How Polar Survived WW2, SARS, And COVID-19
In nearly a century, the nationwide bakery franchise Polar Puffs and Cakes has closed only once.
The pastry trade remained open during international crises, notably the Japanese occupation (1942 to 1945) and the SARS epidemic (2002 to 2004). The Covid-19 epidemic is no exception.
Retail outlets have been closed, cakes banned and production has been reduced by 80-90%, says Francis Looi, CEO of Polar Puffs and Cakes.
However, the brand has always remained open in several of the approximately 165 convenience stores it is located in across Singapore, serving healthcare workers at hospitals such as Singapore General Hospital and Thompson Medical.
“We have been blessed. We have never had an obstacle so serious that we had to close, ”he notes.
There was also no downsizing or pay cut exercise, with employees receiving full pay even when banned from work.
The brand was also the first to implement a term payment system and implemented special discounts for healthcare workers, although they had to dip into the reserves.
“(We) were projecting a loss of one to two million, but it was obvious,” he said simply.
It has only closed once over the years
Polar has undergone a series of transformations since its inception in 1926.
Originally named Polar Cafe, the first Polar store was run by Hong Kong immigrant Chan Hinky, located in the middle of busy downtown Singapore street.
The Polar Cafe quickly gained popularity among expats and white-collar workers in the area, stocking everything from its iconic puffs and pastries to milkshake bars and soft drinks.
The only time Polar went out of business in nearly a century was when it was kicked out to make way for new developments in 1986.
“Polar has been hijacked by modernization, even though it survived a war,” Francis laughs.
The pastry shop quickly reopened a few months later in a new outlet at the UOB Center in Raffles Place, and the company’s turnover reached $ 1.6 million in 1987.
From colonial relic to modern business
Despite the reopening, growth slowed to a standstill between the 1970s and 1980s.
“We were still stuck in the old days, moving forward and making ends meet,” says Francis.
To change things up, Polar went from a coffee shop to a take-out model, partnering with Exxon Mobile in 1997.
This has allowed the brand to move from a single storefront with multiple distribution points to convenience store counters at Esso gas stations on the island.
At the same time, Polar has expanded its retail network to several shopping malls around Singapore, which has increased its distribution network and public exposure.
Today, the brand has grown to over 190 locations in Singapore – 33 are retail outlets that sell direct to consumers in malls, and around 165 outlets are part of partnerships with businesses.
This includes working with resellers, mom and pop stores, schools, and convenience stores like Shell and Cheers.
According to Covid-19, Polar is actively expanding with plans to move to mom and pop stores as a means of last mile delivery. The kitchen spaces will be used to bake and deliver the polar pastries.
Proud to be a heritage brand of S’pore
In 1998, Polar Cafe abandoned its coffee concept and rebranded itself as Polar Puffs and Cakes.
In 2005, Polar was even named a heritage brand and was recognized as a “super brand” in Singapore the following year.
“(Polar pastries) have been shared from parent to child. It’s common, but rare enough that you know it’s polar once you eat it, ”says Francis.
Polar’s most iconic pastry is its curry puff pastry, which won the title of Singapore’s best curry puff pastry in 2015.
A secret recipe handed down from generation to generation, the polar curry puff pastry is appreciated for its French-style pastry that is buttered and flaky, fused with a traditionally Asian filling.
Although Polar products are instantly recognizable, they are capable of evolving with each generation.
Francis makes a valid point when he says that Polar doesn’t seem to be getting old: “If I didn’t tell you Polar is 94, you wouldn’t believe it. People assume Old Chang Kee is older, but that’s not true.
He adds that the brand is strong on R&D efforts.
Every day, Francis makes three store visits to taste the polar pastries. On a related note, all Polar staff review over 10 new Polar creations every two weeks.
“You have to really love cakes and food to be at Polar,” notes Francis.
In 2006, Polar would have more than 100 varieties of pastries and cakes.
Francis recounts having been launched products including a century egg cheesecake, varieties of malasalted egg hae bee hiam pastries, and over 12 different types of mooncake.
However, it’s not enough to bake delicious pastries. They want to be “integrated into the community,” notes Francis.
He adds that the brand is very committed to customer service. Since 2013, Polar has been one of the few F&B brands in Singapore to have a return and refund policy for its products.
Polar also offers the widest range of licensed character cakes in Singapore. This includes collaborations with everything from Marvel, DC to Pixar, as well as producing themed cakes that have Batman, the Sith Lord, and even Minions printed on.
It’s definitely a smart way to capture a younger population.
“We started the trend (and) it (has) strengthened our position with families,” says Francis, adding that the marketing strategy also helps the Polar name to live through the generations.
To keep up with the times, Polar has since gone digital and has several marketing campaigns planned for the next six months.
On the one hand, Polar will be launching a digital competition for home cooks, with a chance to have their creations showcased and sold under the Polar brand if they win the challenge.
The stewardship of Chan Hinky
Polar currently makes more than eight million baked goods each year and generates up to $ 35 million in revenue.
“It’s still a small number,” says Francis.
“We have to grow (more). We are committed to improving our salaries and the lives of our colleagues, especially as they are older (therefore) insurance and medical care will be high.
According to Francis, Polar is constantly bringing new blood, but more than 40 to 60 percent of its workforce is middle-aged.
Without a retirement program, the brand takes particular account of the needs and concerns of its team.
Currently, Francis acts as the self-proclaimed steward of the third generation of the Chan Hinky family, who still sits on the board of directors as shareholders.
He shares the fact that the brand is guided by three principles: “Run Polar the best you can, keep it with the family, and price products to the general public.”
Under his guidelines, Francis has launched a salary system that sets the CEO’s salary at the lowest salary in the company, which he hopes to increase to at least $ 2,500 per month.
Over the years, Polar has remained open during World War II, SARS and even COVID-19. He has no plans to break his streak anytime soon.
“We are closely linked to the culinary culture of Singapore,” says Francis. “We may be ‘invisible’, but you know we’re here.”
Featured Image Credit: Capitaland / Polar Puffs & Cakes
Our sincere thanks to