Many hawkers lament the fact that their offspring are unwilling to ‘inherit’ the family business, preferring to focus on their own choice of career. At Rochor Beancurd House, though, it’s heartening to note how Jason quit his high-paying job as a systems engineer to run the family business – a tau huay chain with many regular customers who are celebrities.
Rochor Beancurd House (not to be confused with another beancurd business of a similar name, that’s run by a relative) has three outlets. You’ll find them at Geylang, Balestier, and Upper Thomson Road.
Judging by their photo wall with pictures of celebrities who’ve dined there – just about every Mediacorp celebrity I’ve seen on TV – there must be something they are doing right. I spoke with Jason Koh, the 3rd generation owner of the business, to find out the secret for Rochor Beancurd House’s success. Also, I asked if there’s indeed business ‘rivalry’ within the extended family, why traditional beancurd remains an evergreen item when chilled beancurd was a ‘flash in the pan’, and why (as the middle child, with two sisters) he decided to take over the reins of the business when he could have easily said ‘no’.
#1: What would you say is the secret for Rochor Beancurd House’s success?
I think the secret (if any) is in our belief regarding ‘Right People, Right Food’.
Apart from our emphasis on quality control and knowing where our ingredients come from, I am selective about the people I hire. To be able to hire the right people, I have to first be upfront and honest with them about how this is a tough job with long hours – our shop is open till 1am at Upper Thomson Road, and runs for 24 hours at Geylang, for instance. Also, my staff must know that once they join us, they are considered family. That’s why I’m in the shop most of the time, on “standby” in case anyone falls sick, so I can take over their duties promptly.
To provide the right food, it all starts with the selection of soy beans. We use fresh non-GMO beans from Canada. The beancurd is prepared in a golden ration with other ingredients (let’s keep that a secret, shall we), and the right temperature is crucial too (100 degrees Celsius and above to get rid of the ‘raw’ taste of the beans). We do still use the traditional grinding stone. However, we now use a Japanese boiler instead of the previous wood stove which required much stirring to prevent charring. Quality control is important to us, and it starts at our centralized kitchen at Geylang Road near to Geylang Serai.
Previously we served only beancurd, soya milk and grass jelly. After I joined the business, I introduced youtiao (dough fritters) to our menu; we make the dough fritters ourselves and we fry them on demand. Now, we delight our customers with new menu items such as the Golden Squid (using squid from Argentina) and tofu fries which are healthier than french fries as tofu contains protein. These actually complement our signature products. After you’ve eaten fried foods (which are believed to be “heaty”), cool down with our tau huay and grass jelly. 😉
With our philosophy of ‘Right People, Right Food’, we seek to provide good service and even better food. I believe this is why customers keep returning, and bringing their friends here too.
#2: You treat your staff like family. What about your extended family; the relatives who are in the same line with similar-sounding shop names? Is there business rivalry?
Here’s a condensed version of how the business started: My father (Mr Xu Kun Ming) came to Singapore with my grandparents from Pulau Tekong, and they started the beancurd business at Rochor Road. There’s about a 15-year age difference between my father and his siblings. While my dad’s siblings got to study, my dad did not and simply sold tau huay. Once you become the chef, really, you’re stuck in the kitchen.
Later on, my second uncle brought my grandma to register the company in his’ and my grandma’s name. My dad thus became the ’employee’. However, my dad knew that if he left, the company won’t survive as he’s the only chef. So he stayed on for 30 years.
I think my father deserves to be a boss, hence we started our first outlet at Geylang Lorong 39. There was a tussle over the Rochor Beancurd name but my grandma supported us. We later registered the trademarks for our company, not to find trouble with our relatives but to protect ourselves from any potential legal suits.
Was it tough in the beginning? Yes. For instance, to attract customers, we served up larger portions of tau huay. That did not go down well with our relatives. That said, it’s not in my interest to have their business go downhill. If anything happens to them (e.g. a customer has a less-than-pleasant dining experience there and tells a friend), it will affect me too as it spoils the Rochor Beancurd name after all.
No matter what, I believe we are still family.We should always look forward, not backward. We do not meet up regularly but we will sit down and have a chit-chat when we bump into one another. If you ask me, I think many people take ‘family’ for granted. They feel they do not need family around them but the truth is, our family is one reason why life is meaningful. We do our best to keep the family together as we really cherish family ties.
#3: You’ve turned a lot of empty wall space into a photo wall with pictures of celebrities who’ve dined at Rochor Beancurd House. Have they told you why they like dining here?
When we started our business in Geylang, people didn’t know us at all, then we happened to be featured on Coffee Talk and Hawker Woks, Channel 5 and people found out about us and came to try our food. Then we were discovered by Channel U, Channel 8, Suria, etc. The quality of the food is the main reason, and how it’s our heritage. All these pictures help enforce our branding. When you bring a friend to dine here, he/she might notice these photos and think, wow, this is the same beancurd that celebrities enjoy.
I think our philosophy of ‘Right People, Right Food’ makes an impact on all our diners, and this quote by Maya Angelou effectively sums it up:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
#4: You’ve mentioned that you use non-GMO soya beans to make the beancurd. How can consumers really know whether GMO or non-GMO soya beans are used? Is there, for instance, some form of certification such as when products are certified ‘organic’?
