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Qin Quan Seah: Taking hawker culture into the future

Singapore’s Yew Kee Group is working to protect its hawker roots while opening up its portfolio of brands, including Yew Kee Duck Rice and CHICHA San Chen bubble tea, to a broader demographic.

Qin Quan Seah

Singapore’s rich hawker culture runs deep in the city state’s multicultural veins, stretching back to the 1900s when migrants set up flimsy food stalls serving cheap, but flavor-packed, dishes on roadsides and in public spaces. Now, its 110-plus hawkers centers serve up tantalizing mouthfuls of the diversity on which it is built.

It’s a legacy that Yew Kee Group is committed to upholding with its origins selling braised duck rice from a hawker pushcart in Nee Soon. Established in 1961, the company has grown to include XO Minced Meat Noodles, My Kampung Chicken Rice and CHICHA San Chen in addition to its now iconic Yew Kee Duck Rice.

While now a household name, Yew Kee remains a family-run business, currently in its third generation with Qin Quan Seah in the position of CEO. Although he never envisaged being at the helm of the company – he initially came onboard simply to help his father out, then found it to be a natural fit.

“It’s in my blood, this business,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “I really wanted to come in and help out with preserving the heritage.”

Seah worked closely with his father to manage the business’ transition from pushcart vendor to a larger, centralized operation. “I just came to help and, luckily, I enjoy what I do – I am able to meet new people and to provide staple food for the community,” he says.

Revamping and expanding the brand

Now, he is focused on revamping the brand to make it appeal to a younger generation, a mission he kicked off by taking responsibility for Yew Kee’s marketing function. He and his sister, Kun Miao, then started looking at diversifying its brands and distribution platforms.

“We have been very actively looking for brands to work with, or to create another new brand,” Seah explains.

In 2017, the company opened its first food court. “This is something we had never done before. We had never thought of going into this business, because it’s always us being the tenant not the landlord,” he says. “So this was a big first step, a real milestone.”

Qin Quan Seah

“It’s in my blood, this business. I really wanted to come in and help out with preserving the heritage.”

Then, in 2018, the pair came across Taiwanese bubble tea brand CHICHA San Chen and decided it would be the perfect way to take the company beyond the duck rice for which it had become known. Now, the CHICHA San Chen franchise has 31 outlets across Singapore.

Seah has no intention of stopping there. The next three-to-five years will also see the company expand its brands, both locally and internationally, with the main challenge to find the right partner to take them overseas.

The priorities, according to Seah, are Yew Kee Duck Rice and CHICHA San Chen as well as My Kampung, although the company can “play around” with the various brands by employing a two-in-one or even three-in-one concept in its stores.

Securing the future of hawkers

But more important for him is to work with other hawker brands to try and secure their futures. After all, he spends a great deal of time in hawker centers, chatting with the other store holders.

“A lot of hawkers, they don’t have a second or third generation to take over their businesses,” he says. Retirement often spells the end for many such enterprises.

“We started off as hawkers as well, and I want them to join our group to grow the hawker brand. As long as the whole synergy is right, then we are willing to work with them also.”

It’s something of a balancing act for Seah, who continues working to expose the brand to a younger demographic while still placing emphasis on Yew Kee’s hawker heritage.

“We are definitely a heritage brand, but our culture is still very much young”

“We are definitely a heritage brand, but our culture is still very much young,” he explains. “When we brought in CHICHA San Chen, a lot of people were very shocked that it was under a duck rice brand.

“Some people think that it’s very weird for a family or heritage brand to be taking on a bubble tea brand, it’s like the contrast is too much.”

But that is exactly what sets Yew Kee apart from the competition, according to Seah.

“We are always keeping up with new things, even though our core business is selling duck rice,” he continues.

“I don’t see any other heritage brands doing this.”

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