FOOD manufacturer You Tiao Man has taken the humble fritter from hawker stalls to fine-dining restaurants, modernising the traditional snack to meet changing consumer demands.
The company started out as a supplier to food and beverage (F&B) outlets. But the Covid-19 pandemic prompted it to reach out to more customers via new channels such as supermarkets, and in new markets overseas.
You Tiao Man's origins lay in a roadside hawker stall in the 1960s, and the family business continues today in a Toa Payoh hawker centre. But fourth-generation stall owner Audrey Chew decided to bring their dough fritters to an even wider audience.
When Chew returned to Singapore after working overseas for five years, she noticed that you tiao as a product had not evolved even as consumer tastes shifted towards healthy, convenient food.
So in 2017, she founded You Tiao Man to supply factory-made frozen you tiao – with an improved recipe – to F&B businesses.
"The best part of traditional food is that it's a fond memory for all of us, is comforting and a staple in our lives. Those feelings don't change," she said. "But the parts that are bad about traditional food, like it being oily and unhealthy – we improve on them."
The journey of reinventing you tiao was not easy. Chew's parents were initially against her entering the manufacturing industry, which they said was tough and male-dominated.
Reformulating the fritter from a hawker snack to a frozen manufactured product was also extremely complicated. For this, You Tiao Man worked with the Food Innovation and Resource Centre, a joint initiative between Singapore Polytechnic and Enterprise Singapore.
With the help of professionals there, the you tiao recipe was tweaked to produce a high-quality manufactured item. "The outcome was that we had an excellent product – it had a good crunch and the right fluffiness, was steady in ambient temperatures and had a long shelf life," shared Chew.
The brand started off with ordinary you tiao, but has innovated with variations of the product since 2018 – wholegrain, a Health Promotion Board Healthier Choice-certified product suitable for the elderly, young families, childcare centres and hospitals; otah, for those who crave spice; and charcoal, with a dark hue.
The charcoal is aesthetically appealing in fine dining. Chew added: "The black colour is bespoke and appeals to the culinary fantasies of the chef."
Achieving halal certification in 2018 opened more doors for the brand, allowing it to reach a wider range of consumers, caterers and hotels.
You Tiao Man's customers include restaurants such as Crystal Jade and Corner House, catering services like Four Seasons Catering, and hotels such as Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, Conrad Centennial Singapore and Parkroyal Collection Pickering.Going further
Early in the pandemic, however, Covid-19 restrictions made restaurants and hawker centres less accessible to consumers. You Tiao Man responded by selling its frozen you tiao directly to consumers via its website.
In 2021, You Tiao Man started selling via supermarkets too. Its you tiao made a debut in Fairprice Finest outlets, was well received, and made its way to all NTUC Fairprice outlets in 2022.
"Entering the supermarkets is a great milestone for any food manufacturer," said Chew, adding that it helps to sustain "repeated purchasing" by consumers.
Another milestone was You Tiao Man's participation in the Food & Hotel Asia trade fair in 2022, where it exhibited its products.
"We met a lot of international buyers there who helped us work potential leads in other countries," said Chew. The company started exporting to restaurants and hotels in Malaysia that September, and has since received enquiries about having their products carried in Malaysian supermarkets.
"Sometimes I don't believe that I did all this. I started a factory with no experience, hired people, built machines, built the brand and developed a product, sold it in supermarkets, and now we're exporting it?" said Chew.
You Tiao Man's products continue to find new audiences. In a collaboration with Cathay Cineplexes earlier this year, you tiao were sold as cinema snacks with a modern twist of chocolate hazelnut sauce or nacho cheese.
The company is now preparing for the launch of two new products – mochi you tiao and you tiao sandwich – at the food festival Gastrobeats 2023 in June.
Chew also hopes to export more widely to markets such as Australia, Indonesia and the United Kingdom: "We think that there's a real demand for traditional food done well in the international space, especially with you tiao being a very common food among Chinese and Asian people."
Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.