In the best of times, running an F&B business in Singapore isn’t easy. With high rental cost (especially if you are at a hipster-loving location like Bukit Pasoh), manpower challenges, intense competition and long working hours, even F&B businesses that can serve good food may find the business environment challenging to sustain during normal times, let alone with the COVID-19 pandemic to overcome.
Baker’s Bench Bakery, a bakery café situated at 6 Bukit Pasoh Road, opened its doors in late January 2020. The goal was to establish itself as a go-to neighbourhood bakery; given its demographics, office workers and residents in the area constitute its main patrons.
Taking pride and focus on comfort artisanal in-house bakes, they were gradually winning recognition in the neighbourhood. Its Hazelnut Croissant and Savory Swirl are ridiculously good (this writer’s favourite) while their Sticky Bun has been raved about by multiple food blogs in Singapore.
As timely as it seemed, COVID-19 hit. Circuit-breaker was imposed, followed by Work-from-Home (WFH) policy.
To get a sense of how it’s like trying to establish a brand new F&B business in 2020, we spoke to Vera Tan, a first-time entrepreneur and co-founder of Baker’s Bench Bakery.
A Childhood Dream: Launching Baker’s Bench Bakery
Timothy Ho (Tim): Vera, thanks for chatting with us. As a first-time entrepreneur, how long were you thinking about starting a bakery before you finally decided to take the plunge to start your own business?
Vera Tan (Vera): It has always been my childhood dream to open a bakery; this image has always been stuck in my head. A small, rustic, no-frills bakery in the suburbs. Not something that you commonly see in Singapore because of the settings and strict SFA rules.
But yes, it’s the comfort and nostalgic feel that a bakery can elicit that made me want to pursue this business. Also, I love the feeling of providing food and joy to others.
I wasn’t in the F&B industry to start with, but slowly, I found myself drawn into the industry and I have never looked back ever since. Our baker (co-founder) and I first met at our previous workplace. We both left our jobs, embarked on our separate paths before our stars aligned. She gave me the confidence to open a place together as we had similar visions and values. What a gem! Both of us wanted a simple in-house bakery, providing a place of comfort with minimal frills. We are not into short-lived trends; evidently, our products are sort of old-school and rustic. As you can see it’s an open-concept kitchen; we invite patrons into our lives and vice versa. By breaking the wall down, our plan was to bring everyone closer to one another.
Tim: You opened Baker’s Bench Bakery in January 2020. I am guessing with a location at Bukit Pasoh, you were banking on the weekday foot traffic among office workers, and cafe and pastries lovers looking for a nice place to chill over afternoon tea or weekend brunch. How badly did COVID-19 hurt these initial plans you had?
Vera: Oh, very badly initially, especially during Circuit Breaker and the start of Phase 2. But slowly, people started to eat out more especially after being cooped up at home during the weekdays (WFH), so business picked up gradually.
There is also a shift in our demographics. Now, the majority of our patrons are those who WFH and people catching up with friends as they have more control over their working hours. The office crowd is quite rare these days as they are mostly back in the office once or twice a week. I got to say, we do miss having familiar faces around ):
Tim: At what point did you start realising that ensuring good food and service was not going to be your only problem, but rather, the circuit breaker and changing norms due to the pandemic such as work-from-home and social distancing requirements?
Vera: Before Circuit Breaker when the COVID-19 situation was worsening, I was bracing myself for the hit. It was just a matter of how bad things were going to be. At that point in time, I knew there would be a certain type of restrictions imposed to curb the spread, and I was ready for it. This will be a long, tough fight and the only way to stay afloat, is to ride with the tide.
Surviving Through Circuit Breaker
Tim: How bad was business during the circuit breaker months? As a new bakery-café, was this a situation of not being able to build any momentum because of COVID-19 and Circuit Breaker?
Vera: Business was pessimistic in general; some days, sales could be as low as $400. And yes, as a young business, we did not have the regulars and could not build any momentum either.
