soy chicken empire and what it means to be successful in this industry.
Zat: How would you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?
Gen Lee: When I meet someone for the first time I guess I do what most people do and put my best foot forward. I like to talk and be friendly and I try my best to understand the person I’m talking to; I like to leave the best impression I can of myself.
Of course, when there’s food in the picture, they got to have a taste of what I’ll recommend.
You grew up in a family that found unprecedented success in selling Soy Sauce Chicken. What is the most important lesson you've learned from helping out at Lee Fun Nam Kee that has served you well at Sourbombe Artisanal Bakery?
Growing up, I learnt a lot from my parents about the ins and outs of running a business. I've been through all the good and the bad with them and, inevitably, would have had reservations of my own when I considered starting my own business.
The most important lesson I've learned through observing them is never to be comfortable when the business is doing well or complacent when times are good because with a business, every day is unexpected, and every day is a new challenge. That was very important to me because I will constantly ask myself what I can be doing better for my team or my customers that will make the business thrive better in this tumultuous environment.
Knowing intimately the harsh and often unforgiving reality of the F&B industry, what led to the decision to establish a physical outfit at Dhoby Ghaut?
It’s about taking that leap of faith and trusting in my partner, family, and myself that we will make it work. There is no progression if we decided to stay on the status quo and continue as a small home business, and that was not something I would like to settle for.
Then, of course, there were the more urgent matters. 1; burnt out as I could not hire more people to help with production at home, and number 2; the increasing demand for our bombes was getting almost impossible to upscale without proper kitchen equipment.
There was also the more idealistic aspect of fulfilling one of my dreams to open my own bakery one day where I could meet my customers in real life and converse with them about the bakes we sell. It’s a harsh and unforgiving industry, but I think we all grow and progress when put in difficult positions, and I would have regretted it even more if I had never taken the chance.
What does success in the F&B industry look like to you, and where do you place yourself in this trajectory?
I think success is when you, as a business, can sustain in the industry for perhaps 5-10 years. That and also providing good product and service through the years. The company should be a place where we can provide a suitable environment for our employees to work in and they feel as committed to the business as the owners themselves.
I think we are still in the baby stages of operations. We still have a lot of things to learn and a lot to work on to run more smoothly as a business. We also have long term plans for the brand, from getting central kitchens to getting more locations and even venture overseas. So yes, we're currently still taking baby steps.
What challenges has being in the public eye posed in your journey as an F&B owner?
The Masterchef moniker definitely brought a lot of attention to the brand itself; the team have been getting ourselves ready for battle every morning for the insane crowds to visit us. I’m forever thankful for those who step through our doors, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was scared every day.
As a new business owner, we have been overwhelmed so much at the start, and we were bound to face plenty of complications in that way, but I was also glad that it happened because we were forced to learn and adapt quickly. The team that pushed through those hard days came out stronger and more united.
What is the most underrated ingredient a pastry chef should use that is not used enough and why?
Salt. Every time people think of desserts, they think of sugar or sweet additions. But my mind goes to salt. Maybe it's because I’m not a big sweet tooth, and I was professionally trained in the hot kitchen. I always look to salt to balance out our flavours. Almost all our custards, toppings, or caramel sauce have a salty element for that purpose alone. It gives bakes a depth of character and also brings out the characteristics of a particular flavour. For example, adding salt to citrus flavours brings out the aroma more.
When you look at the state of dining in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
The one thing that gives me hope is that food remains a necessity, and Singaporeans are not hesitant to spend on food they crave even if they can’t have it in-store. Many businesses right now are very reliant on delivery platforms, and for most, it's what’s keeping them afloat. I’m pretty heartened to see more hawkers being on those platforms and platforms boosting their presence on them.
It is a big step forward, as when the pandemic first started, many hawkers were struggling with the technology. This will keep them going and keep that hawker culture alive as well.