Labour of Love: How 3 local F&B power couples make it work

Meet three real-life “Patisserie Fighting” duos whose passion for food and drink inspired them to start their own F&B businesses 

Labour of Love: How 3 local F&B power couples make it work
Labour of Love: How 3 local F&B power couples make it work
11 May 2017

Labour of Love: How 3 local F&B power couples make it work

Kit Chan and Chris Lee might have been just friends on Patisserie Fighting, but believe it or not, things are a lot more romantic in the real world: here in Singapore, young kitchen connoisseurs are not only launching their own F&Bs, but they’ve done so with their significant others. And what’s more, they’ve chosen innovative fares: one couple we spoke to runs a bakery for artisanal sourdough, another started a coffee subscription service, while another bakes “naked” wedding cakes, a novelty in a country where wedding cakes aren’t even a part of traditional weddings.

While a lovers’ quarrel can be an even bigger fire hazard than a faulty stove, these local entrepreneurs run successful ventures while seemingly mastering the art of balancing business and pleasure. You might even say that they’re closer than ever, now that they’ve seen each other’s “work selves” alongside their “relationship selves”.

Read their stories here. 

Ernest Tan and Samantha Quek, Cupplets
Ernest Tan and Samantha Quek, Cupplets
11 May 2017

Ernest Tan and Samantha Quek, Cupplets

Ernest Tan and Samantha Quek, both 28, run what is perhaps the most romantic business on this list: a custom cake decorating business housed in a small café. Dressed in ombre buttercream, and adorned with hand-piped flowers and fresh blooms, their creations are a favourite on bridal sites and on social media, where their Instagram has over 31,000 followers.

Despite its dreamy aesthetic, Cupplets can trace its beginnings to a humble hotdog kiosk, where Ernest and Samantha, then students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, sold food as part of a school elective.

“The kiosk was very different from the café but it sparked the idea in us – we want to sell coffee, to bake,” Ernest said. So from there, the two of them began planning to open a café once Ernest finished his National Service. There was just one problem: neither of them had any professional training in the culinary arts. Plus, this was in 2008, when the local café scene was dominated by commercial enterprises. Access to coffee-making workshops was limited, as were the instructional videos online. So Samantha and Ernest either had to ask suppliers for help, or to teach themselves.

“Last time, when it came to frothing the milk, you would burn yourself before learning how not to,” Samantha joked.

Still, they persisted, and after putting in $21,000 in capital, Cupplets finally opened in a secluded corner of Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 2013. To keep business going during the school holidays, Ernest and Samantha accepted custom cake orders, where – with the client’s blessing – they experimented with designs unheard of in Singapore, but popular in western countries. Soon, one cake a month became two, and before they knew it, cake orders had become their bread and butter.

Today, Ernest and Samantha are busy whipping up 10 to 20 custom cakes a week and have a team of five helping out. As a couple who has been together for nearly 10 years, they’ve only gotten closer by weathering all challenges that have come with running a business.

“We are a couple, so the name ‘Cupplets’ is a nod to Chinese couplets, or complementary idioms,” Samantha explains, glancing at Ernest. “We are both very different, character-wise. We are like black and white.” 

Ernest Tan and Samantha Quek, Cupplets
Ernest Tan and Samantha Quek, Cupplets
11 May 2017

Ernest Tan and Samantha Quek, Cupplets

On their differences:
Samantha: “He’s more analytical. He deals mainly with the dollars and cents, proposals, things like that. The administrative stuff. And of course, when it comes to cake designs, he’s the supervisor. Sometimes he knows the public is not ready for a design, so he will advise and say maybe we shouldn’t be too drastic.

He’s a very yes-no person. Sometimes a person will come up and say things like, ‘I’m an influencer, can I have a discount’ and he will say NO. Whereas if it’s me, I might take a while to say no, but he’s very direct and very honest, and he’ll say things like, ‘We don’t see a need for a collaboration.’”

Ernest: “She does what she does best when she doesn’t have restrictions. If she comes across something that inspires her, or even just a name card or some color theme, the next thing you know she’ll be trying something new. She has that zest in a way that she doesn’t mind doing something even though there’s no baking on that day. This helps the direction and feel of Cupplets. We say that on our Instagram, every 9 frames has a different feel. Her contribution means a lot in terms of the creative aspect.”

On setting boundaries:
Samantha: “You have to draw a clear line on what each party is responsible for. If he handles customer service or the administrative things or the finances, I don’t question him, or take his work and barge in and take his work and start doing my own calculations. There must be a form of trust there. And he doesn’t come into Instagram and start deleting photos. If there’s no trust, that’s where potential arguments and potential catastrophes will happen.”

On their contingency plans:
Samantha: “The advice we kept getting was, ‘If all else fails, sell Chinese desserts.’”

