Eateries from coffee shops upgrade their locations and menus

Eateries that started in coffee shops and hawker centres have modernised and upgraded their locations and menus

Ponggol Nasi Lemak's two outlets at Upper Serangoon Road and Tanjong Katong Road have always been popular supper haunts.

But at its third and newest shop in Jalan Besar, customers do not need to get all sweaty in the queue. The place is air-conditioned and they can end their meals with a refreshing sorbet.

Yes, the brand now serves sorbet and ice cream it makes in-house, along with a selection of new snacks such as crispy chicken skin with curry leaves.

Helmed by third-generation owner Edmund Ang, 38, the spiffy outlet's kitchen is also souped up with automated fryers and grills - and the two older stalls are likely to follow suit.

Like Ponggol Nasi Lemak, brands that started out in coffee shops and hawker centres are getting a new lease of life in malls and food courts, as well as stand-alone restaurants. These include RedRing Treasures at Wisma Atria's Food Republic; HarriAnns Nonya Table at Bugis Junction Towers; and De Burg at CT Hub in Kallang.

These follow in the footsteps of famous chicken rice brands such as Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice and Boon Tong Kee, as well as soup specialist Lao Huo Tang, all of which now have stand-alone restaurants.

More recently, Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint, bought over for $4 million by electronics conglomerate Aztech Group, opened a casual restaurant at Suntec City.

Business owners that SundayLife! spoke to all say that they moved to modernise not just to stay relevant to the younger generation of diners, but also to sustain the longevity of the brands.

Ponggol Nasi Lemak's Mr Ang says: "Our house-made sorbet and ice cream cater to the younger generation, as well as families who come with kids. Some people may find nasi lemak heavy, so sorbets are refreshing and give a fuller experience."

At HarriAnns Nonya Table, owner Alan Tan, 43, notes that the Peranakan cafe serves a different demographic from its two kiosks in Tiong Bahru and Bukit Merah.

He says: "Eighty per cent of the crowd are office workers in the area. We do get customers who already know our brand and many new ones who are getting used to our kopi and kueh idea. With the cafe concept, I want the brand that my grandmother started to have a wider reach, while remaining authentic."

Like the other business owners, the transition from coffee shop to the food court has been a huge learning curve for Mr David Chan and his wife Esther, who run RedRing Treasures noodle stall.

Their experience running a coffee shop stall in Holland Drive has allowed them to perfect the recipes for their dishes, taking into consideration feedback from diners.

They are careful not to increase prices by too much at their stall in Food Republic food court in Wisma Atria. They also serve bigger portions there.

Mr Chan says: "Our sons have helped us a lot in ensuring we serve reasonably priced food to the masses, while still earning a moderate profit."

For Mr Andrew Sim, owner of burger business De Burg, moving from a coffee shop stall in Alexandra Village to a proper restaurant in Kallang has meant that he now has to worry about everything from utility issues to ensuring ample seating.

However, the move has paid off for him because his loyal burger fans have tracked him down and he has gained new fans.

One of them is Ms Georgene Ang, 36, a company director and regular customer since De Burg's early days in a Ghim Moh coffee shop. Ms Ang, who eats at De Burg once a month with her family, says: "I have tried other burger brands but I still follow De Burg because I find its burgers juicier and more flavourful than others. It doesn't matter where it is, we will follow them for their burgers. But I do like the new location and its variety of burgers and side dishes."

euniceq@sph.com.sg


HARRIANNS NONYA TABLE

Where: 01-01A Bugis Junction Towers, 230 Victoria Street

Open: 7.30am to 9pm daily

Info: www.facebook.com/Harrianns

"It was scary," says Mr Alan Tan, 43, of the early days when HarriAnns Nonya Table opened in July last year.

Daily earnings for the first month were about $300 to $400 and the 40-seat space was mostly empty.

He says: "But we were prepared and came in with eyes open."

