Singapore's seafood restaurants spill the beans on their longevity

The iconic Red House Seafood at East Coast Seafood Centre is closing in March after almost 30 years there. NABILAH SAID and KENNETH GOH speak to the people behind the restaurant and four other seafood joints on the secret to their longevity

Where: Three outlets at 01-14 The Quayside; 68 Prinsep Street; and Block 1204 East Coast Seafood Centre, 01-05

Open: Various opening hours, go to www.redhouseseafood.com/

The year was 1978 and 16-year-old Sunny Goh was working at Red House Seafood, then located in Upper East Coast Road, as an order-taker while waiting for his O-level results.

He did well enough to qualify for polytechnic, but instead of pursuing his studies, the teenager chose to stay on at Red House.

Mr Goh, now 54, has risen through the ranks to become group restaurant manager for Red House. He oversees the three outlets at East Coast Seafood Centre, Robertson Quay and Prinsep Street.

Red House, established in 1976, is a family business that is now in its third generation, though they decline to reveal their names. It was located in a red colonial building on Upper East Coast Road, which gave the restaurant its name, before moving to the East Coast Seafood Centre in 1985.

Mr Goh says of the Upper East Coast Road outlet: "There were no point of sale systems then, so orders were handwritten. There would be carbon copy sheets to pass down to the kitchen."

The East Coast Seafood Centre outlet will close on March 25 as the National Parks Board will demolish the building to free up the space for beachgoers.

A spokesman for Red House says that East Coast Seafood Centre is probably on its last legs, adding that the crowds have "thinned drastically since 2004" as people can get seafood elsewhere, including neighbourhood eateries.

In comparison, people used to queue for about an hour for all the seafood restaurants at East Coast Seafood Centre in the 1980s and 1990s.

Red House ventured nearer to town in 2007 when it opened its Robertson Quay outlet. Its owners say business is better in town, though they did not divulge figures. When asked what makes Red House special, its owners say they focus on the freshness of their ingredients. For example, it receives delivery of Scottish lobsters direct from fishermen in Scotland at least twice a week.

Its signature dishes include spicy seafood combination, which is a curry dish with scallops, prawns and fish ($28, $42 or $56 depending on size) and creamy custard prawn ($7 per 100g).

As for the secret behind the perennial favourite, the chilli crab, a spokesman says "there are no shortcuts in cooking a great dish and for good chilli crab, one needs to let the crabs simmer in the sauce for a good amount of time".

A fan of Red House, Mr Rene Chia, 52, says that besides the good food, the staff are friendly too.

"I know them by name, they know me by name. I can ask them, 'Do you have the roe?' or 'Can I get a bit more sambal belacan?'. They are happy to serve you," says the managing director of a UK company, who has been going there for the past 20 years.

He is a fan of the East Coast Seafood Centre outlet in particular, as he finds that being near the sea helps set the mood for eating seafood.

In fact, after returning from a business trip to London last month, Mr Chia headed straight from Changi Airport to the restaurant for dinner.

He says: "Eating black pepper crab, barbecued cuttle fish, sambal belacan by the sea - this is what Singapore is all about. It's a taste of Singapore."

Nabilah Said


PONGGOL HOCK KEE SEAFOOD RESTAURANT

Where: 3 Punggol Point Road, The Punggol Settlement, 01-08/09

Open: 11.30am to 10.30pm on weekday (closed from 2.30 to 5.30pm), 11.30am to 10.30pm on weekend

Ms Seet Choor Hoon has fond memories of dining by the sea at Ponggol Hock Kee Seafood Restaurant as a child.

The owner of an enrichment centre, who is in her 50s, recalls: "It was an exotic experience. I liked its warm, family-style atmosphere and good food such as chilli crab and drunken prawns. After dinner, my family and I would walk along the sea."

But after the restaurant moved out in 1994 when the Government acquired the land, she lost track of it.

Drawing customers like Ms Seet back to the restaurant, which reopened at The Punggol Settlement in June last year, is an achievement for Mr Anthony Ting, 54, who manages the 46-year-old restaurant with his siblings - Cecilia, 55; Theresa, 52; and Cheng Ping, 51.

