SME Spotlight

Serving up ready-to-eat Teochew treats

Mr Lee Chiang Howe of Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee has found a market for pre-packaged, ready-to-eat shark's fin and abalone dishes. These give his customers easier access to restaurant-style cooking.
Mr Lee Chiang Howe of Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee has found a market for pre-packaged, ready-to-eat shark's fin and abalone dishes. These give his customers easier access to restaurant-style cooking.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

The push to raise productivity has taken on added impetus in recent times, in the face of sluggish economic growth. Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee started out as a simple food stall but in recent years has started offering pre-packed, ready-to-eat premium shark's fin and abalone to corporate clients. That cuts down on food production time for these clients. In the first of a four-part series about SMEs that help other firms achieve greater productivity, Rennie Whangspeaks to third-generation owner Lee Chiang Howe, 53.

Q How has your restaurant and business grown over time?

A We have been in the business for three generations already. My grandfather started the business as a zi char stall in an open-air carpark, before we moved to Ellenborough Market. After that, we were at Gay World and subsequently in Amoy Street, until moving to RELC Centre in Orange Grove Road last year.

So, from when I was young, I have grown up in this environment - from the time a can of Calmex Mexican Abalone cost $3, until the $150 it costs now.

As a Teochew restaurant, we have hit a certain standard and many dignitaries dine with us. As a chef, I feel we have a certain value in our work: Once we have reached a certain level, we must do more.

Q How did you go into the ready-to-eat premium food business?

A Having been in the market for so long, we knew what customers wanted. We knew how to treat abalone - from its live form to a restaurant dish - but could we commercialise it to save time? That was the challenge.

If you want restaurant quality, it can take days to prepare these dishes. We started with working on dried abalone in 2005, and then branched into making ready-to-eat shark's fin and ready-to-eat fresh abalone.

Q Where do your products come from? Who buys your products?

A We make our products at the place of origin. For shark's fin, it's mainly Costa Rica and Panama; for abalone, it's New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

We also sell our ready-to-eat products in these countries, where we own factories or have business partners.

Our point of difference is that while other companies just package abalone with water and salt, we do it restaurant-style. We use the retort process, which reliably kills any bacteria.

Our customers are mainly corporate gift companies, although there are also restaurants and individual buyers.

Q What plans do you have for your business?

A We don't earn a lot in this business, but we have made enough to send my son to medical school, while my daughter Jasmine is also managing the restaurant and will take it into the future.

I've manufactured ready-to-eat products for a few years. So many factories and raw material producers believe that I can make their material speak.

I think that's my mission, really, to do it well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'Serving up ready-to-eat Teochew treats'. Print Edition | Subscribe