A Bowl By Any Other Name

What are three lessons to learn from transforming a humble pushcart stall to a five-time Michelin Bib Gourmand Award-winning restaurant concept? We find out from Yeo Hart Pong, the second-generation owner of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh.

Bak kut teh is one of those dishes that Singaporeans love having prolonged debates about. With the multitude of options available these days—be it in old-school hawker centers or in the air-conditioned comfort of shopping malls—we might be spoilt for choice, but everyone has their favourite. After all, there are many parts that need to come together in this humble dish: the peppery broth with just the right hint of spices and garlic; the fall-off-the-bone tender pork ribs; the accompanying side dishes like preserved vegetables or braised peanuts. And when you find a stall that gets everything right, just the way you like it, you’ll keep going back, time and again.

Song Fa Bak Kut Teh must be on to something, then. What started off as a pushcart along Johor Road in Singapore more than 50 years ago has blossomed into 13 concept stores island-wide, with offshoot brands in the works. The business remains proudly family-run, staying close to its roots but also venturing out beyond what we’re familiar with, and helping both local and foreign tastebuds to explore along the way. 

As we mark International Day of the Family this month, we speak to Yeo Hart Pong, the second-generation owner and Managing Director of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh. Much like how the restaurant hopes to be a place where families share memories and stories over a meal, we thought we’d share three lessons, in the form of three Chinese proverbs, that we gleaned from Hart Pong. 

Bak kut teh translates, literally, to ‘pork bone tea’, and is believed to have originated from China’s Fujian province.
The Song Fa Bak Kut Teh stall in Victoria Street, after it moved from its original location in Johor Road

1. 趁热打铁 (chèn rè dǎ tiě) — to strike while the iron is hot

Listening to Hart Pong’s story about taking over his father’s business, we learned: when it comes to opportunities, see and seize. His father, Yeo Eng Song, the second oldest of nine siblings in a Teochew family, started selling bak kut teh from a pushcart stall in 1969, at the young age of 21. Some years later, Eng Song would have children of his own, and Hart Pong recalls helping his father out in the stall together with his siblings. “In the ’90’s, during school holidays or on weekends when our father was shorthanded, all of us would help out at the stall taking orders, serving, collecting payments, and clearing tables.”

However, Hart Pong wasn’t always inclined towards taking over his father’s stall. Imbued with the same entrepreneurial spirit, he had thoughts of starting his very own business. “But one day, my dad sat me down to ask if I was keen to take over,” he shares. “Seeing how hard he had worked for the brand and family, I decided to not let his efforts go to waste, and to take over and learn the ropes of the trade.” 

Hart Pong had a caveat, though—he didn’t want to simply continue the business. He wanted to revamp it. “At that point, all our competitors were also running stalls in coffeeshops, so I was thinking of coming up with something unique,” Hart Pong recalls. “I told my father that if I were to take over the business, I would want to introduce a concept store.”

It was a risky move—his father’s stall, then at Rochor Centre, already had its pool of regular customers and was drawing in the lunchtime crowd. Would they continue to patronise a new restaurant, in a new location?  Nonetheless, his father agreed, and after a year of working full-time with his father, Hart Pong launched the first restaurant-style Song Fa Bak Kut Teh outlet in 2007 at 11 New Bridge Road. That one outlet has since grown to 13, including a branch in Jewel Changi Airport. Today, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh’s many competitors have also followed suit; various local brands and chains have also popped up in shopping malls across the island, but it was Hart Pong’s daring first move while he saw the chance to do so that really led to a whole new generation of Singaporeans coming to love and enjoy the dish. “We’ve not only ensured that Singaporeans get to eat the well-loved bak kut teh, but also worked hard to bring our famous local dish overseas too, as we want our foreign friends to learn more about Singapore’s diversified food culture.”

The Yeo family in front of the first restaurant-styled Song Fa Bak Kut Teh at New Bridge Road. Image courtesy of Our Grandfather Story

2. 不要守株待兔 (bú yào shǒu zhū dài tù) — don’t wait for a rabbit by a tree stump

This proverb tells the story of a farmer who, by a stroke of luck, sees a rabbit injure itself by running into a tree stump, becoming an easy meal for the farmer. From then on, the farmer believes that he doesn’t have to work for his food any longer, choosing merely to sit by the tree stump and wait for another rabbit to run into it.

Essentially, the proverb chides those who wait idly for opportunities, rather than show initiative—a surefire way for any F&B business to die out, as Hart Pong is well aware. He shares that some challenges they faced included a labour crunch, an inflation in the costs of raw materials, high overheads, as well as growing competition. Instead of putting their heads down with hopes of weathering the storm, Hart Pong knew he had to take drastic—sometimes painful—measures to ensure that the business survived.

“We faced a substantial decline in revenue, so we had to look into reconsolidating our resources and even temporarily closed some of our outlets,” he shares. “We started a self-ordering system to manage the labour crunch, and to counter cost inflation and stiff competition, we launched a membership cashback program to reward our loyal customers and to encourage them to return.”

And if you think that going through one pandemic is enough for one lifetime, imagine going through three—Covid-19 is the third pandemic that the Yeo family has had to endure, after Eng Song also experienced the swine flu and SARS pandemics in the earlier years of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh. If anything, these experiences taught the family about the importance of resilience, and to never sit comfortably on one’s laurels, waiting for the next rabbit to run by. 

3. 风雨同舟 (fēng yǔ tóng zhōu) — in the same boat in a storm

While Hart Pong might have wanted to strike it out on his own when he was younger, once he joined the family business, he was fully in. The pandemic might have put a dent in some of his plans, but the family is taking one small step at a time, assessing and evaluating the situation as they go. “Working with my siblings has always been cohesive. As key stakeholders of the company, plans of any kind or any decisions to be made are always discussed and executed with cohesion.”

That truly means to weather the storms together in the same boat, and at the same time, rowing  against the current to make change. While Song Fa Bak Kut Teh may be a heritage business, with a vision to build generations of bak kut teh lovers, the team is always looking for opportunities to expand in every area possible. For now, they’re focused on launching two spin-off brands, the first being Downstairs (楼下), a casual, self-service eatery serving up hot, savoury, local dishes—much like what you would usually buy “downstairs” in your neighborhood coffeeshop, but with a fun twist to provide good food and good memories. There’s also Song Fa Kway Chap (松發淉汁), a concept focusing on serving braised dishes like innards and others, adapted and expanded from Song Fa Bak Kut Teh’s current offerings. “This is another exciting concept, where we bring another favourite local Chinese food, usually enjoyed in the hawker centers and coffeeshops, into a casual eatery setting too.” ​

To ground them, and keep them going, Hart Pong shares one more quote from his father that he will always remember. “I firmly believe that nothing is impossible with the right attitude. If we can take criticism positively, and continuously strive for improvement, then we will embark on this journey together as a team, as a family, and bring Song Fa Bak Kut Teh to greater heights.”

Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
Jewel Changi Airport
78 Airport Boulevard
Singapore 819666
Open Mon–Sun & PH: 11:30am–9:30pm

While Song Fa Bak Kut Teh continues to expand, the family is also launching spin-off brands inspired by the variety of offerings on the current menu.

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