A household name synonymous with Cantonese style fish soup, Swee Kee Eating House has been around for over 82 years. Since its pushcart stall origins at Great World Amusement Park (now replaced by Great World City), the business moved around to a few locations before ending up at its iconic shophouse location at Amoy Street in 1995.
As business grew over the years, the restaurant expanded to two other locations at under the “Ka-Soh” brand with College Road and Greenwood. At the height of their expansion phase, the Ka-Soh brand had three outlets in Indonesia and one restaurant in Malaysia. Ka-Soh has since exited Malaysia while its Indonesian outlets are now run with a business partner.
Recognised for their signature “milky” fish broth and classic tze char dishes, Ka-Soh at College Road was listed as a Bib Gourmand restaurant in Michelin Guide Singapore from 2016 to 2019.
Having overcome a World War, numerous downturns, and SARS, the Swee Kee brand was handed over to its third-generation successor, Cedric Tang, grandson of the founder, Tang Kwong Swee. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of 2020 placed the business under immense strain. Despite overcoming the initial 2-months circuit breaker in 2020, on 30 May 2021, Cedric had to close its flagship Swee Kee Eating House brand at Amoy Street for good when the latest Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) measures hit.
Running an F&B business is never easy and taking over a family legacy has its challenges. We spoke to Swee Kee’s third-generation owner, Cedric Tang, to get his thoughts on losing a historic brand and taking hard decisions to keep his family business going.
Taking Over An 82-Year-Old Family Heritage
Opened by Tang Kwong Swee in 1939, the business was handed over to Cedric’s father, Tang Tat Cheong, in the 1970s. Under Mr and Mrs Tang, Swee Kee Eating House expanded from its Amoy Street location to College Road though the Ka-Soh brand.
A family business at heart, the Tang family members can be seen at the restaurant helping with the different aspects of running the restaurant. Younger members such as Cedric and his siblings grew up amidst the bustling restaurant environment. Contrary to conventional family businesses where children are groomed and expected to carry on the legacy, his parents never pressured their children into the business.
Each child was allowed to pursue their own interest and passion. Taking over the business was not on Cedric’s mind as he pursued Public Relations (PR) and Marketing for the first 7 years of his career. It was not until 2017 did Cedric consider taking over the family business. At that point, running a restaurant at his parents’ age was getting more challenging. Heavy renovation works for Swee Kee were also underway at Amoy Street. This was when Cedric stepped in to help despite being in the middle of starting a PR agency with his friend.
The reason: the thought of a future without Swee Kee dawned upon him. If no one was going to take over, the heritage and ties formed over the years would end in his generation. Cedric has always believed that fish soup is an equally iconic Singaporean dish, similar to chicken rice and chili crab.
Ups And Downs Of The F&B Industry
By 2018, Cedric was running the family business, as his father had retired. Up until Pre-COVID-19, business remained fast paced, prompting Cedric to expand the business.
In 2020, Cedric opened a third outlet under the Ka-Soh brand at Greenwood. The new location helped to diversify the family’s customer base of mainly CBD workers to residential customers.
Onboarding technology into daily operations was another a hurdle in their traditional restaurant, especially with older generation stakeholders. For example, most of their fresh supplies for their restaurants came from wet markets where invoices were still written on paper and in Chinese.
Another challenging task was trying to re-skill their older employees who have been with the business for decades. Apart from the language barrier from Chinese to English on technological platforms, Cedric also noticed that older employees were fearful of making mistakes when handling new technology. Nevertheless, Cedric knew he had to press ahead to modernise the business while being compassionate to long time employees.
Such exercises required significant amount of effort and time. For example, in 2018 when Swee Kee Eating House had to upgrade their credit machine, weeks were taken to help train the staff. These efforts ground to a halt because of COVID-19. The challenges Cedric had to face were no longer about operational optimisation but a sudden loss in business, manpower issues and delivery technology assimilation.
During Circuit Breaker in 2020, dining-in was no longer an option. Cedric had to react quickly by providing delivery options for his restaurants. However, with the lack of technological adoption among Swee Kee Eating House team, the online delivery system could only be implemented for Ka-Soh outlets. With the help of his older brother, who is a programmer, Ka-Soh set up their in-house online delivery platform to service their regular customers. This quick reaction helped to lower their delivery cost without needing to pay third-party commission. The island-wide delivery service also allowed new customers to finally try the renowned fish soup while regulars were able to enjoy Ka-Soh flavour regardless of distance.
Government rental support, wage grants and digitalisation schemes helped most businesses during the circuit breaker period. Nonetheless, the restaurant industry was significantly impacted. As work-from-home remained in place for a large percentage of employees, CBD footfall never fully recovered. Moreover, takeaway volume and receipts size could not match up to pre-COVID-19 dining-in revenue.
Additionally, with closed borders, manpower was constantly an issue due to the lack of labour. With the lack of interest from locals, high quarantine cost for foreigners and lack of foreigner quotas, handling the manpower side of the business was becoming a stretch.
Even after Circuit Breaker, restrictive dining-in sizes and loss of lunch crowd in CBD area continued to significantly dent Swee Kee’s business. Due to the operational load of running their own delivery platform, Ka-Soh eventually outsourced their delivery services. However, food delivery on its own could not completely solve the problem. As most food delivery platforms only deliver within a 5km radius, Ka-Soh at College Road could not reach a wide pool of take away customers.
While the business had been picking up over the recent months, Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) took the wind out of their sails. Even though Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) might be limited to a month, the eventual reopening and dining-in group size may take time to be re-introduced. This second round of recovery would prove to be difficult for the business as they had not even recuperated from the first round. There is also no guarantee that there will not be more tightening measures in future.
This ultimately led to the decision to close the Swee Kee Eating House restaurant brand.
The Business Must Go On
Closing one of the oldest restaurant in the family business was not an easy decision for Cedric. With many fond memories, Swee Kee Eating House was irreplaceable in many people hearts, especially for Cedric and his family. Over the past 82 years, Swee Kee Eating House had become a household name in Singapore. During the last days of Swee Kee Eating House, many long-time regulars continued to show support and reminisce the times at Amoy Street.
Regardless, the family business must still go on – with Ka-Soh still running strong.
Consolidating resources and manpower to the two remaining Ka-Soh outlets, Cedric is currently working to integrate the Swee Kee and Ka-Soh teams. As shared on Swee Kee Eating House Facebook Page, two of Swee Kee’s long time servers, who have been with the business for more than a decade, have just relocated to Ka-Soh at Greenwood.
At the same time, Cedric assures that long-time regulars do not need to worry about losing their favourite flavours. He is also working to integrate some of Swee Kee’s best-loved flavours to the Ka-Soh outlets and continue to deliver comfort local Cantonese styled food to Singaporeans.
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