Eight months later, business has picked up, with a full house during lunch time for its new Peranakan dishes, along with its signature glutinous rice (from $4.50 for a set with ondeh ondeh and coffee or tea), ondeh ondeh (from $2.40 for four pieces), and other colourful kueh.

The business was started by Mr Tan's grandmother, Madam Chia Nguk Eng, 89, who had a pushcart in the 1950s selling glutinous rice.

Her son and second-generation owner Harry Tan, 67, and his wife Annie, 64, still run HarriAnns stalls at Tiong Bahru Market & Food Centre and Block 146 Jalan Bukit Merah.

Mr Alan Tan and his wife, Ms Sharon Goh, 38, run HarriAnns Nonya Table.

The Peranakan recipes for laksa ($6.90 for a set), mee siam ($6.50 for a set) and curry chicken ($7.50 for a set) are handed down from Madam Chia.

Each set meal includes a drink.

Diners are also catching on to his "kopi and kueh" concept.

To cater to diners, the kueh (from $1 a piece, or $2.80 for bite-sized six-piece set) are packaged for convenience in bite-sized portions for those who want variety. Flavours include lavender, red bean and gula melaka.

It also serves pandan cake ($4.60 with soft-boiled eggs and coffee or tea) and bo-luo bun ($4.90 with soft-boiled eggs and coffee or tea) - both served with a dollop of home-made kaya.

Mr Alan Tan is looking for a bigger central kitchen, which he insists will not compromise on quality.

"We want to change the way people look at kueh, but still remain authentic."

DE BURG

Where: 02-15 CT Hub, 2 Kallang Avenue, open: 11.15am to 3pm, 5.45 to 9.45pm (weekday), 11.15am to 9.45pm (weekend, eve of public holiday and public holiday). Closed on the last Monday and Tuesday of every month

Info: Call 6538-2874 or go to www.facebook.com/deburgsingapore

After his stall at Alexandra Village closed, Mr Andrew Sim, 40, who started the burger business in 2010, admits that he "lost steam".

He had opened in a Ghim Moh coffee shop before moving to Alexandra Village in 2012. Although business was good, he faced issues with the landlord and closed in May last year, uncertain about whether to continue the business.

But now, he has opened a restaurant in Kallang and credits loyal customers for spurring him to return to the burger scene.

His casual restaurant is a cosy 40-seat space with red checkered table cloths and a red brick wall. There is also a graffiti wall for diners' signatures and memos.

On the transition from coffee shop stall to full- service restaurant, Mr Sim says: "In a coffee shop, I didn't have to worry about seating, utilities and air-conditioning. But my customers deserve to feel comfortable and I wanted to set the right environment for them."

So far, business has been brisk as his loyal customers - and new ones as well - are flocking to De Burg.

He has a bigger menu now, featuring beef, lamb, pork, chicken, seafood and vegan burgers.

His signature De Burg burger ($18.50) is still on the menu, along with other specialty ones such as The Singhjector ($19.50), which has a pork patty, Iberico chorizo and bacon. Side dishes include Spam fries ($12) and chicken wings (from $8 for six pieces).

Now, he is looking to expand into Jakarta and he believes his time in the coffee shops helped him build and understand the business.

He says: "It's not easy setting up a restaurant or cafe. Four years in the coffee shop was a good test bed."

PONGGOL NASI LEMAK

Where: 371 Jalan Besar (tel: 6293-0020, open: noon to 11pm daily, except Thursday); 238 Tanjong Katong Road (tel: 6281-0020, open: 5.30pm to 3.30am daily); 965 Upper Serangoon Road outlet (tel: 6287-0020, 5.30pm to 2.30am daily)

Info: ponggolnasilemak.com.sg/

At the third and newest Ponggol Nasi Lemak outlet in Jalan Besar, there is no need to point out the dishes you want to go with your nasi lemak. Just select from a menu and then enjoy your meal in air-conditioned comfort.

The brand celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with the opening of its modern air-conditioned restaurant run by third-generation owner Edmund Ang, 38, and his aunt, Madam Ang Siew Lay, 50.