The Punggol Settlement, a two-storey food enclave developed by property developer Fragrance Group, houses three other seafood restaurants.

Mr Anthony Ting says: "We are glad that long-time customers still recognise the restaurant and come back to reminisce about the good old days. Our hard work has paid off."

The 260-seater restaurant is just 50m away from its original location next to Punggol Jetty. Their father, Mr Ting Choon Teng, had stumbled upon the area as a part-time taxi driver. He and 10 friends each invested $1,300 to start the restaurant.

Now 85, the grandfather of 16 says in Mandarin: "There were two other seafood restaurants in the vicinity, but ours was nearest to the sea."

Like their customers, Mr Ting Cheng Ping has good memories of the old haunt.

"The old restaurant had a kampung feel, and we had to climb to the zinc roof to patch the holes whenever it rained."

The restaurant used to attract diners from all walks of lives, from Australian and New Zealand navy officers to taxi drivers who would pay up to $1 for the restaurant to cook shellfish or garoupa they caught from the jetty. On weekends, the crowd would balloon to 700. These diners would be seated across 90 tables, some of which were set up at the edge of Punggol Road, where buses used to make a three-point turn.

The restaurant's signature dishes include chilli crab ($55 per kg) and Chinese mee goreng ($8). Both feature a "special chilli-tomato sauce" created by the older Mr Ting.

A former foreman at a sauce factory, he had taken a month to come up with this concoction made with more than 10 ingredients such as dried shrimps and blue ginger. The sauce is now prepared by his son Cheng Yew, 50, who helms the kitchen.

The restaurant's other branches in East Coast Park, Hougang Mall and the former World Trade Centre closed in the early 2000s due either to rental increase or redevelopment plans. From 2006 to last year, it was operating out of Marina Country Club.

When Fragrance Group invited the restaurant to return to Punggol, the Tings jumped at the chance even though the rental is three times that of what they were paying in Marina Country Club.

Mr Ting Cheng Ping says: "It was disappointing to have to move each time as we would lose some customers in those areas."

The Sars crisis in 2003 also hit the business hard and the restaurant saw fewer than 20 customers a day.

To boost sales, it started a home-delivery service that year, delivering more than 70 dishes, including its chilli crab and butter lobster, islandwide. The service is still available today.

The restaurant now has 17 employees and draws about 1,200 customers on weekends. Mr Anthony Ting says he is glad the restaurant is pulling in a "healthy" revenue of at least $200,000 a month.

His brother, Cheng Ping, adds: "We are proud to preserve the legacy of my father's work and we hope our children will be able to carry on."

Kenneth Goh


JUMBO SEAFOOD RESTAURANT

Where: Five outlets including Block 1206 East Coast Seafood Centre, 01-07/08; and Riverside Point, 01-01/02

Open: Various opening hours, go to www.jumboseafood.com.sg

It may be a household name today, but Jumbo Seafood Restaurant nearly went bust during its first two years.

Its chief executive Ang Kiam Meng, 52, recounts: "As we had no experience, we relied on a manager and chef to manage the business. There was a mismatch of expectations on how the kitchen should be run."

Subsequently, the Ang family took a more active role in running the restaurant.

Management woes aside, the restaurant also had to grapple with its location at East Coast Seafood Centre, which he describes as "the worst unit in the centre then".

Not only was it at the tail-end of the complex, the other side of the restaurant that connects to East Coast Lagoon was fenced up.

"We used to take in 'leftover' customers as there was heavy touting among other restaurants that blocked large groups of customers from coming to our end. But my father was hopeful that one day, customers would walk past the crowd and come to us."

His father, Mr Ang Hon Nam, started the restaurant in 1987 at East Coast Seafood Centre with investments from nine friends, including Mr Ng Siak Hai, founder of Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh.

The younger Mr Ang joined the business in 1993 after quitting his software engineer job.