Ernest: “Every now and then, we catch ourselves saying, ‘What would we be doing if we didn’t have Cupplets?’ We ask each other what areas we would be good at.

Samantha: “During hard moments, you give yourself a “what if” moment – like, would you be happier? Is this something you want to do? And we’ve decided we are happier doing the things we like and it satisfies us, even though running a business is not all colourful.” 

Cupplets
Ngee Ann Polytechnic,
535 Clementi Road Blk 16, #01-03
Open weekdays, 12pm to 6pm

Ernest Ting and Faye Sit, Hook Coffee
Ernest Ting and Faye Sit, Hook Coffee
11 May 2017

Ernest Ting and Faye Sit, Hook Coffee

Ernest Ting and Faye Sit, 26 and 25, were high school sweethearts. But it wasn’t love at first sight for the two of them, who met at 15 when they were classmates at Temasek Junior College. They spent the next four years as BFFs, but sparks flew when they flew to Vietnam with a group of friends after taking their A-levels. Today, Ernest and Faye are not only going strong, but they’ve combined his love for coffee with her passion for sustainability to launch an artisanal coffee delivery service.

“We both didn’t think we’d be entrepreneurs,” Faye said. “We were both pursuing professional careers. It was only after going to London to do our Masters, we were inspired by the specialty coffee scene. We were also jaded by the usual corporate ways. Ernest started learning more, he went to courses, and he influenced me since he made me coffee every day and dragged me out to drink it.”

As students in London, Ernest and Faye subscribed to everything from snacks, to coffee, to tea. “We were pretty busy and subscriptions helped us save a lot of money,” Ernest said. Once they came back to Singapore in 2015, they figured that Singaporeans – who are also busy and constantly looking for ways to save money – could benefit from a service that sends freshly roasted coffee to their doorstep. So in 2016, after they invested $50,000 in capital, Hook Coffee was born.

Here’s how it works: Subscribers choose a bag of coffee (sustainably grown and ethically produced), which all have cheeky names like “Appley Ever After”, “Give Me S’Mores”, and “The Grape Gatsby”. Select whole beans or ground, choose a brew method and a delivery date, and bam: there’s coffee in your mailbox.

It sounds simple enough, but in between dealing with tech, supplies, marketing, and each other, Ernest and Faye are pretty much caffeinated ‘round the clock. Both of them credit their complementary skills for driving the business forward.

“Our mentor once told us that I am the brain and Faye is the heart of the business,” Ernest says.

And later in the interview, Faye chimes in, “He’s the good cop, and I’m the bad cop.” 

Ernest Ting and Faye Sit, Hook Coffee
Ernest Ting and Faye Sit, Hook Coffee
11 May 2017

Ernest Ting and Faye Sit, Hook Coffee

How working with each other is different from dating each other:
Faye: “He is more of a workaholic than I thought he was. When I brought him out for his birthday dinner, it was a really nice restaurant. It was just after we graduated so I’d saved up for that dinner and he was working on his phone! (“She was angry!” says Ernest)”

Ernest: “I thought she was a workaholic when we were studying for our masters. But it turns out she knows how to strike the balance better than me, whereas I lean toward the workaholic side.”

How they cover each other’s strengths and weaknesses:
Faye: “He deals with the tech stuff, and also the operational stuff. He has to be on the ball 24/7. If the website is down or there’s something wrong with supplies, he has to tap into it immediately. I do marketing, PR and strategy, so I can plan my time beforehand. Ernest is really good with numbers, really hands on, operations, finance, tech, all these things he’s really good at. For me, I’m more creative, better with words, thinking long-term.”

Ernest: “I’m a very soft person, and she’s very tough to everyone else. I’m very soft to all my staff. She can handle people well, but I’m not as good at it. So from working together, I’ve learned how to be more affirmative in dealing with people.”

On contingency plans:
Faye: “We got some questions like what will happen if we split, or if the business doesn’t succeed and we both end up unemployed. But Ernest I were best friends for four years before dating, and we’ve been dating for seven or eight years now, so we know that even if anything happens, our friendship is there. So that part is settled.”

Ernest: “It was important to have a clear end goal in mind as both a couple of a company. If you’re just going to dive into it and try something out and hope it succeeds, it’s not going to work, but we knew where we wanted this to be, and what we wanted this to be. Our direction from the beginning was to make coffee accessible and fun.”

Find out more about Hook Coffee here

Chalith Kariyawasam and Nurhasanah Johari, The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough
Chalith Kariyawasam and Nurhasanah Johari, The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough
11 May 2017

Chalith Kariyawasam and Nurhasanah Johari, The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough

Before you start grousing about trekking all the way to Woodlands just to buy sourdough, you should know that The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough is actually located in Serene Centre, right by Botanic Gardens MRT. Convenient, eh? Maybe that’s part of the reason why The Bakery runs out of loaves by noon almost every day.