The traditional method we use to prepare our beancurd does not allow genetically modified material to be present. The beancurd will not be formed due to the GMO, and that is why we can only use non-GMO beans, apart from health concerns.
There is no certification but we do our due diligence by avoiding GMO crops as stated in this list on AVA’s website: http://www.ava.gov.sg/docs/default-source/tools-and-resources/resources-for-businesses/listofapprovedgmcropswebsitever2.pdf?sfvrsn=2
We want to serve up only the freshest and healthiest beancurd, so we will never consider GMO.
#5: You offer reuseable bowls for dine-in customers when they order tau huay instead of using 100% plastic disposables in your shop. Is this because of cost or to be a bit more environmentally friendly?
We believe in environmental friendliness. And our customers tell us that they prefer ‘traditional bowls’ when dining in. Using plastic is convenient but we need to consider our impact on the environment.
#6: I was at a popular soya bean drink outlet recently and overheard a customer wanting to order soya milk with 5% sugar level. Staff told him he can choose either 0% or 25%, but there’s no 5% option. If that same customer came to your shop, what sort of response would he get from your staff or yourself?
We will usually put the requested estimated amount of syrup into the cup or container, and show it to the customer for his/her approval before we proceed with fulfilling the order.
Simply let our staff know, and you can have less salt, less sugar, less chili, etc with your order of beancurd or anything else on our menu.
#7: Rochor Beancurd House has its own in-house delivery service, instead of relying on food delivery companies like FoodPanda and Deliveroo. Is it due to how ‘fragile’ the beancurd is?
Yes. We’ll only deliver for large orders. These usually come from corporations, universities and churches. We accept only bulk orders of $100 and above. You can come and collect the beancurd yourself and ask for a discount. 🙂
Our profit margins aren’t high because our labor costs and rent are very high. Plus, there is really no way you can cut corners with the ingredients when you want to serve up only the best-tasting tau huay. We don’t want to hurt the business by letting others handle the deliveries so we deliver all orders ourselves.
Because of the trend that started some time back, we did our own R&D and made the chilled soy pudding ourselves. Our local universities (NUS and NTU) order the puddings in bulk! 🙂
#8: Three out of four millennials want to run their own business. What is your advice to them?
It is important to have the mindset of taking care of our parents / family. Our parents took care of us when we were young. When they grow old, it is our turn to care for them. We should take care of our parents, knowing that our offspring are watching us lead by example.
We have many young people working for us at Rochor Beancurd House. We are willing to impart our skills to them. We try to understand what they really want, and we work on assisting them to achieve their dreams. Some do want to run their own businesses someday. We teach them how we run the business and things like how to work with elderly people. For instance, we allow our staff to sit down, unlike in shopping centres where they usually have to stand. We also stagger their work timings so they can have a work-life balance.
There’s an occupational hazard in this line too. As ours is a food business, we don’t go hungry. Whenever you feel hungry, food is definitely within reach. You’ll have to fight the temptation every day! 😀 To make matters worse, due to the manpower crunch, I’ve not been able to go to the gym in 6 months!
My two sisters work in the corporate world. It is not recommended for women to run hawker stalls because of the long hours.
I feel life should be meaningful. Understand what you really want and have an end in mind. When I started, I felt that I wanted to restore my dad’s “status”. I feel he should be recognized as a boss, instead of as an employee. I started working here at age 24 because I wanted to let my parents retire. Now they take care of the grandchildren. Because I’m in the business, it gives them peace of mind.
I’ve visited Rochor Beancurd House twice and it’s clear to me that Jason is a very hands-on boss. If he wasn’t in the shop so often, he wouldn’t be ‘featured’ in every picture with those celebrities. What I find most commendable is his insistence that there will be no badmouthing of any business competitor, whether they are family or not. He’s on good terms with the other F&B business owners in the vicinity of his shop and can easily rattle off names and shops I should visit.
While chilled beancurd was sort of a fad (remember the long queues at Old Airport Road hawker centre?), once the trend is over, you realize that only traditional beancurd is here to stay as it’s that taste from our childhood that we remember and relish, just as those celebrities do. And if you pop by Rochor Beancurd House and have the pleasure of speaking to the friendly boss, Jason, he’ll be happy to tell you how he maintains 6-pack abs even while missing gym sessions (hint: it’s got to do with the beancurd :D) and introduce the various menu items that he thinks you should try. After all, he does make frequent trips to countries like Taiwan, to find the best and tastiest food items, and bring those recipes back to delight fans of Rochor Beancurd House. I guess herein lies the secret: serving up traditional tau huay of consistent, good quality, and introducing new menu items that continually tantalize the tastebuds of fickle consumers and have them keep coming back for more.
Go ahead and visit Rochor Beancurd House at these locations:
745 Geylang Road Lor 39 S389653 (24 HRS)
432 Balestier Road #01-436 S329813
(1pm – 1.30am)
232 UPPER THOMSON ROAD S574363
(1pm – 2am)