There is a popular bakery in Chinatown that sells milk-free, diamond-shaped pancakes in pretty, colorful packaging.
Ana Fong, the successor and managing director of the fourth generation bakery, wants you to know that the brand has a name: Tong Heng.
This 100-year-old Cantonese pastry has made the rounds in Singapore's food-crazed scene. This year it was listed as one of the traditional brands selling a hybrid cake / pastry for the upcoming national holiday.
However, today's success has not always been the case. At some point, Tong Heng risked disappearing into the annals of Singaporean F&B history.
Tong Heng almost faded into the background after the 1970s
For humble reasons, Tong Heng was a street stall operated by Ana's great-grandfather in the 1920s. The bakery made its official debut in a shop on Smith Street in 1935.
Photo credit: Tong Heng
The store was relocated to Chinatown when a government clearance notice came in the late 1970s. Today it has a second branch in Tanjong Pagar.
Over time, Tong Heng gained a loyal group of customers from the Merdeka generation.
"But Tong Heng's design stopped in the 70s or 80s," says Ana. "It didn't develop."
"We have won customers of this time who remain loyal to this day. However, these customers have aged – and I have found that not a single young person's eyelid flicked as they passed our store. "
Gaining the trust of an old school team
Ana worriedly told her aunts and bosses Rebecca and Constance Fong that they had to change to defend the continuity of the brand.
"Otherwise we will disappear – so we should simply opt for the facelift," she explains.
Ana joined Tong Heng, a family bakery in the background of her life, in 2011 as a full-time employee. She had worked there again and again as a young adult.
However, their first attempts to implement changes met with skepticism from the team. "I think they felt threatened – they didn't trust the revision to work," Ana says.
"When I tried to discuss changes, my bosses looked at me and said," You know, that's a very Chinese brand. "
Tong Heng's flagship store in Chinatown / Photo credit: Kenneth Goh via Michelin Guide Singapore
But Ana's passion and sincerity convinced her bosses and colleagues and the Tong Heng brand has become increasingly popular since then.
"The women worked so hard and found it wasteful that no one wanted to learn and perfect the ability to guide Tong Heng properly."
"I wanted to make your dreams come true."
The three basic rules of a Tong Heng facelift
Tong Heng should be revised in April 2018. Ana's strategy was simple: "The packaging needed to do justice to the product."
The aim was to create a new design for Tong Heng in a style and layout that is aimed at millennial customers. Proper marketing would expand Tong Heng's audience to a new target group.
Tong Heng's brand logo / photo credit: Tong Heng
The execution was easy. “I was looking for the right creative agency (& Larry) to deliver. I told the creative director, "I trust what you do. I only have three expectations."
Do not change the logo first. You can tweak it, but it was designed by our boss and is something special for our brand.
Second, the design shouldn't intimidate our older customers. Third, people have to know the name of Tong Heng.
– Ana Fong, managing director of Tong Heng
Change the packaging, not the product
Tong Heng's new, colorful image was a success – it triggered collaborations with government agencies and made the bakery a historic icon in the tourism industry.
The brand started hiring younger people at the forefront in their new, fashionable retro business. The digital presence also grew when Tong Heng became active on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
Tong Heng attracted media attention and received rave reviews about Hungrygowhere, Burple and SethLui. It was also featured on the Singapore Tourism Board and the Michelin Star Guide from Singapore.
"We also want to reconnect young people with Chinese cultures and traditions through food," says Ana.
Photo credit: packaging of the world
For this reason, no dairy is used for any of their baked goods. The only other difference is that less sugar is used to make healthier pastries and to cater to the taste buds of younger generations.
The bakery's new aesthetic captures the modern nostalgia of days gone by, but its recipes remain true to its Cantonese roots. All Tong Heng products use ingredients that are unique to Chinese culture, she adds.
Covid-19: Delivery according to Tong Heng style
Following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's announcement on April 3, Tong Heng's revenue fell by more than half from about 50 to 60 percent.
"The business was so sluggish that we were concerned about whether it could be maintained or not," Ana said.
However, Tong Heng's newly discovered ability to adapt to changing times proved useful when the Covid 19 pandemic hit. "It has brought everyone on earth out of their comfort zones."
The solution was to deliver food. The F&B industry has gone digital, and companies like Tiffinlabs have launched over 1000 cloud kitchens worldwide. Social enterprises have also broken new ground to support the struggling F&B industry.
Unlike other F&B's, Tong Heng did not approach distributors like Grab, but instead worked with a partner they had on board for several years.
Our pastries are fragile and we trusted that our husband would handle them carefully. You can't do stunts with them – that's why we don't get involved with the big boys.
– Ana Fong, managing director of Tong Heng
Tong Heng recovered quickly and kept sales at a normal, healthy level. With digital reach and commitment, they were also able to increase their sales by 10 percent.
Business changes, family stays
Constance Fong (left) and Ana Fong (right) / Photo credit: Tung Pham via New York Times Style Magazine Singapore
Ana is in her fifties now, but there are currently no plans for Tong Heng's successors. The company also has no plans to expand beyond two branches.
"Singapore is very accessible and delivery is growing," says Ana.
“Ultimately, it depends on what my family wants. They must be interested in accepting it – we cannot force them at gunpoint. "
"I consider my aunts to be my bosses. Since I am both a family and an employee, I should give them more. Ultimately, it's not about what my family can give me, but what I can give my family. "
Selected image source: Kenneth Goh via Michelin Guide Singapore / @dairyandcream via Instagram