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Keeping the orchids smiling

Started from scratch, Smiling Orchid is today a household name, but it faces new challenges in today's escalating rental and manpower costs

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Choo Yen Lan and her daughter, Choo Meilyn, managing director of Smiling Orchid.

WHEN 75-year-old Choo Yen Lan first arrived in Singapore 58 years ago, all she had were the clothes on her back. Today, the feisty yet gentle grandmother is the owner of Smiling Orchid, a successful food and catering business and a household name known for their huge custom-made cakes and pineapple tarts, as well as their buffet catering.

Born to an Indonesian-Chinese family, Mrs Choo was in her late teens in 1960 when racial turmoil gripped the nation of Indonesia. Anti-Chinese sentiment was at its peak and during this time of unrest, young girls of Mrs Choo's age were often abducted and violated. Fearing for his daughter's safety, Mrs Choo's father sent her to Singapore, where he had earlier studied in the Anglo-Chinese School.

Mrs Choo recalls her anxiety upon her arrival in Singapore. She says: "I went to the church and prayed for a way. I was too scared to even enter the church so I just sat at the entrance. I had no money. I had nothing." One thing she did have, however, were her father's parting words before she left Indonesian soil: that what she had, with her intelligence and diligence, far exceeded what others had. In fact, those would be his final words to her, as Mrs Choo never saw her father again.

Spurred by this, Mrs Choo moved forward. Taking into account her lack of proficiency in English, she quickly mastered the language within a year and enrolled in a part-time course with the National University of Singapore and School for F&B and Hotel Training.

After getting married at the age of 19, she started a home business, making and selling pineapple tarts and cakes to households, as well as giving cookery classes in various community centres. Mrs Choo reckons cooking and baking is in her blood as her grandmother was also in the food business and her father, an owner of a soya sauce factory.

When Mrs Choo and her husband decided to open their first shop, it was her family who backed up their venture; her mother and sister entrusted the couple with their entire savings to pool with the couple's own savings.

Mrs Choo's husband, Raymond Choo, encouraged her to explore what she wanted to do, promising to always be around and provide all the support she needs. Armed with a total capital of S$65,000, the Choos started a cake shop in 1980, naming it Smiling Orchid, a direct translation of her name and a reference to the orchids featured on Singapore's currency notes of the time.

Mrs Choo explains: "My husband commented how nice it would be if all the orchids in the notes smiled at us." Their cakes received positive reviews and news of the new shop spread by word-of-mouth. Soon, orders came in from as far as the US, Japan and Europe.

When the recession hit in 1985, demand for cakes dropped and the couple decided to branch out to catering. It was a difficult start, and Mrs Choo recalls being grateful for having just one catering job a week - a far cry from the present, where Smiling Orchid now sees at least 30 bills a day.

Today, the group, comprising a bakery as well as a catering line, has an annual turnover of S$5-6 million. Mrs Choo attributes the growing business to good food and prompt, friendly service. To maintain consistently high standards and quality, the group is careful to keep their orders to a manageable quantity at a time.

Family business

Mrs Choo believes that caring for both company staff and customers is the key to success. Putting a lot of emphasis on service, Mrs Choo goes beyond mere business transactions and finds meaning in building good relationships with her customers, to the extent of helping out where she can in times of trouble. She also works to develop solid relationships with her staff and considers them her family. In fact, many of her staff have been with the firm for over 30 years.

Mrs Choo counts herself fortunate to have her daughter and son-in-law by her side in running the business. Her daughter, Meilyn, has been involved in the company since she was eight years old, familiarising herself with the business alongside her mother while schooling, right up to her university graduation. Now, she holds the position of managing director at the firm.

Mrs Choo says the biggest challenge that Smiling Orchid and the industry faces now is the weather, as the higher temperatures cause food to spoil more quickly. Many caterers are now getting into trouble because of this, Ms Choo adds.

The family thinks that growing manpower and rental costs are further challenges for the firm. Costs have doubled in the last two years, but operating in a price-sensitive market means passing these rising costs over to the customer is not viable.

Food and catering is also a labour-intensive industry, compounded by the reluctance among locals to take up jobs in the industry due to the long working hours, irregular shifts, and heavy workload.

Ms Choo's husband, SP Jaimon, who works at the company as a general manager, says that the firm is therefore relooking its operations to streamline processes. "We cannot compromise on the quality of raw materials because that will affect the taste of it," he says, adding that using the same source as a base for different items is a solution they are looking at.

The firm reckons that the next two years will be spent on making operations more efficient and well-oiled, as well as obtaining whatever accreditation that is necessary. Government help and grants will be important factors for the group's future success, says Mrs Choo. Once that is achieved, and when the economy improves, the firm plans to move the production facility to Johor, or open a manufacturing facility for sauces and flavours.

Mr Jaimon says: "My dream is to have a successful business that is profitable with the capacity to take care of our staff, in the sense that they will be able to live comfortably. We have very loyal staff who have been with us through thick and thin."