FOOD & BEVERAGE | Krisana Gallezo-Estaura, Singapore

Have spare time before boarding? Dine in at Old Chang Kee’s first Changi Airport outlet

The new outlet’s construction cost more than half a million dollars.

Old Chang Kee which has been known for its aromatic curry puffs, has opened its first and newest outlet located at Changi Airport. Offering an all-day casual dining restaurant, Old Chang Kee’s concept Curry Times aims to bring a taste of Singapore to the world and Singapore closer to home before they embark on their journey overseas or a homecoming for those returning to Singapore.

With 72 outlets to date, Old Chang Kee has increased the number curry puffs sold in a day from 700 puffs a day in the 1980’s to more than 30,000 curry puffs per day in 2014.

Curry Times aims to provide people with the appreciation of Old Chang Kee’s curry in a dine-in, concept restaurant with a wide array of curry and non-curry local favourites from mama-inspired recipes, synonymous with Singapore’s heritage.

This new outlet at Changi Airport Terminal 3 wants to bring a variety of local delights from curry to non-curry dishes which are commonly seen on many household tables as a humble meal. The mama-inspired menu was borne from a rigorous R&D process and menu items range from traditional favourites of laksa flavours in a dry laksa dish to healthier and lighter choices such as the Signature Curry Chicken without coconut milk. It also includes a takeaway option for people on the go or airport staff.

According to a spokeperson of Curry Times, the environment at Curry Times is intended to disrupt the customer’s bustling day by introducing the element of nostalgia. “Elements of traditional Singapore such as coffee house furniture, crockery, fabrics to the Cheongsam-inspired uniforms of wait staff all channel Old Chang Kee’s heritage and its development over the years, almost parallel to Singapore’s. Antiques and photographs of Old Chang Kee’s humble beginnings complete the environment,” she said.

She claims that Old Chang Kee has touched the hearts of all generations in Singapore and is a brand which Singapore is proud of and has graced many National Day events as the key caterer.

According to a Gen Y study by Brand Alliance, Old Chang Kee was named Top 1 Influential Brand in 2013 for Kiosks and again in 2014 as Top 1 Influential Brand 2014 under the same category with the Gen X.

The spokesperson shared with Singapore Business Review that the initial outlay to take over the stall’s renovation setup at Mackenzie Road was under $12,000 then, compared with more than half a million in putting up the latest restaurant at Changi Airport Terminal 3.

Meanwhile, Mr Han Keen Juan, 63, executive chairman of Old Chang Kee hopes to continue its conservative growth of Old Chang Kee through various strategies of kiosks and restaurants in Singapore and overseas. “The growth of Curry Times in Singapore since 2012 bears testament that there is a demand for the concept and the dishes offered at Curry Times. Old Chang Kee offers something for everyone and the company is always looking to innovate and explore opportunities with its customers,” he said.

Old Chang Kee other brands include Dip ‘n’ Go which offers tasty treats with dips to go, Mushroom dine-in café and a mobile food truck, a common sight at Singapore’s National Day parades, in addition to a growing catering and delivery business in Singapore.

The founder and the restaurant’s founding story

In 1986, Chang Chuan Boon, the original owner of Old Chang Kee, better known as Rex curry puffs then, retired from the business and returned to China. Mr Han together with a small group of investors, saw a potential in the business and made the decision to buy over the business. ‘

Old Chang Kee was developed by Mr Han, who quit his comfortable job with an established MNC to be an entrepreneur. He remembers his supervisor’s advice to him until today, “If you are going to be a hawker, forget everything else. Leave it all behind and just focus on being a good hawker”.

Old Chang Kee is buoyed by more than 650 employees of which, about 40% are senior citizens, defined as those above 50 years old.

Mr Han who did not even know how to fry an egg when he first bought over the business, developed a consistent recipe for the puffs. The familiar curry fillings is a result of his initial extensive research that brought him to different places such as Sri Lanka.

Mr Han has survived many challenges during the course of Old Chang Kee’s development and he has developed a good foundation for Old Chang Kee to build upon.

Process control and hygiene

Ahead of his time in developing system control for food processing, Mr Han believes that a successful business needs standards in its process on top of product consistency.

He recounts vividly an incident where a particular school girl and her mother turned away from their favourite curry puff stall - one of the two other curry puff hawkers sharing the same coffee shop at that time - after discovering that one of their workers did not observe personal hygiene.

“That incident prompted an almost overnight shift in our mentality. We knew there and then that to maintain our reputation and to grow, we had to have uncompromising standards. So we set them at a level that was unheard of for hawkers at that time, in food handling, hygiene and safety.” It was like no other, but it was surely, the birth of a brand. He invested in technology across the years to ensure localised control over quality and consistency from a central location.

Employer for Singapore’s ‘silver workers’ and pioneers

Besides delivering on the brand promise, Old Chang Kee is also an enterprise which operates with care for the community and is about eight percent buoyed by Singapore’s ‘silver workers’. Mr Han does not consider Old Chang Kee as a social enterprise as believes that businesses should conduct themselves responsibly.

Other challenges include rental increases and later on a happy problem to increase and upgrade the production facility. Mr Han faced some internal resistance from his people in his decision to upgrade to modern machinery and processes due to fears of replacement. Mr Han managed to overcome these through his admirable leadership.

Do you know any restaurant which recently opened or will open soon? We'll be glad to hear from you. Just send us a message through Lee Anne Babierra at research@charltonmediamail.com. 

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Have spare time before boarding? Dine in at Old Chang Kee’s first Changi Airport outlet

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