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Digitalising tradition: The story of Sing Swee Kee Chicken Rice
When Sing Swee Kee Chicken Rice first started out, they had zero online presence. Today, the business has a thriving digital arm, built painstakingly from scratch over the pandemic.
The story of Sing Swee Kee Chicken Rice is one with its roots embedded firmly in history, but with branches yearning towards the future.
Director of Operations Eliss Pang and her family first caught wind of the chicken rice store looking to sell their business over three years back. Despite having never run a restaurant before, they saw the potential in the time-hallowed eatery. It was particularly meaningful for their family as they were of Hainanese descent, Eliss says.
Upon taking over the restaurant, they began integrating some of their heritage into the business. Traditional Hainanese dishes like chicken rice balls, Hainanese kuehs and Hainanese pork chops were introduced to the menu. For Eliss, it was a slice of her childhood and familial memories – dishes that her grandmother used to whip up for her and her cousins in the past.
Embracing the past helped them pave the way forward, drawing crowds from tourists and working professionals alike. They even gained enough traction to begin dreaming of franchising the business overseas, bringing one of Singapore’s national dishes beyond its shores, and adding an international chapter to their own culinary journey.
That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in their plans.
Running a restaurant during a pandemic
“Walk-in customers really went down,” Eliss says. With nationwide lockdowns, the restaurant lost about 90 per cent of its customers almost overnight. This was made worse by the restaurant’s location along Seah Street. While this worked in their favour in normal times with the high footfall of tourists and working professionals, the pandemic made it a ghost town.
When the pandemic hit and Singapore entered its Circuit Breaker period, Eliss (left) found that relying on walk-in customers became unsustainable. The chicken rice brand had to pivot if they wanted to survive.
During this time, many eateries turned to online food delivery to sustain their business. But this too posed a challenge as many delivery drivers were not willing to be stationed outside the heartlands, Eliss shares.
But with the state of the business looking dire, the restaurant had no choice but to pivot, as going digital was the only viable way forward. Even so, the journey to building up a digital arm from scratch was paved with challenges.
The digitalisation journey
A few key hurdles lay in the way of Sing Swee Kee’s digitalisation journey.
First, many of their ground staff are foreign workers, and not fluent in English. Before the restaurant began partnering with food delivery apps and websites, they relied on WhatsApp to take these food delivery orders. But many of the staff were unable to understand these orders as a majority of them were in English.
Language barriers and a lack of familiarity with tech are some of the challenges Sing Swee Kee’s ground staff faced when the business went digital.
To tackle this, Eliss got the backend staff to take orders and speak with customers instead, before conveying said orders to the ground staff. This prevented the ground staff from becoming overwhelmed with having to translate orders while needed to prepare and pack the food for delivery as well.
Another challenge is the staff’s unfamiliarity with tech, which made it difficult for them to navigate the delivery platforms. To counter this, Eliss ensured that there were staff stationed at the outlets in the initial days of introducing a new platform or device.
“We will handhold them for two to three days to work out how to pack the orders, how to read the order sheet, how to key it into the system, and what to do when there’s an ingredient shortage,” she explains.
Finally, the eatery was not on any social media platforms prior to COVID-19. This meant that they needed to find a way to stand out and attract customers amidst the stiff competition in the digital space. This is where Eliss, who is responsible for marketing the business, had to get creative with their offerings and digital content.
Sing Swee Kee Chicken Rice transited from a business with no online presence to one with thousands of followers on Instagram, and with beautifully styled content that promotes the restaurant’s unique product offerings (Source: Sing Swee Kee’s Instagram)
Beyond just chicken rice, Eliss started to introduce other products that would introduce a wider selection and draw more customers. One example is the chicken collagen broth. “That was quite a hit,” Eliss says. It also helped that the broth was much easier to deliver than ready meals.
But they weren’t done there. In fact, Sing Swee Kee decided to push the boundaries of chicken rice - creating a chicken rice cake that would later become popular with local tour groups.
Manpower and hiring in endemic Singapore
While the eatery has managed to successfully navigate the maze of digitalisation, the long tail of this pandemic means there still remain plenty of obstacles in their path.
Manpower and hiring, for instance, continues to pose problems. With borders opening up, many of the restaurant’s foreign staff would like to return home to see their families after two long years of separation. This leaves many F&B outlets with a manpower shortage.
At the same time, Sing Swee Kee remains cautious about hiring new staff given the uncertain landscape today. “We might revert to [safe management measures] anytime,” Eliss says.
Despite these challenges, Sing Swee Kee intends to stay the course, continually innovating to capture new customers while delivering the same top-notch food quality.
Beyond just chicken rice, Sing Swee Kee continues to innovate and develop new and inventive recipes such as the chicken collagen broth to keep customers returning to their store time and time again.
The pandemic has undoubtedly dealt a blow to the F&B industry, but Sing Swee Kee has shown that there is always opportunity to be found. It continues to dream up new and inventive dishes to serve up while exploring creative ways to introduce these dishes to an online audience across platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
Besides the digital space, it’s also beginning to expand its reach beyond Singapore’s borders. Today, the eatery is reviving its franchising dreams, with a branch in Brunei and another two in the works. All it took was a little creativity, a touch of boldness, and an abundance of resilience.
Learn more about Sin Swee Kee Chicken Rice and its business journey from Eliss in this video:
GoBusiness provides many valuable resources and e-services for businesses in Singapore. If you are looking to start a new F&B business, be sure to check out the Food Service Guided Journey to help you navigate the licensing process.