Tim: What adjustments did you have to make to ensure that Baker’s Bench Bakery could continue operations and survive this period?
Vera: We had to reduce operations by making it a 4-day work week as it was deemed too costly to operate on certain days. I saw it as a chance for my team to get extra rest as they had been working very hard since we began operations in January. We also depended heavily on home deliveries. Since I was the only one who drives, I would personally make the deliveries and also engage a couple of taxi drivers to help out (they were also one of the hardest-hit).
Given that I had no prior experience in managing F&B or in devising a delivery ordering system, this was a really challenging time to juggle the logistics of delivery orders, staff, production and making the deliveries. But well, we had to figure it out!
Tim: Was home delivery something that you initially intended to introduce or was it an adjustment made because of Circuit Breaker?
Vera: To be honest, I was never open to deliveries, or rather, I felt it was too early into the business to engage in delivery services. But Circuit Breaker forced me into it and I have to say, I am extremely grateful for this PUSH!
Tim: You guys served delicious pastries. Did Circuit Breaker (ironically) allow you to expand your business to attract customers that otherwise wouldn’t have come often? I recalled going one of the days during the circuit breaker period and it felt like there were quite a number people visiting the bakery to get takeaways for their families.
Vera: You’re absolutely right! The silver lining was that I got the chance to engage with the customers. Just by taking their orders on Instagram, it allowed me to chat briefly with them individually. This actually grew our customer base and also allowed us to forge bonds.
It’s this priceless and valuable human interaction that builds a relationship above a mere buyer-seller encounter. One of the most comforting things is that some of our customers travelled from Punggol, Hougang, Yishun and Boon Lay (just to name a few) to our bakery just to say hi, check out the space and thank us for providing them good bakes during the circuit breaker period. HOW HEARTENING!! (:
The New Normal: Phase 2 & Beyond
Tim: Since the commencement of Phase 2, has business picked up?
Vera: As compared to Circuit Breaker, definitely! People are more eager to get out!
Tim: What are some of the adjustments and initiatives you adopted during the circuit breaker period that have proven to be valuable even today?
Vera: Online ordering and delivery. We also introduced contactless payment (PayNow and GrabPay) and these are definitely here to stay.
Tim: What are some vital lessons about business building that you have learned over the past year
Vera: Go with the flow and do what needs to be done, especially in this trying new norm. Avoid being too set in our old ways. Always be open to new solutions as long as they are suitable for your business.
2020 Is A Year When Businesses Should Be Embracing Changes
In general, people are resistant to change. When we are used to doing things in a certain way, we are not inclined to change – unless we have to.
In 2020, business owners need to find ways to overcome our resistance to changes. To adapt to the changing environment around us, we need to embrace new ways of doing things.
For example, to cope with circuit breaker, Vera and her team at Baker’s Bench Bakery started offering delivery services to their customers even though that wasn’t part of their original plan. However, this adjustment needed to be done to make up for the shortfall in dine-in customers and the heavily reduced foot traffic. And in doing so, Baker’s Bench Bakery wasn’t just able to increase its revenue but was able to build better relationships with its customers – who are showing up at the bakery today.
If you are running a business, adopting digital solutions – be it to start selling online or to reach out to more customers via digital marketing – will be critical in 2020 and 2021.
The good news is through the Digital Resilience Bonus, businesses in the Food Service and Retail sector can receive pay-outs of up to $10,000 when they adopt digital solutions. For F&B businesses like Baker’s Bench Bakery, the grant can be used to offset solutions such as online food delivery or digital ordering for dining in and takeaways. You can find out more about the Digital Resilience Bonus and how to apply for it on the OCBC Business Banking website.
To support local SMEs with their digital transformation, OCBC Business Banking offers a suite of services available for businesses to tap on so that they can bounce back stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic. These include helping companies sell better by starting their ecommerce journey and utilising digital marketing, and operating better by adopting e-invoicing and Corporate PayNow. You can find out more about these OCBC initiatives here.
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