In this series of light-hearted interviews, BiTES celebrates homegrown food companies headed by their next generation of family members. We get a glimpse of the stories behind the brands and the personalities in the boss’ seat.
How is grandmother like?
[Alan] Age is catching up on her and she’s beginning to forget things. But there are memories I cherish dearly. When I was in lower primary, grandma would sometimes carry her metal pail filled with glutinous rice and walk around my school compound calling my name to find me, just so she could deliver me a piece.
[Sharon Tan] When I was eight years old, I remember building the charcoal fire for grandma every evening. The fire was used to braise the peanuts and fry the lard for the glutinous rice. Grandma even let me chop up the lard too! Not many kids were allowed to handle such tools at that age, but she let me.
The key to a successful family partnership.
[A] I think you have to ask them. (laughs) I would say there is a certain degree of democracy in the company. Although it’s a family business, I’m trying to move towards the corporate direction.
[ST] Set ground rules. From the beginning, all of us agreed that we had to be objective and not take comments personally. Having an open heart is also important, so that we can accept ideas and rejections. Of course, being persuasive benefits you too, just so you can win them over. (laughs)
[Sharon Goh] Give and take. Learn to communicate and thresh out ideas.
What were the steps taken to modernise the business?
[A] The first step was when we opened our central kitchen in 2010 to cope with the growing demand. From there, we decided to expand our range of offerings and add in new products. In 2013, when I joined HarriAnns full time, I decided to distribute our kuehs to hotels too.
How did you overcome the challenge of making kueh attractive to millennials?
[A] Our kuehs are softer and less sweet, which we realise is what foodies like. We also strive to make our kuehs beautiful, or as we like to call it, Instagrammable. Smaller, bite sized kuehs were also introduced to allow them to sample different flavours.
[SG] We make our own line of kuehs you don’t see elsewhere like lavender-flower, red beans and chendol. We also revitalise kueh culture through workshops. Why the decision to still make kuehs by hand?
[ST] We are not just a business creating food; we are carrying on a legacy. We want to continue the tradition and food is our end product. Our success is about sharing the value, culture and tradition of our kuehs. It’s going back to our tagline, ‘Handmade is Happiness’.
What is your favourite Chinese New Year snack?
[A] Pineapple tarts! I remember when I was living in Kuala Lumpur for eight years; mom would always come up to visit me during Chinese New Year bearing pineapple tarts. One year, the pineapple tarts were sold out. My son and I were so disappointed.
[ST] I like almond cookies. I remember chopping almonds for grandma, so it has a special meaning to me.
Where will you be having your Chinese New Year reunion?
[SG] We won’t be stepping into the kitchen that’s for sure! (laughs)
[A] We will be having dinner at a restaurant.
Brief Timeline of HarriAnns
Grandmother Chia Nguk Eng loses her husband to a freak accident when she moved to Singapore. She starts cooking and peddles her glutinous rice in a pushcart around the Tiong Bahru area to raise her two sons.
Ministry of Environment clamps down on street hawkers. Madam Chia attains a food-handling license as well as moves to Seng Poh Road Market (Tiong Bahru Market). Eldest son, Harry Tan, quits school to help out.
Grandma retires, passing down her treasured recipes and market stall to Harry and wife Ann. 13-year-old Alan Tan coins the stall name ‘HarriAnns’ by combining his father’s and mother’s name.
In 2010, Alan and Harry set up a central kitchen in Jalan Bukit Merah to cater to the increasing demand. By 2013, Harry hands the reins of the business to Alan, who sets up HarriAnns Pte Ltd. HarriAnns starts supplying their kuehs to hotels as well as conducts educational workshops in schools.
HarriAnns Nonya Table, the first stand-alone concept café, is set up in Bugis Junction. Aside from kuehs, authentic Peranakan dishes and western pastries boasting traditional flavours were also added to the menu.
Second outlet, HarriAnns Nonya Table opens at Ocean Financial Centre.