BreadTalk Group Pte Ltd – Bringing Asian Tastes to the World

We learn how BreadTalk’ s heritage, creativity and culture are creating distinctly Asian flavours to share with the whole world.

BreadTalk started out as a boutique bakery store in the year 2000, becoming renowned for the way it revolutionised the culture of bread consumption into a lifestyle,

a fashion-boutique experience that was unheard of when the business was founded.

“We had many firsts back then. Our first store was a novel, modern and expressive store concept and broke through the clutter,” explains Cheng William, Group Chief Operating Officer for the BreadTalk Group. “It featured our 360-degree ground-to-ceiling glass where you can look into our kitchen, with a visual  performance of our chefs at work. Before, kitchens were closed-door but we opened up to demonstrate that our baked goods were made fresh on-premises. For many customers, it was their first up close view into the magic of bread making.”

This combination – a reinvention of a traditional sunset trade using cutting-edge innovation and creativity, would prove to be BreadTalk’s trademark across the next 20 years. The brand quickly became synonymous with its signature pork floss buns. Pork floss buns are soft buns topped with BreadTalk’s own house-recipe of egg cream and pork floss – a popular snack in many parts of Asia made by drying and shredding pork.

“We even came up with creative and fun names to our breads – each representing a personality. The floss bun was named ‘FLOSSS’ with an additional ‘s’ to indicate the voluminous floss topping on the bun. It also looks like a sleeping ‘zzz’ bun with the ‘s’ shredded dried meat. Cheng tells us “The Flosss proved to be a big hit with its unique taste and texture. At the peak of its popularity, we were selling one Flosss every 10 seconds.”

Tastes for Every Palate

But while the Flosss can be called BreadTalk’s signature dish, it’s far from the limit of its offerings. The company boasts no fewer than 15 food and beverage concepts, spread across Singapore and into overseas markets.

These concepts include Toast Box, which Cheng calls one of BreadTalk’s more creative concepts.

Opened in 2003, Toast Box modernises the traditional Nanyang breakfast experience of coffee (kopi), toast and soft boiled eggs sprinkled with pepper and a splash of light soy sauce for a younger audience. The brand has since steadily grown and its popularity transcends generations – from young to old.

Then there is the Food Republic, a food atrium brand that provides a modern take on the feel and culture of Singapore’s bustling street food markets operated by independent food stall owners. Last year, this hawker culture in Singapore was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, proving its significance as a treasured culture. Food Republic brings together these independent food stall owners and recreated a casual food dining space by designing a unique interior concept and ambience. One of its more prominent  interior concepts mimics the famed Hakka walled village representing a large multi-family communal living structure that is designed to be easily defensible.  In re-creating this cultural architect, BreadTalk’s designers found second-hand pieces that would otherwise have been thrown away, shipped them over from China and various cities to create this unique ambience.

“We have also managed the famed Taiwanese restaurant chain, Din Tai Fung which is known for its award-winning Xiao Long Bao (steamed pork dumplings). Widely acclaimed by even some A-list Hollywood celebrities and government officials, the Group brought the brand into the United Kingdom in 2018 with a branch in Covent Garden,” Cheng tells us.

Today BreadTalk’s global presence amounts to over 900 outlets in 15 markets internationally across its bakery, restaurant and food atrium businesses. It employs over 5,000 staff across 15 food and beverage brands, with their bakeries alone offering close to 800 outlets. Its reputation has grown to the point where it is the only bakery brand to have ever won several global awards including the prestigious World Retailers Award.

“I would say our unique selling point is the diverse and creative portfolio of food and beverage brands we offer, that appeal from the mass to the mass affluent,” Cheng explains. “Singapore is known to be a food paradise as it’s a melting pot of different cultures. Even though it has a population of only 5.8 million people, we have approximately 346,000 food and beverage companies including food manufacturing and food retail services stores in Singapore so you can imagine the competitiveness of the landscape we operate in.”

At the same time, BreadTalk has also become a ubiquitous presence in Singaporean’s life, as Cheng tells us, “You can’t venture out anywhere without seeing one of BreadTalk Group’s food and beverage concepts. We are strategic in the locations we choose to operate our businesses, dominating in small and large shopping malls with high footfall including those in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the overseas franchise market we have strong partners to ensure we’re represented. For example, our franchise partner in Indonesia has been operating our brand since 2003, growing to manage nearly 200 BreadTalk stores today.”

As well as being a familiar part of the lives of its customers, BreadTalk thrives because it always has something new to excite them.

“We have developed strong Research and Development teams and to stay ahead of the curve, we will support them in international competitions where we now have a group of internationally award-winning chefs,” Cheng says.

BreadTalk doesn’t only rely on its own talent either. The Group will go where the talent is in an effort to bring the best ideas to its customers. Cheng tells us, “We cross-collaborated with several renowned and award-winning chefs that hail from leading bakery markets such as Japan and Taiwan. We’re internationalised. Whilst cross collaborations are common now, it was not in the past but we broke the norm and went the extra mile to bring their award-winning pieces to our customers, making it easily available and accessible to them.”

“One of them is Masterchef Wu Pao-chun, best known for winning the 2010 Bakery Master competition in Paris,” Cheng recalls. “We entered into a joint venture with his bakery brand ‘Wu Pao Chun’ and opened its first flagship store out of Taiwan in both China and Singapore in 2019. It was the first time the brand expanded its foray into the overseas market. His award-winning signature – lychee rose and red wine longan breads are a sell-out. Where one used to be able to get his breads only in Taiwan, they can now get them in both Singapore and China too.”

