This unprecedented year, business owners from City Harvest Church find their entrepreneurial chops, resilience and faith tested, but also strengthened. Four entrepreneurs share their stories with City News.
STEPHEN POK: GOING SMALLER TO GO BIGGER
As with most businesses, especially those in the F&B sector, The Cake Shop was hit hard when COVID-19 containment measures were implemented. With a sizeable percentage of its takings coming from orders of large celebration cakes (such as the one seen on stage during CHC’s 30th anniversary celebration), requests for refunds started pouring in as events were cancelled one by one due to restrictions on gathering sizes, says owner Stephen Pok.
Despite being a battle-tested entrepreneur who has seen his fair share of business failures, Pok remembers the many sleepless nights as COVID wore on, as he thought about the staff he would have to lay off if things did not change—soon. “Those first two weeks (of the circuit breaker period) were rough. I cried out to God and spent a lot of time pray-walking in the park. What else was there to do during that period, right?” he says with a chuckle.
Nothing dramatic happened immediately. But he hung on to faith and kept confessing, “God, You are the owner and CEO of this business. You have given me the vision for it. You have walked with me since day one and helped me build this up. You will not let it just end like this. You’ve got to deliver us!”
As he kept looking to God instead of stressing over the whole situation, creativity began to flow, not just from him but the whole team. “There was no point crying over the refunds. We put our heads together and strategized. If big parties could not be held, we would do smaller cakes for home parties. If they can’t come to the malls, we will increase our deliveries. We priced down our offerings to increase affordability for more customers,” Pok listed. The team also challenged themselves with express, same-day deliveries, which differentiated them from other cake shops that required advanced notice for customised cake orders.
With all hands on deck, the team began to see results. Online orders began to pick up. Several months on, not only did the business regain financial stability with the reopening of its various outlets, it recently launched a halal range with a dedicated outlet at Punggol. Additionally, The Cake Shop will be opening another branch in November.
“I was not planning to open any new stores this year but to streamline operations, but the Lord took me further than that!” he marvels. In addition, pay cuts—which everyone voluntarily took—have been reinstated. “My wife Rebecca was really the one who stood by me and encouraged me during that difficult period,” says the father of four.
Pok and a few good friends—including a veteran baker—have also launched a virtual baking school in order to increase community outreach and engagement. Students range from hobbyists to serious bakers. They hope to establish a physical presence after COVID-19 restrictions have eased.
His encouragement to fellow believers is this: “Hope in Christ. Don’t look for shortcuts; don’t cut corners or get into heavy debt. Hope in Christ, and Christ will see you through.”
LEE HEE WEI: A WEAK LINK THAT BECAME “NOAH’S ARK”
Passion turned into profession when coffee aficionados Lee Hee Wei and wife, Eve, decided to turn their $10,000 coffee maker into a side gig, just to see where it would lead them.
While there was no lack of cafes almost everywhere in Singapore, the couple identified an untapped market for mobile coffee kiosks. In 2011, they launched Singapore’s first mobile coffee catering company, Olla Specialty Coffee, serving up quality brews at private events and exhibitions.
It wasn’t until Hee Wei won third place at the 2013 Singapore National Barista Championship that business really took off. With the support and sharing of industry know-how from friends and suppliers in the industry including Nylon Coffee Roasters, Olla Coffee expanded from small-scale mobile coffee catering to providing on-site coffee bars for a local corporation and a multinational company in the Central Business District. In 2017, Hee Wei quit his full-time job as an engineer to focus on growing the business, which reached new heights in 2019.
The year 2019 was also when Hee Wei and his wife were also approached to occupy half a shop lot in Clementi. The couple was initially reluctant, as it meant having to run a permanent space with no captive market of office workers. Plus, it was located in a particularly quiet neighborhood.
Still, the rental was very attractive and they signed on. Unsurprisingly, the café did not match up to their other three coffee bars in the CBD in terms of sales, all of which were doing brisk business.
When COVID-19 struck, Hee Wei saw revenues plunge by more than 50 percent almost overnight, thanks to work-from-home orders and the ceasing of business visits. But when one door closed, another open. Business at that little half-a-shop-lot outlet at Sunset Way starting picking up.
“In time, God brought in more than enough business [to the shop at Sunset Way] to cover all our expenses including salaries for all our full-timers. Our rent was also fully waived,” says Hee Wei, who has two children aged nine and five.
Olla Coffee not only survived, it thrived. Recently, they were offered the other half of the shop space, and by faith, Hee Wei took it up. After the expansion, sales more than doubled. That little quiet nook in Sunset Way has since turned into a bustling spot on a weekend morning.
“When we lost all our office outlets, I was really worried about how we were going to keep our staff,” muses Hee Wei. “Looking back now, that Sunset Way outlet was like our Noah’s Ark. We never would have thought it would turn out this way.”
