Who: Ms Serene Ang, 40, chief executive of the Ah Mah Homemade Cake bakery chain selling the popular castella cakes. The franchise launched here in July and now has 13 outlets, with the latest one opening at Changi Airport Terminal 3. She also runs Snackz It, a chain of kiosks specialising in Taiwan-style fried finger food, as well as a beverage chain called Mocktail Bar in Malaysia.
You have expanded Ah Mah Homemade Cake rapidly within five months. What is your strategy?
When Taiwanese castella cake brand Le Castella opened in May, I realised that since I'm not the first, I would have to open more outlets and be faster in doing so. If they hadn't opened before me, I wouldn't have been so driven to expand at this pace.
I have an A3-size map of Singapore where I place flags to map out my stores. I'm looking to open 15 outlets in total and then work on the growth of each outlet with new products. We recently launched the Singapore Pandan and Milo Dinosaur flavours.
I also have plans for expansion in China, Thailand and Australia.
How did you get started in the food and beverage (F&B) scene?
After graduation, I met a local chef who was running an Italian restaurant and has a Vietnamese wife, and they wanted to start an F&B concept selling Vietnamese food here.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
Fried fish thick beehoon soup with milk and chilli padi. A stall called Cheng Long at Plaza Singapura's Kopitiam food court does a pretty good job.
I got inspired, plus I didn't like my auditing job. I backpacked to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, rented a restaurant in a hotel, and we held a cooking competition to hire chefs.
In late 2002, we started a Viet-Thai kiosk at Plaza Singapura. It was tough and we had staff who ran away - one said his mother was sick and the other just never came back.
After the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, the mall was empty, and if you dropped a spoon, the sound would echo throughout the whole floor. The lowest sales I got in a day was $7.50.
What did you learn from that episode?
To work on concepts that do not rely on chefs. Those whom we hired withheld 40 per cent of their recipes from us. I'm not a chef so I can't continue cooking without them.
How did Snackz It start?
I started it in 2005, after Viet-Thai, with a university mate. We forked out $75,000 each - from the money I earned giving tuition when I was an accounting undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University. Now, there are 11 outlets, but business has been slow as we never really invested in publicity.
Opening Ah Mah Homemade Cake came out of nowhere. I had heard of it when I was in Japan, then I went to Malaysia to check it out and decided it would work here.
Aren't you concerned that the Taiwanese fried snacks trend is passe?
Yes, sales have declined. But the brand doesn't have to be totally scrapped. I will keep the stores that are popular and work on new products.
Will you bring your Mocktail Bar brand to Singapore?
It's a beverage concept that sells non-alcoholic mocktails instead of cocktails. But I do not intend to bring it to Singapore because the drinks market is already saturated.
Since you have a cake brand, you must have a sweet tooth?
No, I actually don't really like desserts and cakes. I'm more of a savoury person. But that's why the castella cake is perfect for me as it's not sweet and goes very well with coffee.
What do you like to eat?
Anything with soup. I enjoy dining at hotpot restaurant Jpot, which has outlets in VivoCity and Tampines 1, as well as fish head noodles.
What is your tipple of choice?
Sake, red wine and shochu - in that order. These drinks are best enjoyed with food.
You travel frequently to Shanghai for work. What is your go-to eatery?
A hotpot brand called Lao Wang, for its pig stomach chicken soup. It's comfort food for me.
Is there anything in our F&B scene that can be improved?
Food delivery platforms, although their presence will cause the retail scene to suffer further. China does it very well - you can get one bubble tea in 20 minutes for 5 yuan. And you can get food after 11pm, too. I
f you could have a meal with someone, who would you pick?
My 64-year-old mother, as I have less time to spend with her nowadays. We live near VivoCity and she likes to head to Japanese restaurant Sushi Tei at the mall. Previously, we enjoyed going to En Bar at UE Square.