Last Hock Lam Beef outlet set to close in July

Miss Tina Tan and her father, Mr Anthony Tan, the third-generation owner of Hock Lam Beef. Miss Tan, the middle child of the family, decided to take over the beef noodles business as she could not bear seeing her family’s legacy go down the drain. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - 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 (May 2), 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 Straits 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 store opened in 1911 and spent 60 years at the site of the old Funan Centre.

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 previously considered the brand "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 principle. 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. "Anyone who claims to be us is not related to or the original holder of the secret recipe," she wrote.

On the pending 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."

Hock Lam Beef at 02-24 Alexandra Retail Centre, 460 Alexandra Road, opens from 9.30am to 8.30pm (weekdays), and 10.30am to 8.30pm (weekends).

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