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From Selling Popiahs In A Bedok Coffeeshop To Exporting Food Products In 7 Countries: The Story Behind How Mr Popiah Became An International Food Manufacturing Business

Having an “aggressive mindset” helps Mr Popiah grow their business and stay relevant.

Mr Popiah

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After marrying in 1995, Madam Li Li Hong and her husband started selling popiahs (or spring rolls) at a coffeeshop stall in Bedok North. Back then, their intention was simple – to make a living.

They quickly became known for their delicious popiahs. There was no secret to this success. Their popiahs were painstakingly hand-made – from the soft skins and textured ingredients to wrapping the finished product for hungry customers each day.

Over time, this recognition gave them the opportunity to expand into the wholesale trade, selling their popiah skins to other hawkers and venturing into other types of pastry products.

Unfortunately, Madam Li’s husband passed away unexpectedly, leaving her overwhelmed at work. With orders still to be fulfilled, their son, Lewis Tan, got behind the wheels of one of their vans, determined to deliver on his father’s promises to customers.

The Mother-Son Duo Running Mr Popiah

With Lewis in the business, and under the watchful eyes of Madam Li, Mr Popiah has transformed from selling hand-made popiahs into an automated food manufacturing business. The company invested in self-customised wrapping machines which can produce 60 wraps per minute. Tapping on automation reduced its reliance on manual labour, and enabled the business to pivot into a food manufacturer for renowned F&B players in Singapore and overseas.

This business arm is in addition to their three Mr Popiah coffeeshop stalls, which they still operate today.

As with any family business, there is a deeper layer to relationships in the company. Despite frequently disagreeing with one another, the duo makes it a point to portray a united front, especially in front of their employees. They find time, in the office, car rides, or at home to trash out their differences – with the understanding that they are only trying to benefit the business.

This led to creative and innovative expansion strategies along the way. Lewis explains that having an “aggressive mindset” helps them stay relevant.

DollarsAndSense had the opportunity to talk to Lewis Tan, Director for Business Development of Mr Popiah, to learn about the benefits and challenges of working in a two-generation entrepreneurial team.

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Dinesh: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Let’s start from the beginning of Mr Popiah’s story. What made your parents choose to run a popiah stall all those years ago?

Lewis: My mother grew up eating popiah in China. After getting married and moving here, she wanted to make and sell a comfort food that she was very familiar with. My father supported this decision – and that’s how they started their first stall in a coffeeshop at Bedok North.

The stall was not called Mr Popiah at first. Passionate about making delicious popiahs, my mother was always behind the counter. My father had a very fun-loving nature – he could connect with every customer. Since he was taking orders at the storefront, he became the face of the business.

Because people loved their popiahs so much, customers started calling my father Mr Popiah.

The name stuck. It was simple to remember and required no further explanation. People now say our Mr Popiah logo looks like me!

Dinesh: Over the past close to three decades, Mr Popiah has gone from hand-made popiahs to automating your food manufacturing process. While it sounds like something every food manufacturer should do to stay competitive and expand, it also sounds like a taxing and expensive process.

Can you share some challenges you faced doing this?

Lewis: It is hard to buy off-the-shelf machinery to automate food manufacturing. Since my mom oversees the product, she was the main person who worked with the engineers to customise the machinery to our process.

We never sacrifice the quality and taste of our products just for the sake of automation. As my mother would say, “it must be the same as the hand-made popiahs, otherwise, there’s no point doing it”. While this slowed down the process, it was important because customers expected the same product quality that they’ve trusted us to make.

In Singapore, we also don’t have lot of space to work with. While we have automated most of the manufacturing process, there is still about 20% of our work that we do manually. For example, at the start of the process, we need to clean and peel the turnips, which are irregularly shaped and often very dirty when they arrive.

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Dinesh: There are several successful parts to your business today, with your Mr Popiah food stalls and vending machines, being an OEM to many established F&B brands and exporting your RTE products internationally!

How do these ideas come about, and when do you decide if you should embark on an expansion plan?

Lewis: We are very different from other family businesses managed by two generations. My mom is a serial entrepreneur and has many business ideas. She’s the one who pitched the idea to sell our food through vending machines and to launch our Ready-to-Eat (RTE) meals. These business pivots are her visions. I’m the one who tones down these ideas to make them achievable.