Ponggol Nasi Lemak was started in the late 1970s by Mr Ang's grandmother, Madam Koh Ah Tan, 81, and his late grandfather Mr Ang Chye Choon. At the time, it sold pre-packed nasi lemak.

The first coffee shop stall at Upper Serangoon Road was set up in 1999, while the second one at Tanjong Katong Road opened in 2004. Both are run by other members of the Ang family.

At the Jalan Besar outlet, automation is key. Here, deep-fried chicken wings are cooked in automatic fryers, the otah go on a grill and a combi oven ensures that sunny-side up eggs are perfectly cooked.

He says: "Instead of frying the eggs in a pan, we can cook 90 eggs in two minutes. Their quality will be consistent and I don't have to worry about customers saying that the yolk is too runny or overcooked."

Home-made sorbets and ice cream ($2.50 each) are also available at the fast-food style outlet to "give a fuller experience" to diners who want to round off their meal with dessert. Sorbet flavours include lemongrass lime and pink guava. Ice cream flavours include Milo and peanut butter.

Other new dishes include crispy chicken skin with curry leaves ($1.50 a serving); grilled Japanese squid ($7.50) served with a kicap manis dip; signature ngoh hiang ($1.50 a piece); and crispy battered whole prawn ($3.80 for two pieces).

Yet with the new items and automation, Mr Ang is also careful to hold on to tradition - the coconut rice and sambal are still prepared daily.

The other outlets are likely to adopt some of the technology, although he admits that getting the family members to adapt to another way of doing things has been "tricky".

But he has the full support of his grandmother, who gamely joins him for the photoshoot with SundayLife!. She nods and smiles in approval at the dishes served and has become Mr Ang's toughest critic to ensure high standards in the food and service.

He has plans to open a central kitchen in the future and does not rule out venturing into shopping malls. But for now, the business stays in the family.

"If we choose to franchise, how do we control that? We have to make sure the systems are ready and our partners can maintain the standards," he says.

REDRING TREASURES

Where: Food Republic, Wisma Atria, Stall 6, 435 Orchard Road, open: 10am to 10pm daily

Info: Call 9680-3201 or go to www.redringtreasures.com/

Mr David Chan, 58, never expected to work in the food and beverage industry, let alone have a six-month-old stall in a posh food court.

The former taxi driver and his wife, Ms Esther Koh, also 58, run the noodle stall, doing everything from making deliveries to manning the cashier to cooking the noodles.

The business started in 2013, after his son Roy, 28, encouraged him to make a career change.

He took up a stall in a coffee shop at Block 46 Holland Drive. It specialises in wonton noodles, a favourite family dish, and remains in business.

They decided to venture into a food court in September last year to gain exposure in a different environment.

"It's a different ball game from being in a coffee shop," he says. "Diners in town can be more picky. I think those who come to our stall in Holland are more forgiving if we make mistakes."

They have also had to cope with the crowd at their Food Republic stall, which is twice as big as the Holland Drive one.

"The lunch crowd is very different. If we had the same crowd in the coffee shop, it would be tough for us to handle. We wouldn't be able to wash all the plates," he says.

To ensure consistency, he uses automated noodle cookers and deep fryers that are programmed to cook at a precise temperature and for a set amount of time.

The menu in the food court is slightly different as well.

Instead of wonton noodles, it specialises in chicken, pork and fish cutlet noodles (from $5.90), along with side dishes such as fried onion blossom ($4.90 or $6.90) and oyster mushroom fritters ($4.90).

The shop is named after the red ring of spicy sauce that forms around the noodles. The sauce is made with pork bone broth boiled for four hours, combined with a spice paste.

For non-chilli fans, there is a clear sauce made from chicken broth.

It was Roy, who is doing a PhD in organic chemistry at Stanford University, who introduced the automated equipment.

The family is also constantly working on new products to add to the menu.

On the business so far, Ms Koh says: "At first, we were afraid of starting a business and afraid of failure.

But we have learnt that we are dealing with different markets. At the end of the day, the job is satisfying."