The Jumbo Group, which earned more than

$100 million in its last financial year ending September, owns six other brands, including Jpot Hotpot and J Cafe.

Mr Ang's wife is the group's senior director of operations and corporate affairs while his eldest daughter is a management associate.

He notes that Jumbo Seafood Restaurant gained popularity for its transparent pricing, where it charged locals and tourists the same prices. This was apparently not the usual practice then.

In 2005, the fence between the restaurant and East Coast Lagoon was removed after a revamp, which greatly improved access to the outlet.

Between 2002 and 2008, the restaurant opened four other outlets, in Riverside Point, The Riverwalk, NSRCC Safra in Changi and Dempsey Hill.

It set up an outlet in Shanghai in November 2013, its second overseas foray after its first venture in Surabaya in Indonesia, failed to take off.

The most popular dishes at Jumbo Seafood Restaurant are the chilli and black pepper crabs ($68 per kg), and the East Coast outlet sells at least 600kg of crabs a day.

The chilli crab, which is infused with more than 10 spices, was whipped up by its first head chef, Mr Aw Soon Poo.

The dish has received such positive reviews that the restaurant was invited by culinary experts to present it at the Tiger Beer Singapore Chilli Crab Festival 2006 in New York. The event, which aimed to promote Singapore food, was organised by Tiger Beer and the Singapore Tourism Board.

There have been other hiccups.

In 1996, its first overseas outlet restaurant in Surabaya closed after about a year.

Mr Ang says: "The consistency of food quality and training were not there, and we spent a lot of money to try to get things right."

To him, maintaining food quality is the key to success as "Singaporeans can put up with bad service, but not bad food".

To that end, Jumbo Group set up a 8,000 sq ft central kitchen in Kaki Bukit in 2008, which produces sauces, marinades and pastes for its seafood restaurants.

He adds: "We can consistently replicate the taste of our dishes rapidly. We have also standardised and simplified cooking procedures so that a junior chef can cook as well as a senior chef."

The move seems to have paid off.

Mr Francis Chua, 58, a Jumbo Seafood Restaurant regular for more than 20 years, has only praise for the quality of the food and service.

The businessman, who threw an informal dinner to celebrate his daughter's wedding at its East Coast branch last year, says: "The quality of the crabs has been consistent over the years and the staff, whom I know by name, give good service. It is as good as being in a fine- dining restaurant."

Kenneth Goh


PALM BEACH SEAFOOD

Where: 1 Fullerton Road, 01-09, One Fullerton, tel: 6336-8118

Open: Noon to 2.30pm, 5.30 to 11pm daily

Mr Han Jin Juan, 62, has fond memories of his meals at Palm Beach Seafood Restaurant in Upper East Coast Road in the 1980s.

"The dining area was open-air. Tables and chairs were placed on the sand and they used kerosene lamps," he says.

"It was very crowded, but the environment was very good."

He loved the restaurant so much that when the original owners wanted to sell it in 1985, he decided to buy it from them.

Today, he is the managing director and sole proprietor of the establishment, which is approaching its sixth decade.

Palm Beach's current location at One Fullerton - next to The Merlion - is a far cry from its humble coffee-shop beginnings. It moved from a three-storey outlet in Kallang Leisure Park to town in 2004.

The waterfront outlet is swanky, complete with green walls, chandeliers and service staff clad in crisp black-and-white uniforms.

While the Kallang premises could seat 1,500 diners, the current outlet fits 200 in both the indoor and alfresco areas.

"Nobody can have such a big restaurant now," says Mr Han, citing rising rental costs as the reason. He declines to reveal the rent he pays at One Fullerton.

Besides the size, the profile of the restaurant's patrons has changed too.

In Kallang, it served mainly families, while diners at One Fullerton are largely the business crowd from the nearby Central Business District and tourists, he says.

As such, Palm Beach has improved its service level to match the patrons' expectations. Staff attend bi-monthly training sessions on food safety, tea brewing and wine pairing. Non-English-speaking staff attend English lessons once a week.

