First published in The Straits Times on 21 November 2019.
The berry-flavoured glaze glistens, adding a sumptuous sheen to a creamy yet crumbly confectionary that is baked to perfection. Sink your teeth into the piece of cheesecake and it melts into a seductive embrace of the tastebuds.
Are you hungry yet?
Choose from local brand Cat & the Fiddle’s 20 flavours – from the classics of New York or Oreo to Asian-inspired Mao Shan Wang Durian and Milo Dinosaur.
But if you think the cakes were made by loving, skilled hands, you’d be wrong. The magic is made possible not so much by man, but by high-tech machines.
"Every day, 2,000 cakes are produced in a semi-automated process by Foodgnostic, which owns the Cat & the Fiddle brand.
"And head chef Daniel Tay (pictured above) is looking to produce even more cheesecakes – faster and hopefully tastier.
Mr Tay, a veteran pastry chef, believes cheesecakes made by machines are better than handmade ones, as it ensures better consistency.
He aims to increase his company’s output through more high-tech machinery in his push into lucrative new markets.
“We can’t keep using the same old traditional way of producing cheesecakes. We have to keep moving on in line with the Government’s direction towards more productivity,” said the Foodgnostic founder.
Most of his cakes are made for local baking retailers, with about 10 per cent exported to China.
Filling a need
Mr Tay, 48, set up Foodgnostic in 2013 as a food manufacturing company specialising in preparing fresh and frozen baked goods for the local F&B industry.
“It was to provide food solutions for companies faced with massive manpower shortage and escalating costs,” he explained.
The move to sell cheesecakes a year later made sense because of its popularity. “To educate the consumer on any other (type of) cake is a task. But when I tell people ‘this is cheesecake’, 100 per cent of people know what it is.”
Two factors made his ambitions possible:
- Investments in high-tech machinery helped him churn out large volumes quickly. This was vital because Foodgnostic supplies dessert and food items to some very prominent clients, including a huge café chain with more than 140 outlets in Singapore.
- Support from Enterprise Singapore (ESG) was critical to the company’s initial years of automation and adopting tech. The agency has been working with the company over the years, and helped defray the cost of the machines through a grant. Getting the grant from ESG was also smooth, said Mr Tay, because he had been working closely with the agency for more than 10 years in his previous food business. “Such funding sustained us for the first few years especially. It would have been very tough without ESG.”
There was initial concern from his staff. They felt threatened by the machines. But they were soon won over when they saw how technology made their jobs easier and faster. And not a single job was lost.
Foodgnostic’s productivity journey began with a robotic cutting machine and an industrial mixer in 2013.
Something as simple as slicing cakes would be tedious without the machinery, noted Mr Tay. A team of six could spend an entire day slicing about 5,000 to 6,000 cakes.
It was manually taxing. And the result was less-than-perfect. “You get irregular-sized slices, unwanted cuts, and then you have to take time to measure. It would be a bit unproductive. Now, all I need is one person to place the cakes into the cutting machine,” he said.
Workers could also focus on other tasks such as design of the cakes.
With the mixer, about 250kg of ingredients can be prepared in about five minutes. “Before, it would take forever, probably the whole day,” he added.
Mr Tay is more bullish about the company’s prospects as a result of such high levels of productivity. He is expanding to China and setting up factories in the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Chongqing, and a second plant in Senoko in Singapore.
“We are growing too slow. We want to double our revenue to $60 million by the end of next year,” he said, noting that he aims to add even more automation in Foodgnostic’s baking process.
How did the productivity journey begin?
Foodgnostic bought an American-made robotic cutting machine for $200,000 and a huge industrial mixer for $500,000 in 2013. ESG supported the company on such productivity plans and initiatives.
Other cutting-edge equipment the food and beverage company has added to its repertoire include technology to semi-automate the cheesecake-making process. For example, a bake-to-freeze system which ensures a smooth process right until the cheesecake is cooled down for cold storage.
Previously, workers had to manually transfer raw ingredients and baked cheesecakes from one section to another, and to remove, cut and divide cakes.
With high-tech machinery, Foodgnostic’s output has increased by more than 60 per cent, while reducing manual labour by 70 per cent.
How did ESG help ease the entry into China?
When Foodgnostic set out to buy a company in Shanghai in its first foray there, ESG supported it on the legal process. This helped the company reduce the acquisition cost.
The company has since established a foothold in China, particularly in making mooncakes for the mid-autumn festival. During the festival this year, Foodgnostic produced 3.2 million of the pastries for the Chinese market in a span of about 35 days – only made possible by an efficient, high-tech production line. Add the mooncakes produced for the Singapore market, more than four million cakes were made.
It did this by using three encrusting machines costing about $300,000 to $400,000. Such machines can also be used for pastries with fillings, such as pineapple tarts.
“For a company in Singapore to produce more than four million is already very big. But we are still small in China. China companies produce 40 to 50 million pieces. Of course, we hope to produce that amount,” said Mr Tay.
The target for next year’s mid-autumn festival is six million mooncakes.