Founded in 1938, the Lim Chee Guan grilled meat (Bak Kwa) brand was founded by Lim Kay Eng.
In the 1920s, he left his family in Xiamen and traveled to Singapore by boat alone. Here he took on odd jobs like a plantation worker and a coffee assistant.
At home his mother often made bak kwa during the war days, as the meat can be kept for several days. When he missed his mother, he made Bak Kwa.
When he had saved enough money, he opened his first Bak-Kwa stand – a handcart – on Chin Chiew Street, which was then also known as "Tou Fu Kai".
The former Lim Chee Guan booth on New Bridge Road / Photo credit: Lim Chee Guan
Although business was good, the area was notorious for gang clashes. There were frequent fights against Cantonese and Hokkien gangs directly at the stand, which is why Kay Eng decided in 1956 to move his stand to a commercial building along New Bridge Road so as not to get caught in the crosshairs.
In the 1970s, he opened a second store in the Chinatown People & # 39; s Park Complex.
When Kay Eng settled down and built a family for himself, his entire family lived on the second floor just above their business. Business and family were closely related to him.
Rod Lim, second generation owner of Lim Chee Guan / Photo credit: Lim Chee Guan
In 1988, Kay Eng handed over management of the business to his son, Rod Lim. Over the years, Rod's two sons – Jerre Lim (45) and Benny Lim (42) – joined the family business.
Continuation of her grandfather's legacy
When asked why they decided to take over the family business, she replied simply: They have lived in business all their lives.
“It was our playground where we studied and worked. The customers loved Jerre and me – two cute round guys who run around selling things and dealing with money, ”said Benny.
"All of the time we've been in business also means joining wasn't a big choice for us, although our father never put us under any pressure."
Benny Lim (far left) and Jerre Lim (center) with their family / Photo credit: Lim Chee Guan
Both are college graduates and have had the opportunity to grow the business since childhood. Under the guidance of their parents and grandparents, they gradually learned the pros and cons of the business.
"When the time came we obviously felt a strong need to play a bigger role in the business to preserve the fruits of our grandfather's labors," added Benny.
However, when the two brothers officially entered the company, there was much disagreement within the family about how it should be run and modernized without detracting from the value and tradition of Lim Chee Guan.
Since each family member is responsible for different departments, they all have different views on how to do things.
But at the end of the day they realized that everyone wants the best for business and came to a "happy compromise".
As long as we work (together) as a family, anything can be resolved.
We agreed that when planning the implementation of new technology, we need to make sure that it does not change the way our Bak Kwa is made or the quality and taste of our product.
– Benny Lim, third generation owner of Lim Chee Guan
Photo credit: Lim Chee Guan
While their Bak-Kwa production process remains largely the same, they now incorporate the use of machines to cut the large platters of pork into smaller pieces and move the meat from one production station to another.
This helps to maximize the efficiency of the production process while maintaining the integrity of the taste and texture of the bak kvass.
Sales fell by more than 70% last year
Over the years, Lim Chee Guan has moved from his business to a factory in Woodlands and now the Pandan Loop to add more staff to meet increased manufacturing demand.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on business.
"Our sales fell by more than 70 percent in 2020," said Jerre.
With the Chinese New Year approaching, sales have picked up again. Indeed, long lines are a common sight in Lim Chee Guan's branches during this festive season.
Long lines at Lim Chee Guan / Photo credit: Lim Chee Guan
To put things in perspective, the typical waiting time is around six to eight hours, and the line can be up to 300 to 500 meters from the store, the brothers shared.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Lim Chee Guan does not allow walk-in purchases for all BBQ Bak Kwa products in all points of sale until February 9, 2021.
Screenshot of Lim Chee Guan's website
Online pre-orders have also been opened to avoid long queues in the branches. Due to the “overwhelming response”, the website was no longer available after just two hours of launch.
Your priority is scaling the pore business
Lim Chee Guan has grown from a modest handcart into a renowned Bak Kwa brand in Singapore with four branches in Singapore.
Their newer branches include ION Orchard and Jewel Changi Airport as they wanted to leverage their strategic locations.
"It will be easy for our customers (and tourists) to find us better," said Jerre.
Lim Chee Guan's Outlet at Jewel Changi Airport / Photo credit: Lim Chee Guan
He added that having a branch at the airport would make it easier for tourists to do their shopping so they can bring their products back to their home country.
This is a subtle approach to getting their brand overseas, and it's interesting to note that Lim Chee Guan has no branches outside of Singapore.
Product quality is one of our top priorities. Grilling a perfect piece of bak kwa isn't easy for anyone – it actually took some of our employees years to master.
Should we go overseas, labor could be a problem in producing the same product quality. Therefore, we would like to focus on Singapore first, as Singapore is our home.
– Jerre Lim, third generation owner of Lim Chee Guan
He added that they want to focus on improving their products and operations before spreading their wings overseas.
Long lines at Lim Chee Guan in the early days / Photo credit: Lim Chee Guan
When asked what Lim Chee Guan's recipe for success has been in this competitive F&B industry for over 80 years, Benny simply said it was "hard work and dedication."
"Even if it sounds clichéd, there really is no secret, or if so, we would like to know too!"
To be honest, we're grateful that Bak Kwa is a product that has come a long way – from a method of simply preserving meat and providing food during the winter months to what it is today.
We grew up in a household that focuses on family, tradition and quality. So these are the three main values that drive us forward.
– Benny Lim, third generation owner of Lim Chee Guan
As a firm belief in old fashioned values like honesty and rudeness, her father still oversees some of the business processes and therefore still plays a very active role in the business.
Overall, they emphasized that there is no shortcut to success. That's why they strive to grow the brand organically, even if it takes time. In their case it took them over 80 years.
Selected image source: Ong Yi Chao / Lim Chee Guan