Words by Julia Chan
How this porridge-specialist survived to see its 10th year even during Covid-19
Sin Heng Kee Pte Ltd was founded in 2011 when Goh Hwee Ling took over her brother-in-law’s family restaurant named Heng Kee.
Situated on the ground floor of a HDB block in Hougang, Heng Kee sold a variety of food, from economical bee hoon to chicken rice; catering to many palates. According to Goh, when she took over in 2011, HDB requested her to choose one item to specialise in, instead of selling multiple items.
After some consideration, the porridge dish was chosen over the others, and Sin Heng Kee started to mint itself as a porridge restaurant.
“It was quite scary,” Goh recounts, “as we were only selling one item which was porridge. Previously we sold many other dishes as we had the mindset that it was better to diversify and offer a range of dishes. To rely just on porridge, we didn’t know if we could afford the rental and workers’ wages.”.
Yet Goh acknowledged there were pros as well as cons to running a specialised food business, as she explained that there were economies of scale by focusing on one item.
Developing a repertoire of porridge dishes
Goh reminisced how the business bravely explored and expanded its repertoire of porridge dishes. “I thought of what I could put in porridge to make it interesting, then we cooked and tried each recipe over a hundred times before we listed it on the menu and sold to customers.”
Sin Heng Kee’s bestselling signature porridge boasts eight ingredients alone, and Goh explained that the porridge “is not watery porridge, but thicker and more filling. We put more rice in porridge and you can see the rice grains.”.
The company’s foray into expanding its menu resulted in a wide array of options for diners. “Last time we only sold one or two types of porridge. But now we sell about 24 types! We also imported abalone from Taiwan for our sliced abalone porridge and sliced abalone side dish, to be different from other porridge stalls and try to sell what other people are not selling,” Goh said.
Besides porridge, Goh also came up with side dishes to pair with the porridge, such as the claypot series, special century egg and Golden Sand You Cai, a vegetable dish.
Goh was particularly proud of seeing a generation of youths grow up eating Sin Heng Kee’s porridge. “Over the last ten years, we have had some customers’ whose children and grandchildren have been eating our porridge from young until secondary school.”.
Improving productivity to overcome manpower shortage
Sin Heng Kee currently operates two restaurants located in Hougang and Yishun (Chong Pang), hiring 44 people on two shifts. The majority are Singaporean and some are mature workers, eight of whom have been with Sin Heng Kee for more than ten years (as they joined from the previous Heng Kee restaurant business).
As the porridge business grew from 300 bowls sold daily in 2011, to 1,000 bowls daily in 2020, Sin Heng Kee approached the Employment & Employability Institute (e2i) for support to fund its productivity initiatives.
Previously, porridge was prepared manually and mature workers had to rely on their memory and experience in terms of cooking timing and temperature control of food. It could get very crowded during peak hours, leading to long wait times and stressed kitchen staff.
Sin Heng Kee purchased an automatic commercial deep fryer and automatic commercial soup cooker which allowed the desired temperature, cooking duration and time to be pre-set.
After the pre-set duration of cooking is over, the fryer and cooker would automatically switch off to stop the cooking process. This automation of the cooking process would minimise the over-cooking of food and free up staff from monitoring the cooker to perform higher value tasks.
Goh shared how the productivity initiatives helped her staff to have easier, smarter and safer jobs.
“Last time our rice cooker could only cook two bowls in 30 minutes. But with the new cooker, we can now cook seven bowls in one hour. The deep fryer has improved our productivity from three to ten youtiao at one go. The machines are automated, hence staff doesn’t need to always be on standby to monitor the porridge and youtiao. We also saved electricity.”
“In the past, our staff had to wash the old rice cooker which was very heavy. But they don’t even need to carry the new cooker. They only have to let the cooker stand where it is and use water to wash it, as there is an outlet for the water to run out from the other side,” she said,
As the kitchen, especially at Hougang, is very small, having these automatic equipment allowed Sin Heng Kee to increase the production of food even with the space constraint.
At first, some staff were reluctant to adopt the new equipment. Goh shared, “Workers are scared of being replaced, So we kept educating them and encouraging them to use the new equipment, explaining how equipment helps them to be more productive. Subsequently, after a few months of usage, they understood and accepted the new equipment. We also gave workers a yearly increase, and performance bonus for the higher-performers.”.
Surviving during Covid-19
As Sin Heng Kee’s restaurants have a small floor space, Goh decided to only serve takeaways and tie up with Grab and Foodpanda for deliveries during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Now with tapau (takeaway) only, and no dining-in, our mindsets have to change. Be prepared to earn less. Although we have asked some mature workers to go on no pay leave and stay safe at home for the time being, we do not plan to retrench. Maybe we can resume dining-in next time and I can ask them to come back. I tell my staff ‘If I can survive your jobs will survive’,” Goh explained.
When the pandemic ceases, and when Sin Heng Kee is able to hire the right manpower and find the right locations, Goh hopes to open more outlets for the porridge restaurant.
Until then, she is content to maintain the stability of the business to ride out this pandemic.
For more information on Sin Heng Kee Pte Ltd, please visit facebook.com/sinhengkee