The Straits Times | Home-based businesses that flourished amid Covid-19 pandemic expand their reach

By Tan Hsueh Yun, The Straits Times on 3 April 2021

Straits Times Cai Eats Chua Siblings
The Chua siblings at the newly-opened shop, CAI Eats, a ngoh hiang business in Jasmine Road.
ST Photo: Alphonsus Chern

As Singapore came to grips with the Covid-19 pandemic last year, and people hunkered down at home during the circuit breaker period, home-based food businesses flourished like mushrooms after rain.

A year on - many of these businesses started in April or May last year - a few of the entrepreneurs are ready to take things up a notch.

Some, including ngoh hiang business CAI Eats, and baking businesses Whiskdom, Rachelrax Cakes and Puffs And Peaks, have opened bricks and mortar stores.

Others, such as Fab Foods Collective (formerly Bolognaiise), have outgrown home kitchens and moved into commercial kitchen spaces. Tiky Mochi Muffin is looking for a suitable space to open a retail shop.

And yet others, including Able Bagel, The Crane Grain and Levelled, are doing collaborations and pop-ups with restaurants, bars, cafes and international brands.

A perfect storm led to the boom in home-based food businesses. People climbing the walls at home wanted treats and distraction from all the uncertainty swirling around at the time. Some decided to put the nervous energy into cooking and selling food. Others had lost their jobs, or were furloughed because of the pandemic, and turned to selling food to make ends meet.

They - or more precisely, businesses which turned out consistently good food - found an audience ready to lap it all up. Fuelling demand were celebrities and influencers who posted pictures of this beautifully burnished canele or that terrific yong tau foo.

The resulting surge in demand meant some businesses had long waiting lists of people willing to wait weeks for a box of treats. The food was mostly made by hand in home kitchens with limited capacity.

It was all supposed to die down when Singapore went into phase 2 and people could move around more freely - go eat in restaurants and hawker centres, buy their pastries and bread from their favourite shops.

And yet, for some, the demand was still strong enough for them to take the plunge and open their own stores.

CAI Eats

On a quiet street off Upper Thomson Road, in a serene shop space, the Chua siblings, Irwin, Amanda and Charmaine, are building the foundations of what they hope will be a big business.

It started in 2018, when Irwin, 28, made and sold ngoh hiang, beancurd skin wrapped around a filling of ground pork, scallions, Chinese parsley and water chestnuts, on weekends to friends. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic and in April last year, he and his sisters decided to turn that side hustle into a proper business.

CAI Eats was born. It took flight when influential people such as film director and actress Michelle Chong, and chef Willin Low ate, loved and told others about their ngoh hiang, made using their paternal grandmother's recipe.

Since April last year, they have sold more than 100,000 ngoh hiang; finger sized and each one meticulously hand rolled, as if they are obsessive-compulsive.

That success has given them the confidence to open a bricks and mortar shop.


Straits Times Cai Eats Chua Siblings

The Chua siblings at the newly-opened shop, Cai Eats, a ngoh hiang business in Jasmine Road.
ST Photo: Alphonsus Chern

Amanda, 33, a freelance travel consultant, says there was really no choice, not if they wanted to reach a bigger audience. They had backlogs that could run from two to six weeks.

"There were a lot of cancellations," she says, from people who did not want to wait. "We couldn't offer new things either. So it was either stop or take a leap of faith and go all in."

Orders dipped about 20 per cent when Singapore went into phase 2, and people could eat in restaurants, Irwin says. But business picked up again, and they were swamped for Chinese New Year.

He says: "We were bracing ourselves when phase 2 happened, but the orders didn't dip too much."

Residents in the area have taken to the new kid on the block too. Curious at first, they return after eating the ngoh hiang to buy multiple boxes for their friends.

Straits Times Cai Eats Ngoh Hiang
Original ngoh hiang (foreground) and mala ngoh hiang (background) from CAI Eats.
ST Photo: Alphonsus Chern

And now, the Chuas can meet increased demand. With a bigger kitchen, they are no longer tripping over one another. They have also invested in a dishwasher, a chopping machine for the vegetables, and more steamers, so they can make 60 to 80 boxes of ngoh hiang a day, up from 40 boxes a day when they made the rolls at home. More equipment is coming - a combi-oven and a blast freezer.

Their wares pay homage to their grandmothers, good cooks and competitive with each other, the siblings say.

Each box of 20 ngoh hiang costs $25, the mala version is $26. They also sell jars of sambal belacan, made from their maternal grandmother's recipe, for $10.

Straits Times Cai Eats Sambal Belacan
Sambal belacan from CAI Eats.
ST Photo: Alphonsus Chern

Recently, they launched ngoh hiang made with Impossible, the plant-based meat substitute, at $35 for the original version and $36 for mala.

Coming soon, takeaway sambal petai, glutinous rice, Terengganu laksa and more chilli sauces - a Hainanese version and a sweet and tangy Terengganu one, good as a dip for keropok. These, too, come from their grandmothers. Irwin has wrestled the recipes into shape from vague directions.

Although they can now hire people to make the rolls, they prefer to keep toiling away. Their father helps out sometimes.

Irwin says: "No matter how you automate, the rolls must still be done by hand."

"Each roll is 26 to 28g," Amanda chimes in.

And what of those big dreams?

Irwin says: "Our goal is to break into the China market. But before that, for Singapore Airlines to serve our ngoh hiang in their lounges and on board."

Read the full article on The Straits Times.