All In The Family: Fong Yit Kaya
This month, we delve into the story behind one of the most well-known and well-loved local spreads: kaya.
It’s common for many of us to consider a change in environment after just a couple of years on the job, wondering if the grass might be greener on the other side. It’s hard to imagine working in the same place for decades—but this is exactly what Mr Goh Teng Huat has done. Fong Yit Kaya, our tenant at FoodAxis @ Senoko, has been in business for 75 years, and Mr Goh has spent 50 of those years running the company. Today, his son David manages most of the decision-making in Fong Yit Kaya, which includes coming up with innovative ways to take the company forward. This resilience and persistence are traits we celebrate in the Year of the Ox, and in this interview, we speak to both David and Mr Goh to find out how they’ve managed to keep the business thriving over the years.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourselves, and how you came to be doing this?
David (D): This company was started by my grandfather, before my father took over. I've been helping in the factory since I was young. I started learning the trade by picking up the skills, and now I've mostly taken over from my father. I studied chemical processing, which included courses on food technology. After completing that diploma, I took a specific food technology course to be more knowledgeable about the latest innovations in the food industry.
Mr Goh (G): My father was getting on in age, so I took over the reins when I was about 40 years old. Initially, my father only made the kaya for himself, but then he got the idea to start making jars of kaya for sale. I learnt how to make the kaya from him, and I’ve been doing this for about 50 years.
2. Fong Yit Kaya is still very much a family business. How do the different generations work together and influence your business/brand?
D: When I first started, my father was still in charge of the decision-making, so I would share any new ideas with him and he’d make the call. Now, I’m the decision-maker, so there’s more stress for me. (laughs) We try out most of the new ideas if they’re within our budget and means, and talk everything out to avoid any conflict.
G: My father used to make the kaya by hand, but I decided to automate the process and brought in machines. My father slowly accepted the idea as the business was growing and having a more automated process helped us to cope.
3. For most of us, kaya comes conveniently packaged in a glass bottle, ready to take home and eat—but we understand that it’s quite a laborious process to make kaya. Can you take us through the different steps in the process?
G: We would wake up at 4AM in the morning to start breaking the eggs for the kaya. Each time we’d make about 300kg of kaya, and we’d need about 5,000 eggs, using a small rock to break each egg by hand. The preparation would go on until 7AM, then we’d go down to cook until 12NN. It was very laborious. We then got an egg-breaking machine which could break up to 5,000 eggs an hour. Now, you can even purchase pre-beaten eggs, so the preparation time has been cut down even more.
4. Fong Yit Kaya has been around for 75 years—how have you seen the business and industry change over the years?
D: Overall, the food industry is moving towards the bigger players. There are more guidelines and requirements now, so it's getting harder for new start-ups to join the industry. We're an established company but we also have to keep innovating and improving due to the restrictions and competition. Another change is the increase in operating costs. We hope to remain profitable, but we understand that kaya is an everyday staple for many, so we don’t want it to be too expensive for our customers. We have to keep finding new ways to manage rising costs and continue to hope for support from our customers.
G: I started out making the kaya by hand, but now it’s done by machines, so I think my workload has become much lighter (laughs). There are only four kaya factories left in Singapore, I think, so there aren’t many people and places making kaya now. There are cheaper kaya products that can be imported from Malaysia, but Singaporeans have higher expectations for quality. So I would say we’re more of a premium brand, and we don’t compete based on price. We focus on quality and hygiene to make our kaya.
5. Can you share an example of how you’ve been persistent over the years?
D: Over the years, the way we source and prepare the raw materials have changed. Sometimes suppliers shut down, or materials are no longer available. However, we need to keep the flavour of our kaya consistent, so it’s about adapting and being versatile when these challenges arise.
G: Even though the kaya is now made by machines, the taste has stayed the same for over 50 years. We have customers who have been eating our kaya for decades and they say the taste has stayed the same as well.
6. While the recipe you use is the same one that has been passed down for three generations, some updates have been made along the way. What sparked these changes?
D: We produce different types of kaya to suit different tastes. For example, we have premium kaya that uses quality ingredients and less sugar, which was made for hotels who want better products for the guests. Kayamila was created to reach out to the international market, who are not familiar with original kaya. “Fong Yit” is a Chinese name, so it might be harder for them to recognise, which is why we came up with Kayamila. Under this new name, we've exported to Korea, France, and Japan, and the response has been good so far. The consumer demography is always changing, so this is something we have to consider.
7. What are you doing to change/adapt the business for the future?
D: There’s more focus on digital marketing and social media. Most of our business is B2B, so while we’re doing some marketing to raise brand awareness, that's not our main focus. As for passing down the business, I'm not married yet so we'll have to see when the time comes. (laughs) We're also trying to head towards more automation so that there's less stress about running the business.
8. What are your hopes for the business, down the road?
G: I think that kaya is now becoming more international, which is great, because there are still a lot of countries that haven’t tried kaya before. I would like to introduce kaya to more overseas markets; I think there’s potential to grow there.
9. What is kaya, to you? Any memories that you associate with it?
D: Over the years, we have made a lot of memories working together—like waking up in the middle of the night to meet export quotas. I’ve been in the business for so long that kaya is family now. (laughs)
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