Head chef Wong Ah Kun, 41, who has worked at Palm Beach for 20 years, says the presentation and plating of the dishes have to be more creative as well. For example, its honey tangy marble goby fish ($10.80 per 100g) looks like a classier version of sweet and sour fish, garnished with shards of crispy cuttlefish and sesame seeds.

Mr Han acknowledges that the seafood business is "challenging", saying that customers are spoilt for choice and "even coffee shops are selling seafood".

He adds that Palm Beach is lucky to still be serving one of Singapore's national dishes, the chilli crab. He declines to say how many it sells a week.

But no matter how swanky the restaurant is, he maintains: "Crabs are still best enjoyed when you eat them with your hands."

Nabilah Said


LONG BEACH SEAFOOD RESTAURANT

Where: Five outlets, including 1018 East Coast Parkway and 25 Dempsey Road

Open: Various opening hours, go to www.longbeachseafood.com.sg

The next time you order the signature golden stripe lobster at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, do not be surprised if it turns out differently from what you remember it to be.

At its East Coast Parkway branch, it is deep-fried and slathered with a cream sauce, while its Dempsey Hill outlet serves it stir-fried with eggs.

Long Beach does not believe in standardising its recipes across its five branches. Its central kitchen in the Ubi industrial estate produces basic sauces, such as chilli and ketchup, but the marinades and pastes are prepared at the outlets.

Long Beach marketing manager Shaun Chan, 32, says: "The chefs avoid mass cooking. They prefer to use fresh ingredients on a daily basis instead of ordering from a central kitchen, so the taste of dishes depends on their cooking styles."

Each outlet features unique dishes. For example, lala clams hor fun and white jade crab are available only at its Dempsey Hill outlet, while barbecued fish is on the menu only in the East Coast Parkway and Kallang outlets.

About 70 per cent of the dishes on the menu are the same at all five outlets.

To decide what goes on the menu, chefs present their creations during quarterly internal discussions involving other chefs and restaurant managers.

Diners can rest assured that Long Beach's popular black pepper crab ($66 per kg) can be found at all five outlets.

The dish has been a menu fixture since the restaurant was opened in 1982 by Mr Andrew Wong, a former manager in the food and beverage industry.

Mr Wong, who declines to reveal his age, had taken over Bedok Rest House, a seafront holiday lodge in Bedok Road and turned it into a restaurant.

He had to make way for redevelopment and set up shop in East Coast Seafood Centre and Kallang Park in 1985. He added another branch at East Coast Parkway near Burger King and also opened in IMM Building in Jurong East and Marina South in the early 1990s.

The Kallang Park outlet closed in 1991 but reopened in 2008, while the Marina South branch shut down in 2006. The Dempsey Hill outlet opened in 2007.

Mr Wong concocted the aromatic black pepper sauce for the chain's signature crab dish using a

"secret blend of five to six ingredients" that gives a lingering peppery sensation without being too spicy.

Mr Chan reveals that the dry version of the crab for which Long Beach is known came about by accident.

"Black pepper crabs were so popular that the kitchen could not keep up with the orders," he says. "A chef had to manage up to six woks at one time. By the time he got back to the first wok, the crab would have dried up."

That version soon won customers over.

The restaurant declines to reveal sales figures, but says at least 70 per cent of its customers will order the black pepper crab.

Other well-known dishes include white pepper Alaskan king crab ($188 per kg) and golden stripe lobster ($138 per kg).

On Long Beach's recipe for longevity, Mr Chan says it boils down to serving exotic seafood, such as cowry (sea snail) from Australia, Calappa crab from Britain and Alaskan king crab, of which it can sell at least 300kg every fortnight in some months.

The restaurant imports up to 80 per cent of its seafood directly.

Like most eateries in Singapore, the 300-strong company is grappling with a manpower crunch, which puts the brakes on plans for a sixth outlet.

Meanwhile, customer service remains a priority for the chain. Restaurant manager Alicia Ong, 34, who has been with the restaurant for 21 years, says: "It is like a second home to me and it's a warm feeling to see customers grow up, get married and become parents."

Kenneth Goh