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Small Changes, Big Impact at Tong Fong Fatt

Words by Hoe Ziqian

With just a few clever changes to its operations, local chicken rice brand Tong Fong Fatt has managed to reap much more in returns for its workers.

 

The original Tong Fong Fatt started off at Chong Pang Village as a sugarcane juice stall. When Augustine Koh took over his father’s business back in the mid-nineties, he decided to partner with his brother-in-law to sell chicken rice at the ABC Brickworks Food Centre. Koh decided early on that he would focus on chicken rice as it is a popular local dish that would appeal even to the younger crowd. Today, the business has grown to more than 20 stores spread across Singapore.

With more than 20 chicken rice stalls islandwide, Tong Fong Fatt has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a sugarcane juice stall (Image courtesy of Tong Fong Fatt)
Rumblings about how the Singapore hawker culture would gradually die out due to the lack of new blood have been around for a while now. This is not unexpected as those familiar with working in a hawker stall would often lament the harsh working conditions and long working hours. The hawkers have to bear with the incessantly hot and humid working environment, and it does not help that they have to spend long hours each day in the kitchen.

The cooking methods were also largely manual as workers often have to rely on their memory to control the cooking time and the temperature control of the food was essentially dependant on the worker’s experience. This did not seem like a reliable model for a business like Tong Fong Fatt to rely on, especially if it has the ambition to scale up its operations.
 
It was perhaps fortuitous that Tong Fong Fatt found out from the news that there are schemes available from the government to help companies create physically easier, safer and smarter jobs for older workers aged 50 years old and above. The chance encounter turned into an enquiry to NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) and the company has not looked back since.
 
As it was Tong Fong Fatt’s first application for a government grant, the team at e2i partnered extensively with the company and guided them through the design and purpose of the WorkPro Job Redesign grant. Based on the problem statements raised by the company, e2i was able to tap on its deep industry knowledge to make the most appropriate recommendations.

After a thorough review,Tong Fong Fatt decided to invest in a host of automated energy-saving equipment, ranging from a soup cooker, deep fryer to a conductor cooker. While hardly the most sophisticated of equipment, their workers were able to feel the impact right from the start.
 
There was no longer a need to monitor the temperature and cooking time as the precise settings can be preset into the individual equipment. This removes any ambiguity that might result from a typical manual process which is often prone to human misjudgement and error. Once the food is cooked, the cooker will automatically stop the cooking process, ensuring that the food is cooked the same way each time. This increases the quality assurance as the output is always consistent.
 
A worker demonstrating the operation of the automated deep fryer that produces roasted chicken of a consistent quality for Tong Fong Fatt (Image courtesy of Tong Fong Fatt)

One of the main benefactors of Tong Fong Fatt’s transformation is Ng Shea Keong, who previously had to toggle between the supervision of the company’s signature products—the steam chicken and roasted chicken. It used to be a tedious process as the time taken to cook the steam chicken is very different from that of the roasted chicken. While monitoring the cooking process for both items, he had to be vigilant to ensure the fire intensity and the temperature of the cooking process is maintained as per the company’s recipe.

With the implementation of the new equipment, Ng can now set the desired temperature and timer for the two types of chicken and simply wait for the alarm to sound once the cooking process is completed.

While it is debatable if such initiatives would ultimately solve Singapore’s shortage of new hawker talent, they do go a long way in improving the conditions that existing hawkers have had to put up with. It might be one small step for Tong Fong Fatt, but hopefully it would be one giant leap for Singapore hawker culture.

 

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