108-year-old beef noodle chain to close down

Ms Tina Tan, seen here with her father Anthony, preparing a bowl of beef kway teow.
Ms Tina Tan, seen here with her father Anthony, preparing a bowl of beef kway teow.TNP FILE PHOTO

Hock Lam Beef will shutter its last outlet in July; owner cites manpower issues

Labour woes have claimed yet another food and beverage establishment, with Hock Lam Beef at Alexandra Retail Centre (ARC) set to close on July 11, the date its lease at the mall ends.

It is the last of the 108-year-old Hock Lam Beef chain's outlets, known for its signature kway teow with hand-cut beef - either coated in a thick gravy or served in a herbal broth made with a mix of 13 herbs and beef bones.

The brand's fourth-generation owner Tina Tan, 44, announced the closure on its Facebook page on Thursday, citing the "ever increasing manpower issue" as the sole reason.

She wrote in the Facebook post: "I may be labelled as stubborn because of my insistence on using only handmade and hand-sliced methods to handle all my beef and side dishes, therefore, the labour-intensive problems hit us the most when the Government keeps revising the policy on hiring foreigners."

Ms Tan later told The Sunday Times that she received an overwhelming response from the media and public after her shock announcement.

On whether she would consider other options to keep her business afloat, she said: "I did want to expand and look for investment in the past, and people had approached me for partnerships. But I did not think of another avenue when I made the Facebook post. I have not thought of selling the business. If there is someone who wants to invest, I would not say yes or no. In any relationship, you have to see how things go with the other party."

The first Hock Lam Beef noodle stall opened in 1911 and spent 60 years at the old Funan Centre site.

NO SHORT CUTS

We tried to stay in a competitive industry, and a lot of people kept asking us to use technology and find short cuts to save manpower. It goes against my principles. I can't put chemicals and processed food inside the bowls for my customers.

MS TINA TAN, Hock Lam Beef chain's fourth-generation owner, who said the manpower issue was the sole reason for the closure of the business.

When Ms Tan took over the business from her 73-year-old father Anthony, she was key in rejuvenating the brand with a more modern look - to cater to younger diners who had previously considered it "old-fashioned".

At its peak, the chain had six restaurants. Aside from the remaining ARC outlet - where it has been for seven years - it also had branches at Far East Square, Ion Orchard, Bukit Panjang Plaza, Upper Serangoon and MacPherson.

The closure of the Ion Orchard outlet in 2016, said Ms Tan, was the beginning of the end. She said: "We tried to go upmarket, but nobody appreciated it. Netizens have said in doing so, it resulted in our downfall. We tried to stay in a competitive industry, and a lot of people kept asking us to use technology and find short cuts to save manpower. It goes against my principles. I can't put chemicals and processed food inside the bowls for my customers."

Ms Tan, who left her job in banking 15 years ago to take over the business, works 12-to 14-hour shifts a day. Her father makes occasional appearances at the outlet which makes diners familiar with the brand very happy, she added.

While there are other eateries that carry the Hock Lam Beef brand in Singapore, Ms Tan insists that there are "no more Original Hock Lam Beef (restaurants) in Singapore" in her post.

On the impending closure, she added: "Dad feels sad, and I'm sad myself. I have mixed emotions of sadness as well as gratefulness and appreciation for my customers. It is a painful decision, but I should be able to overcome the sadness. I'd rather leave on a good note when people still love us."

Authentic Hock Lam St Popular Beef Kway Teow - a three-outlet chain run by Mr Anthony Tan's brother Francis - expressed sadness about the closure in a Facebook post yesterday. The author of the post, who did not sign off, acknowledged Ms Tan as his cousin.

The post said: "We may have a different business approach but... have the same great-grandfather and grandfather...

"I can only be grateful to have supporters to keep my business afloat. I hope the same for Tina, that she will find a way to help carry on our family's heritage and legacy in the beef noodle business.

"Singapore cannot and should not lose more heritage food."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 05, 2019, with the headline '108-year-old beef noodle chain to close down'. Print Edition | Subscribe