His key takeaway from this season: “When hard times come, it’s natural for fear and anxiety to strike—we’re human. We begin to evaluate things based on our own understanding. Our natural minds will tell us to pull the plug and cut our losses.
“But if we have just that mustard seed of faith, it will propel us forward as we seek God, pray and hear from Him what He wants us to do. As we obey, and see things change slowly, day by day, that becomes the greatest encouragement for any business owner.”
TEO HSIN YI: COOKING THAT CREATES BONDS
Small is beautiful, according to The Kitchen Society founder Teo Hsin Yi. For the past six years, the mother of two has collaborated with experienced local and overseas chefs to conduct baking and cooking classes in a live kitchen studio set within a heritage conservation house. The classes are kept small—groups of 10 to 12—enabling students to enjoy intimate interaction with the chefs and one another. But this cozy set-up came to an abrupt stop with the announcement of the Circuit Breaker.
Turning to technology to bridge the gap and maintain connection with her customers, Hsin Yi convinced her chefs to use Zoom in order to stream their cooking classes. What was deemed a disruption turned into a surprising development: The Kitchen Society started getting customers from overseas including Brunei, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia.
When Phase 2 arrived and small groups were allowed to meet (with safe distancing measures observed), The Kitchen Society evolved again to accommodate a hybrid set-up of both physical classes (in smaller groups) which were also streamed live on Zoom. This arrangement not only removed the limitation of physical class size, but catered to busy mothers who could not afford to travel.
But even then, the school took time to regain momentum. Hsin Yi admitted that she felt a little discouraged when she saw how well her competitors were doing—they had the luxury of bigger cooking studios that could accommodate social distancing measures.
“God really spoke to me, reminding me that I always need to look within and not to be distracted by others’ progress,” Hsin Yi shares. “I had to keep my passion front and center, while learning, growing and improving.”
In the process, she found time to forge closer bonds with her customers. One day, as she was checking in on a customer whom she had not heard from for some time, Hsin Yi discovered that the customer had injured herself during a fall. Teo recommended a physiotherapist to her, who was instrumental in her recovery.
While the pandemic has sparked changes in business operations, Hsin Yi also found that it opened up new opportunities to make a difference. “During the lockdown, I had no weekend classes to conduct, so I started a baking group with the ladies in my cell group. It became a group of 22 ladies, including non-Christian family members, helpers and even irregular (cell group) members. Almost all of them were new to baking and we spent a few Sunday afternoons learning how to make breads, tarts and cakes via Zoom,” she shares.
“The participants began coming back to say that their children and spouses who did not like to eat bread were suddenly devouring the fresh bakes. They even started to bake breads and cheesecake as food gifts for friends!” says Hsin Yi.
But it was the bonding was the best reward. “We bonded so closely over the bakes, the shortage of flour, shopping for ingredients… Many new and deeper friendships were forged just through those chats and baking sessions. Some have even gone on to become sourdough bakers. To this day, the chat group is still alive, albeit not as noisy. To me, that was the best thing that happened to me during the lockdown.”
SABRINA GOH: CREATIVITY UNBRIDLED
Leave it to Sabrina Goh to make face masks a fashion statement. The designer and founder of her eponymous brand may be known for her super-sharp, avant garde designs but her creative genius found new expression this year as COVID hit.
With the mad scramble for face masks during the early days of the pandemic, Sabrina toyed around with the idea of making reusable face masks, but she had two overriding concerns. First, would there be a market? The last thing the business needed was unwanted inventory. Second, how to ensure that the masks were functional, with the right filtration and particle-blocking properties?
Sabrina decided to start with small-scale, on-demand production. As demand picked up, she refined her designs, resulting in what is today its best-selling item, the Origami mask.
Fully designed and made in Singapore, the mask range was launched after the Circuit Breaker period ended. Featuring structured folds and lined-in viscose for added comfort, and a shortened width on the nose bridge for a finer fit, the masks create a flattering curved silhouette for wearers. Much thought was put into every detail, right down to storage. “When you are out for lunch, the mask can be folded and worn like a necklace. We also re-evaluated the comfort of the drawstring, introducing a thickened version for maximized comfort. The length of the drawstring was also shortened for easier adjustment,” states the product description on the website.
It was therefore no surprise that market response has been literally overwhelming—Sabrina and her team of sewers have been putting in extra hours to fulfil orders. Meanwhile, outlets at Paragon and Raffles City Shopping Centre have since reopened, but with the majority of the Singaporean workforce still working from home, retail sales have by no means returned to typical levels. Instead of letting her staff sit idle around the shops, Sabrina has taken the opportunity to enrol her staff for government-backed training courses under the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) scheme and implemented job redesign initiatives to increase their adaptability and productivity.
Sabrina is letting her faith take the wheel. Her go-to word during this season is this: “Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.” (Psalm 23:4 MSG).
“God inspired us to stay creative. As long as He is with us, one way or another we’ll be fine,” she says.