We also attend many international trade shows. They offer new insights into food trends in different countries and give us inspiration to tweak our products for certain markets.

Being a small industry in Singapore, we have a close-knit relationship with other food manufacturers. We can rely on one another for certain insights and knowledge. This was quite valuable when we were first exploring our export business.

I remember attending a networking event and sitting with other food manufacturers. One of them said that the beauty of the export business was that it allowed him to earn money while he was asleep. This really stayed with me – we were working so hard, but some people could make money while they were sleeping.

It was also one of the reasons we took our transformation so seriously. We needed to ramp up production by automating. We needed to learn the inner workings of the export trade. And we had to have an innovative product, which is how we came up with our meatless ready-to-eat (RTE) products!

Dinesh: What is one piece of advice that you will share with other Singapore business owners who are looking to expand internationally?

Lewis: There’s no need to do it alone. Working with trusted distributors can help you quickly enter a market, find product fit, and win market share.

Local distributors understand the market intimately. Even before you enter the country, they can give you insights and feedback on what product customisations could work. They also have extensive sales networks in the market. If the product is a good fit, they can quickly gain market share. Similarly, if a product is a bad fit, you will quickly learn it.

Second Generation Entrepreneurs Can Offer A Fresh Perspective On Business Growth

When we spoke, Lewis admitted that he was not as comfortable as his father in the sales, marketing, and distribution functions. He had to work harder to become proficient.

Besides taking over his father’s workload when he joined the family business, Lewis was also able to lend a fresh pair of eyes. Automating their manufacturing facility was high on the agenda if they were going to expand.

While retaining the same taste and quality was important, it was also inevitable that they had to move away from hand-made food products.

At the same time, he remained open to his mother’s “aggressive” ideas for business growth. This would provide some impetus to increase revenue in tandem with production.

He worked relentlessly to develop their vending machine venture. He also introduced data collection and digitalisation to improve their business decisions. Data collected from the vending machines, such as sales at different times of the day, user interactions, and locations allowed him to calibrate their 3rd-generation vending machines. Lewis shared that these will be unveiled.

Lewis also shared that cash flow is vitally important for a manufacturing company. Even though Mr Popiah has healthy sales and cash reserves today, it is more prudent to rely on financing for cash-intensive expansion purposes. He often shares these ambitions with his OCBC relationship manager from the serial entrepreneur segment. The RM team takes into account the experiences, track record and overall group strategy to support the unique needs of entrepreneurs like him to launch and grow new ventures.

To mitigate the risks of operating a new business arm, Lewis was keen to rope in a joint venture partner with engineering expertise in China. After consulting with OCBC’s F&B specialist team, Lewis took out their first SME Business Venture Loan – giving them the financial firepower to regionalise operations.

He also worked with NTUC’s e2i to upgrade Mr Popiah’s physical stalls into self-service outlets. This will not only make full use of their central kitchen but also modernise the brand, reduce manpower requirements, and improve food consistency and hygiene. The successful roll-out of this strategy will enable Lewis to pivot away from managing their physical stalls and into franchising the brand.

During the pandemic, he also took the advice of his OCBC relationship manager to take up bridging loans to build their sales channel infrastructure on Shopee and RedMart, helping the business pivot online at a critical time. This greatly boosted local sales of their ready-to-eat product segment and paved the way for transformation in their export business. Today Mr Popiah’s RTE meals are available in seven countries in the Middle East and Asia Pacific, including supermarket chains in Australia, Japan, Korea, and China – bringing Singapore cuisine global!

Identifying consumers’ shifting preference for sustainable foods, Lewis further shared the company’s ambitions to kickstart plant-based RTE meals with his OCBC relationship manager. The RM, having specialisation in the F&B industry, advised taking up venture growth loans to support the R&D and capacity building to produce plant-based RTE meals. This has been set in motion.

Looking to the future, Lewis is excited to work with their Middle East partner to penetrate a rapidly up-and-coming Saudi Arabian market, as well as look towards their roots to gain a foothold in China.

Starting and growing an F&B business in Singapore is no easy feat. No doubt, Lewis will have more funding requirements, and he shared that he is glad to work with OCBC relationship managers from the Serial Entrepreneur segment who have deep industry insights and can advise and structure suitable solutions to match the business needs for the fast-growing group.

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