Overcoming the seasonality of a much-loved treat through innovation
16 Feb 2016
Almost synonymous with the Chinese New Year is bak kwa – luscious slices of barbequed meat enjoyed by the Chinese in Singapore and in the region. Photojournalist Ray Chua looks at how Singapore-grown brand Bee Cheng Hiang turned what would have been a seasonal product to a business that works year-round through innovation.
The streets of Singapore’s Chinatown are festooned in red once again, in celebration of the Lunar New Year. With the season comes a wave of festive shopping, and for many families, bak kwa is a staple. A market leader in the bak kwa business is Singapore company Bee Cheng Hiang, also a household name that most in the region would be familiar with.
The ability to “geng” (a colloquial term meaning being able to innovate and solve problems) is key to the company’s success, said Mr Richard Wong, Managing Director of Bee Cheng Hiang Hup Chong Foodstuff Pte Ltd. This ability to come up with creative ideas to solve challenges is also what allowed the company that used to rely on the Lunar New Year period for more than 60 percent of the company’s yearly sales, to ride on Singapore’s flourishing economy to transform into a business that works year-round.
It became the first bak kwa producer to run its own shop, and now boasts over 300 outlets in the region.
One early example of this innovative spirit can be seen in how the store dealt with the problem of its Rochor Road outlet frequently being obstructed by large vehicles parked at its entrance, hindering customers from locating the store.
The innovative solution: Bee Cheng Hiang founder Teo Swee Ee simply had the Bee Cheng Hiang sign emblazoned on all the vehicles.
The need to continually innovate has evolved to this present day. To take the business beyond the Lunar New Year, the company now offers an expanded product range as well – with offerings such as crispy pork floss and mini cereal crunchies among others. Its broader product range and innovative processes are a result of the company’s commitment to ongoing research and development, on which the company has invested over $1.2 million to-date.
These days, consumers have higher expectations: beyond the taste of their food, quality is a top priority. Bee Cheng Hiang has also improved its packaging methods to increase the shelf life of its products, for example, by introducing the vacuum pack (see above).
New products aside, 90 percent of Bee Cheng Hiang’s revenue still comes from sales of bak kwa – a product tourists often consider a “must-buy” whenever they visit Singapore. Locals going overseas for business or leisure also like to buy bak kwa for their business partners and friends.
Bee Cheng Hiang’s success in evolving a seasonal product into a Singaporean identity is another reason the company managed to take its business beyond the festive period. This has bolstered demand for the company’s products, providing the company a constant, healthy revenue stream throughout the year.
To cater to this demand, Bee Cheng Hiang produces a whopping 5,000 tonnes of meat products every year. This necessitates innovation to make the traditionally labour-intensive production process more efficient. Rotating racks were installed for the company’s custom-made roasting chambers in its highly-automated facilities.
Still, despite shifts towards modern technological innovations, the charcoal grill remains irreplaceable as only charcoal- grilled bak kwa exudes a particularly distinctive fragrance.
In addition, to ensure every piece of bak kwa is grilled evenly, an air inlet was specially included in the chamber’s design to keep the temperature within a specific range, such that a 70 percent cooked slice is achieved on every sieve.
The remaining barbequing of meats is done in-store, within a glass chamber with a built-in exhaust system, assuring customers bring the freshest products home. According to Bee Cheng Hiang’s Richard Wong, bak kwa is best eaten within five days of purchase. If it is to be kept any longer than that, customers are advised to keep it in the fridge and heat it up when served.
Today, when you visit a Bee Cheng Hiang store, it is common to see employees working hard to produce freshly-grilled bak kwa in an enclosed room. This specially designed room is equipped with an exhaust system allows Bee Cheng Hiang to honour its promise of delivering a comfortable shopping experience, keeping the grease and smoke away from the customers. Such innovation was also what allowed the company to move its stores into shopping malls in the 80s, a critical step towards bringing the brand closer to customers.
Constant innovation and improvement to products and sales processes enable Bee Cheng Hiang to scale its business despite rapid changes in the business environment and customers’ needs.
And true to its roots, Bee Cheng Hiang is still able to promise its customers bak kwa that is “fresh from the grill”, even beyond the Lunar New Year.