However, what makes BreadTalk truly unique is that they combine these bold new ideas with a real respect and desire to preserve what has gone before.

“In line with our portfolio we’ve embarked on joint ventures to reinforce our brand’s identity to preserve local food and beverage heritage and culture,” explains Cheng. “One brand that we’re proud of preserving dates back to World War 2, and we are very proud that we have allowed that to carry on.”

This brand is the Chinese pastry shop, Thye Moh Chan. The pastry shop has been with the same family for three generations over 78 years, but when the family had no successor to take over the business, BreadTalk stepped in to inherit the brand and modernise it into what it is today, while still preserving its cultural heritage by having their bakes handcrafted to a large extent.

“We decided to acquire these brands to preserve their heritage, it’s part of our business,” Cheng says. “Recently, we also entered another joint venture with a renowned fish soup brand which has roots dating back to the 1980s. The brand is known for focusing on a clean and light soup that enhances the flavours of the fresh fish slices, something unique to the Teochew style of fish soup and we look forward to bringing this to a wider audience too”

A Recipe for Talent

It’s impossible to talk about the food and beverage sector in 2021 without acknowledging the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and for BreadTalk Group, its headquarters in Singapore was one of the earliest places to feel the impact of COVID-19.

“A crisis can also be an opportunity for innovation. Our global R and D teams did not stop creating new products,” Cheng says. “In fact, in August last year we decided to push ahead with a new BreadTalk concept that was planned pre-COVID times and also launched 2 new brand concepts – Butter Bean and Charlie Tea, created in a time of uncertainty.”

Butter Bean levels up Toast Box’s twist on the Nanyang kopi and toast breakfast with an even more modern rendition of the concept for younger audiences. “The consumer mindset across generations differ so we need to continuously evolve to remain relevant and stay ahead,” Cheng says. “BreadTalk has also introduced a new bubble tea brand in the form of Charlie Tea, which combines bubble tea with a bakery concept and a unique interior design aesthetic. The crisis taught us that adversity sharpens our strategies and offers opportunities.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges, Cheng acknowledges old challenges still remain.

“A perpetual challenge for the local food and beverage sector is the difficulty in acquiring talent. We have seen recent reports by the Restaurant Association saying that there are thousands of positions in the restaurant sector, but no takers. Food and beverage jobs were never popular in Singapore due to the long working hours and shift work,” he explains. “Our solution to this is to implement and promote ourselves as a lifestyle brand reinventing the food and beverage rules. We took a leaf from the US by creating a staff lounge with nap pods. We also have trainers to help staff upgrade skills.”

As well as finding talent, BreadTalk also emphasises how to get its people to bring their A-game to work.

“All our employees join the company with different passions and individual competencies but what’s most important is how the company can make the best out of it, by finding people who align with our unique values,” explains Bryden Toh, Senior Vice President Human Resources and Learning & Development at BreadTalk. “Internally we have various training schemes and opportunities, and our diverse business portfolio offers cross-deployment opportunities where staff can be deployed to other brands to learn different business operations. Our geographical coverage provides cross-territorial learning where we have seconded our staff to other countries as well.”

BreadTalk is host to a range of brands and concepts, each with their own unique identity, but there is a shared culture across the entire Group that makes it an appealing home for its staff.

“The first thing I was introduced to when I joined the company was that it places creativity, innovation and differentiation in the highest regard,” says Joanne Wong, BreadTalk Group’s Brand Director. “And the sum of all three values is what has kept the company going on. We constantly look for creativity, innovation and how to make ourselves different in the things we do.”

That sense of “Fun!” comes not only from the creativity in BreadTalk’s work, but the close relationships between the staff.

“The company feels like family,” Wong says. “We are very engaged. We have a very open-door-open –communication policy and whilst our leaders command respect, we can also speak to them without being intimidated and this transcends across different levels and even countries. We form many friendships within the company. In difficult times, we still come together. We like to say we’re in the F&B business, but really, we are in the people business and that is reflected in the way we provide service to our customers.”

This is why, even when the Group was facing hard times last year, Toh insisted on continuing the company’s bursary programme for employees.

“We believe in education as a social leveller,” Wong says. “So we provided monetary rewards to support staff whose children achieve exceptional results.”

Where Heritage Meets Innovations

BreadTalk has also offered support to local arts and culture, becoming a celebrated patron of the arts for its contributions.

“BreadTalk thrives on creativity and innovation,” Wong says. “The preservation of food culture and heritage is extremely important to us so that there is continuity and longevity to these brands. It makes our work and mission even more meaningful.”

Indeed, throughout our conversation with BreadTalk, it’s this thread connecting Singapore and Asia’s traditional food heritage to the latest and most creative innovations that seem to be the defining element of BreadTalk’s identity.

“Planning for the future, all of our winning formulas need constant reinvention. We will continue to stay creative and innovative – one that we have demonstrated over the last 20 years while on a mission to preserve food heritage and bringing cross-cultural food experiences around the world, leveraging on tomorrow’s technologies to continue to push the envelope,” Cheng says. “We also continue to explore various ways we can reduce our carbon footprint and food waste by ingraining ourselves with sustainable partners to build a better environment for the generations to come.”

“We believe that the strong culture and values we’ve built over the years can be taken through to the next 20, 40, even 100 years,” Cheng agrees. “Building a people-led business that is creative, innovative and differentiating ourselves from other food and beverage brands.”

“It’s a new Asia we are embracing, a harmony of deeply rooted Asian cultures with global influence,” Wong adds. “It’s an appetite we want to build for the world.”

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