Local youtiao maker Xi De Li is one of the pioneers of the youtiao and dough food industry in Singapore.
Xi De Li's story, now led by fourth generation owners, Adrian Koh, Valerie Koh, and Pathom Koh, dates back to the 1920s.
Xi De Li started out as a wheelbarrow stand under the direction of her great-grandmother and now runs a central kitchen that can produce up to 10,000 Youtiaos per day.
Today, the Xi De Li brand also includes over 60 individual and franchise stores across Singapore and generates a few million in sales per year.
The dough that binds the family
It started as a handcart stand along Chin Swee Road in the 1920s by her great grandmother.
Along with the tradition of kneading the dough by hand, the stand was passed on to her grandmother in the 1940s.
In 1966, her father, who created the signature “butterfly bun” as a symbol of love for his wife, took over the management of the company.
“Last time there was only Youtiao and Ham Chim Peng (salty pastry donuts). Our mother wanted a version in the shape of a butterfly, so my father made it for her. It was a love job for her and I think it's very cute, ”said 41-year-old Valerie.
Photo credit: sgfoodonfoot.com
The family then decided to include the "butterfly bun" in their product range. To this day, they have kept the original recipe and taste of the butterfly bun.
In 1980 they moved to a Clementi snack stand that is still in operation today. It was previously known as Jing Wen Tai You Tiao.
A few decades later, in 2006, the siblings and their younger brother took over the company and renamed it Xi De Li. The name is derived from the name of her father "Xi" and the English word "Deli".
Takeover despite lack of business experience
In the early days, her father was up at dawn every day to start making and delivering pieces of dough.
On the other hand, Valerie had to wake up at midnight to mix and beat the dough before making each piece of dough by hand. She added that she often struggled 16 hours a day.
The older brother Adrian, who was still a teenager at the time, helped out at the booth after school. Even when he was doing community service, he still helped after booking.
“I had to carefully shape each butterfly bun while Adrian knead, slice and fry 3,000 Youtiaos a day. Imagine doing all of this by hand. My hands would be full of blisters, ”complained Valerie.
Left to right: Adrian, Valerie and Pathom / Photo credit: The People’s Association
When the siblings took over the business from their father in 2006, they faced all sorts of challenges.
My older brother and I had no knowledge of running a business. We weren't many students and dropped out of school when we were 12 or 16 years old.
– Valerie Koh, director of Xi De Li
They didn't know anything about managing a booth or balancing accounts. They also found it difficult to compose emails that "usually take just a few seconds" because they simply had no knowledge of English.
They had to learn everything from scratch and face any challenge that came right in their way.
For example, suppliers questioned their ability and asked for prepayment to pay for the raw materials before they were ready to ship the goods to them.
When they opened a central kitchen to make and supply frozen dough, the product quality occasionally fell short of the mark, despite using the same ingredients each time, causing complaints.
Valerie told of times when she was insulted with nastiness on the phone in the early hours of the morning or when traders angrily abandoned suppliers in her presence.
Lot 1 Stand / Photo credits: Vulcan Post
“We went to the street vendor's stall and tried to solve the problem. Sometimes it's a problem on the street vendor's side and although they were told what the problem was, they didn't hear about it, ”she said.
They then have "no choice" but to have the customer flogged for being certain that they "would still buy from them as they have done for the past 10 years".
“Whenever we are faced with a roadblock, we ask people for help. The most important thing is not to be scared and put your ego aside to ask for help, ”she continued in a mixture of Mandarin and English.
There will always be challenges in any business and failure is inevitable on any business journey, she added.
From hawker centers to shopping malls
Today, Xi De Li has numerous sales outlets and supplies street vendors and restaurants such as Song Fa Bak Kut Teh, Long Beach Seafood and Jumbo Seafood with Youtiaos and other pasta.
During the siblings' tenure, they began franchising their business and the Xi De Li brand now spans 60 retail and franchise stores in hawker centers and shopping malls.
Prior to their takeover, they were only present at hawker centers as they were concerned about venturing into shopping malls due to higher risks and costs.
Image credit: Foursquare
Her first mall was unveiled at the Food Opera @ Ion Orchard named Shou Yi Fried Fritters. In essence, they sell the same products as their Xi De Li branches under a different name.
They also have two other Shou Yi Fried Fritters stores at Jewel Changi Airport (to be relocated to the Tampines Hub after the contract expires) and Food Republic @ VivoCity.
Under the leadership of the siblings, they have also received Halal and ISO 22000: 2005 certifications.
Photo credit: Food Republic
As the business grows, the siblings invested in machines for their central kitchen.
Since production is now divided between manual work and machines, you no longer have to knead everything by hand. You can now produce up to 10,000 Youtiaos per day.
As production increases, Xi De Li is steadily rolling in the dough (pun intended) and has "a few million" sales per year.
When asked about their individual roles, she said that there isn't much segregation of duties since "each of them does everything", although Pathom mostly oversees factory operations.
“Each of us can deliver the goods, contact suppliers, keep accounts, anything. Whenever an aspect of the business requires attention, one of us will access it immediately, ”she added.
This is a big leap from the start. Her father, however, helps with the training of new employees, while Adrian's wife, the area manager, takes care of the number of employees.
Valerie said she feels lucky that they have been able to hire “good, hardworking employees” who have been with them for over 10 years.
Surviving the pandemic
When shopping malls saw a drop in visitor numbers during Covid-19, Xi De Li closed its stores in Ion Orchard, VivoCity and Jewel Changi for more than two months.
“We are lucky that we still have branches in hawker centers and coffee shops. They weren't very affected, ”said Adrian.
When they reopened their malls in Phase 2, sales dropped 40 percent as the majority of their customers are tourists.
"But that couldn't be avoided. We just had to persevere," said Valerie, adding that it is important to turn and react quickly to changes.
For example, they couldn't sell tau suan (mung bean dessert) because it falls under desserts, so they traded it for porridge. The next day they were able to reopen their stands.
Left to right: Valerie, Valerie, and Adrian's father and Adrian / Photo credit: Vulcan Post
In the same year they also wanted to open new concept stores in which “fusion” youtiaos such as filled youtiaos with unique flavors are sold in order to appeal to young people.
However, these expansion plans now need to be put on hold as they are focused on keeping the business going.
In the future, the siblings plan to continue their long tradition of hand-pulled dough.
"If we don't continue, tradition will be lost forever," said Valerie.
She added that this work is not easy at all. Maintaining blisters and burns from oil splash is associated with the job, but she doesn't regret it one bit.
Selected image source: Xi De Li / Food Republic