Covid-19 community heroes: Creatives pitch in to help small businesses

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some have used their skills and technology to feed the hungry, keep F&B businesses alive and even start new ones. The Sunday Times looks at how people here have harnessed Singapore's foodie culture as a force for good

Photographer Jeryl Tan (above) helped F&B businesses such as Lorbak Mama (right) by offering free food photography.
Photographer Jeryl Tan (above) helped F&B businesses such as Lorbak Mama by offering free food photography. PHOTO: JERYL TAN
Photographer Jeryl Tan (above) helped F&B businesses such as Lorbak Mama (right) by offering free food photography.
Photographer Jeryl Tan helped F&B businesses such as Lorbak Mama (above) by offering free food photography. PHOTO: JERYL TAN

Entrepreneur Christine Yue, 39, started her home business selling lor bak, or braised meat, with her back against the wall.

Since February, her nail salon Dollhouse Nails, located at Citylink mall, had seen business fall by about 60 per cent. Even before the circuit breaker began in April, customers were already staying away as fears of the coronavirus took hold and more people started working from home.

She says it was a "scary and stressful time" because she has an 11-month-old son at home and her husband, a 37-year-old 3D designer, had taken a 30 per cent pay cut. Launching Lorbak Mama in May helped stem the losses, but her first foray into the food and beverage (F&B) industry threw up a steep learning curve.

"I know only how to cook. I didn't have the budget to take professional photos and didn't know what sort of photos would appeal to customers," says Ms Yue.

Enter photographer Jeryl Tan. He, too, had lost work over the past few months and decided to help F&B owners market their business by offering free food photography.

He is among a small number of creatives who have recently pitched in to help F&B establishments stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Although there were many Facebook groups promoting small local businesses that did not have a strong digital presence, those without attractive images, he noticed, tended to lag behind.

"I saw a drastic difference in engagement between the hawkers who have social media and photography know-how, and those who don't.

"When the food looks good, the photo is more likely to get 'likes' and shares and make people want to give it a try. It felt like an unfair fight," says Mr Tan.

  • This is the first of a five-part series in collaboration with DBS to showcase people in Singapore who have come together to uplift the community in these trying times. Read more at

He launched the project in May and ran it for seven weeks, photographing food from 41 businesses. Some used them primarily on social media, while others listed the photos on food delivery platforms such as Grab or Foodpanda.

Mr Tan says: "Every F&B owner is doing this to support his family. Photos are no guarantee that they can earn more, but give them a shot at increasing their income."

For Ms Yue, his photos have increased sales by about 20 per cent. Much of what she earns now goes to rent and keeping her 10 salon staff, many of whom are foreigners, on payroll.

Christine Yue of home business Lorbak Mama. PHOTO: LORBAK MAMA

With steady orders of up to 60 portions at lunchtime, she also engages a pool of 10 to 15 Grab drivers, who have lost work due to the coronavirus, to fulfil the deliveries.

"It's a really tough time, but everyone is doing what he can to help one another," she says.

Co-founders of branding and marketing consultancy Work in Progress Crystal Fam and Elyena Lee, both 29, launched a similar initiative when they noticed that many businesses abruptly shunted online by the circuit breaker had messy, poorly organised menus.

"Some owners would upload the menu as an album, with prices in each caption. It is tedious to browse and people might not have the patience to go through 10 to 15 photos," says Ms Lee, who realised this while trying to order food for her family and friends.

Crystal Fam and Elyena Lee of the Community in Progress menu design initiative. PHOTO: ELYENA LEE

In June, they launched Community in Progress, which creates personalised, branded menus for small companies that lack the staff or know-how to do it themselves.

This involved coming up with a colour scheme and typography that suited each business, such as pastel shades for an ice cream seller. For brands without strong photos, designers would sketch food items for the menu instead.

"As our expertise lay in marketing and design, we saw this as the best way we could value-add," says Ms Lee, who roped in about 10 freelance designers to contribute.

She intends to run the project for as long as the company can handle it, but may implement a small fee to reimburse designers in future.

They have designed menus for about 20 businesses so far, including family-run bakery Nineteen Niche, which opened the first of its three branches in 2012.

Financial consultant Debbie Lim, 28, who handles social media for the bakery founded by her mother, Madam Ivy Leow, describes it as a traditional brand that does not focus on marketing.

Ms Debbie Lim and Madam Ivy Leow, who run family business Nineteen Niche. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

"We rely on word of mouth and don't follow what other bakeries are doing. But with the circuit breaker and our regular customers working from home, we had to adapt to doing more deliveries and being more active on social media," says Ms Lim.

She used to type out menus on Microsoft Word to send to customers and now finds it a breeze to send the revamped version. With minimalist, pastel sketches of chiffon cakes and cream puffs, the new menu is a breath of fresh air for the "old school" brand.

Ms Lim adds: "The modern design will help us appeal to younger people and, hopefully, attract more customers."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2020, with the headline Covid-19 community heroes: Creatives pitch in to help small businesses. Subscribe