“The bread comes out in batches at 9, 10, 11,” Chalith says. “When it comes out, it’s gone.”

“People ask us why don’t you make more? But we would rather do it on a small scale, or small batches, so we can control everything. We don’t want to keep leftovers. But people don’t really get it. They think that if you go to bakery, you should have breads to buy.”

Since Chalith and Nur, a married couple who have been together for 12 years, bake everything by themselves, churning out sourdough loaves all day – when sourdough is notoriously high-maintenance – is a little unrealistic. Still, the two of them stand by their dream to bake the best breads in Singapore, even if the public isn’t used to their style of baking.

“We dare to do it differently,” Chalith says. “We bake it dark, and we put a lot of water in our dough and we use a lot of whole wheats and lots of ancient grains. When you slice into our bread, it’s so hard to slice, because it’s so moist inside, and it sticks to your knife. People are not used to it, they ask us why it’s like that, or they think it’s burnt, then we explain, they try it, and they never ask again.”

“Sometimes people get frustrated, but we educate them, and they will come back the next day to get the loaf. And they keep coming back in the morning. We’ve changed things and we feel happy about it: when you want something, you go and get it. We call this a community-supported bakery. We are happy because we don’t throw anything or waste anything.

The Bakery was born out of a “shared passion for sourdough”, as Chalith puts it, though he credits his wife as “the one who was more interested in baking bread.”

“Because she quit her job [as an engineer] to bake, she was more passionate. She’s very territorial about her breads – there’s no sharing, so the only thing I do is take the breads out of the oven,” Chalith (who has since also quit his job as an engineer) says jovially, visibly proud of Nur’s expertise.

True to what Chalith shared, Nur was so busy at the oven, that she could only join the interview halfway. Since opening The Bakery last year, Chalith and Nur have baked 500 loaves of sourdough a week, along with cookies, cakes, toasts, brownies, and other small pastries (Chalith’s responsibility). The process of baking sourdough takes about 22 hours. The store itself is open 5 days a week, but they work 6 days, for 16 hours at a time.

You would think that amount of stress would take a toll on a couple, but Chalith and Nur have learned to handle their roles with the same dexterity one would need to handle a particularly fussy mound of sourdough. Here’s how they do it: 

Chalith Kariyawasam and Nurhasanah Johari, The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough
Chalith Kariyawasam and Nurhasanah Johari, The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough
11 May 2017

Chalith Kariyawasam and Nurhasanah Johari, The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough

On roles:
Nur: “We worked our separate jobs last time and would see each other at night or on the weekend. Now that we work together, we know it’s important to keep your distance from the other person and to not always be in each other’s way. At work it’s professional, then at home you go back to being husband and wife.”

Chalith: “It’s very different but it’s very satisfying. Even on our off days, we talk about the bakery, our amazing staff, and the things we go through. Monetary-wise it’s better, since we’re so busy working, we don’t have time to go out and spend. Now that we have our own bakery, it’s so different, you enjoy the work. On your off day, you don’t need to go shopping anymore – you can stay home and just enjoy yourself.”

On having each other’s back:
Chalith: “In our relationship, I’m the softer one, Nur is more firm. In the beginning, I was very soft with customers. Nur was very firm. I found that when you are firm, they are okay, but if you are too soft they will try to step on you and get their way. Our place is not a place to come to when you are in a rush. Sometimes the toast sometimes takes half an hour. We have 2 toasters that can only take 8 toasts at a time, and we have 20 receipts. Some people can see what we do and know we’re not slacking. Some keep coming back and bothering us. Nur knows how to handle them, but I get a bit affected.”

Nur: “I have endurance. I am able to put in long hours. But I get very angry and frustrated easily. For him, he will just console me or something like that, so it helps, it’s like a balance. I also think you just have to let go and don’t be so controlling. Because at least for me, I can’t do everything, I need his help. I need to give him space to have his own freedom and creativity and not tell him every single thing to do.”

On their shared loved for baking:
Nur: “We have always been interested in cooking and baking, but when I discovered bread it was very different. It’s more fussy, it has a mind of its own. But that’s the one that keeps it interesting. It’s never the same. Even in the shop now, the Bakery, sometimes every day the bread is different, sometimes it’s very good, sometimes it’s bad, but I keep thinking tomorrow it’s gonna be different. But that’s where the drive comes from. It’s very tiring but for me, when I pull the bread out of the oven and it’s want you want it to be, that’s what makes it worth it.” 

The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough
10 Jalan Serene, #01-05 Serene Centre
Wed to Sun 8:30 am to 6 pm (including PH)
Sun 5 pm to 8 pm (Pizza Night)
Closed on Mon and Tues (including PH)

Related: 
Coffee princes of Singapore
A look inside the lives of handsome hawkers

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