This 100-Year-Old Family Biz Makes 10,000 Youtiaos A Day
Xi De Li, a local maker of dough donuts (youtiao), is one of the pioneers of the youtiao and dough food industry in Singapore.
Now run by fourth-generation owners Adrian Koh, Valerie Koh and Pathom Koh, Xi De Li’s history actually dates back to the 1920s.
Starting out as a push cart stall run by their great-grandmother, Xi De Li now runs a central kitchen that can produce up to 10,000 youtiaos per day.
Today, the Xi De Li brand also spans over 60 stand-alone and franchised outlets across Singapore, generating millions in revenue per year.
The dough that binds the family
Formerly known as Jing Wen Tai You Tiao, it was started as a stroller stand along Chin Swee Road by their great-grandmother in the 1920s.
Along with the tradition of kneading dough by hand, the stall was passed down to their grandmother in the 1940s.
Subsequently, in 1966, their father – who created the signature “butterfly chignon” as a sign of love for his wife – took over the reins of the business.
“Last time there was only youtiao and chim peng ham (savory dough fritters). Our mom wanted a butterfly version so my dad made it for her. It was a profession of love for her and I think it was very kind, ”said Valérie, 41.
The family then decided to add the “butterfly bun” to their product line. To this day, they have retained the original recipe and the taste of butterfly bread.
In 1980, they moved to a Clementi food stall which is still operational today.
A few decades later, in 2006, the siblings – along with their younger brother – took over the business and renamed it Xi De Li. The name is derived from their father’s name “Xi” and the English word “Deli”. “.
Take over despite no professional experience
At first, their father would get up at dawn every day to begin preparing and delivering the dough fritters.
On the other hand, Valérie had to wake up at midnight to mix and beat the dough, before making each piece of dough by hand. She added that she often worked 16 hours a day.
Older brother Adrian, then a teenager, used to help out at the booth after school. Even when he was serving national service, he would always lend a helping hand after booking.
“I had to meticulously shape each butterfly bread while Adrian had to knead, cut and fry 3,000 youtiaos per day. Imagine doing it all by hand. My hands would be covered with blisters, ”lamented Valérie.
When the siblings took over their father’s business in 2006, they faced all kinds of challenges.
My older brother and I had no knowledge of running a business. We weren’t many students and dropped out of school at 12 and 16 respectively.
– Valerie Koh, director of Xi De Li
They didn’t know anything about handling a stall or balancing the books. They also found it difficult to compose emails “that usually only take a few seconds to anyone” because they simply did not have a command of English.
They had to learn everything from scratch and face every challenge that came their way.
For example, suppliers doubted their capacity and requested cash in advance to pay for raw ingredients before they were ready to deliver the goods to them.
When they opened a central kitchen to produce and supply frozen dough, the quality of the product sometimes missed the mark, even though it used the same ingredients each time, leading to complaints.
Valérie recounted times when she was scolded by vulgarities on the telephone in the wee hours of the morning, or hawkers rejecting suppliers angrily in their presence.
“We would go to the hawkers stand and try to solve the problem. Sometimes it is a problem on the hawkers side and although they have informed them about where the problem is, they would not hear any of this, ”she said.
They then have “no other choice” but to let the customer go after them, because she is sure they “would always buy from. [them] as they have been doing for 10 years ”.
“Whenever we face a roadblock, we ask people for help. The most important thing is not to be afraid and to put your ego aside to ask for help, ”she continued, in a mixture of Mandarin and English.
There will always be challenges in any business and failure is inevitable in any entrepreneurial journey, she added.
From Hawker centers to shopping centers
Today, Xi De Li has many outlets and supplies youtiaos and other pastries to hawkers and restaurants such as Song Fa Bak Kut Teh, Long Beach Seafood, and Jumbo Seafood.
Under the siblings’ tenure, they began to franchise their business, and the Xi De Li brand now spans 60 stand-alone and franchised outlets in hawkers and malls.
Before taking over, they were only present in hawking centers as they were afraid to venture into malls due to the risks and higher costs.
Their first mall was unveiled at Food Opera @ Ion Orchard, named Shou Yi Fried Fritters. Basically, they sell the same products as their Xi De Li branches under a different name.
They also have two other Shou Yi Fried Fritters outlets at Jewel Changi Airport (which will be transferred to Tampines Hub after contract ends) and Food Republic @ VivoCity.
Under the guidance of the brothers and sisters, they have also obtained halal and ISO 22000: 2005 certifications.
As the business grows, the siblings have invested in machines for their central kitchen.
With production now divided between manual labor and machines, they no longer have to knead everything by hand. They can now produce up to 10,000 youtiaos per day.
With the increase in production, Xi De Li regularly rolls in the dough (pun intended), earning “a few million” in income per year.
Asked about their individual roles, she said there wasn’t much segregation of duties as “each of them does it all,” although Pathom primarily oversees plant operations.
“Each of us can deliver the goods, liaise with suppliers, do accounts, whatever. Whenever an aspect of the business requires special attention, one of us jumps on it right away, ”she added.
It’s a huge leap forward from their early days. Their father, on the other hand, helps train new workers.
Adrian’s wife, the regional workforce manager, said she felt lucky to have been able to hire “good, hard-working employees” who had been with them for over 10 years.
Surviving pandemic times
When shopping malls saw their footfall drop during Covid-19, Xi De Li closed its outlets in Ion Orchard, VivoCity and Jewel Changi for more than two months.
“We are fortunate to still have points of sale in colportage centers and coffeeshops. These haven’t been affected much, ”said Adrian.
When they reopened their malls’ outlets in Phase 2, sales fell 40%, with the majority of their customers being tourists.
“But it couldn’t be avoided. We just had to persevere, ”said Valérie, adding that it was essential to pivot and react quickly to change.
For example, they were unable to sell tau suan (mung bean dessert) because it falls under desserts, so they replaced it with porridge. They were then able to reopen their stalls the next day.
That same year, they also wanted to open new concept stores selling “fusion” youtiaos such as stuffed youtiaos with unique flavors to target young people.
However, these expansion plans must now be put on hold as they focus on keeping the business going.
Going forward, the siblings plan to continue their long-standing tradition of hand-drawn dough.
“If we don’t continue it, the tradition will be lost forever,” said Valérie.
She added that this line of work is not at all easy. Supporting blisters and oil splash burns comes with the job, but she doesn’t regret it at all.
Featured Image Credit: Xi De Li / Food Republic
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