Interview with Ms. Yeap Cheng Guat, Founder of Cedele By Bakery Depot
by Teo Sok Huang on 28-May-2009
Founded in July 1997 and with the establishment of the brand name Cedele in 1999, this home-grown chain has expanded to 17 stores comprising of bakery cafes, bakeries and all-day dining restaurants. Bakery Depot has been advocating positive eating, attitude and healthy food, made responsibly and with great passion by artisan bakers. With its philosophy of “Eat Well, Be Well”, Bakery Depot has been creating nutritious and wholesome food, handmade from scratch with fresh and natural quality ingredients, without any unhealthy preservatives, trans fat or additives. The company has garnered numerous positive reviews from the media and public.
Ms. Yeap appeared sincere and self-confident throughout the interview. One can see her passion and enthusiasm in providing food of the best quality for the better health of her customers and the environment. Ms. Yeap was candid with how her previous working experience, family life and personal thinking have structured her business philosophy. Her dedication towards her company was evident, as she discussed her plans to further innovate and expand the business in Singapore and overseas. Ms. Yeap wants to take the lead in educating consumers on what good food is, and generating the interests of consumers in what goes into their food and how their food is made.
1. What is the nature of your business?
Bakery Depot started out as a bakery, which will always be the backbone of our business. Additionally, we bake for wholesale business. When we launched the Cedele brand, our proposition was to serve healthful meals. We offer a wide variety of wholesome, sugar- and fat-free freshly baked breads and have up to 8 different types of breads daily for our signature gourmet sandwiches. We were also the first to offer soups and salads made from scratch, which was like an innovation back then. Our vegetarian and meat-based soups are so hearty that most people would find that one bowl is sufficient. Our food has absolutely no trans fat and Cedele was the first in the market to introduce organic unrefined sugar in our cakes, pies, pastries and cookies. To date, we have 17 stores comprising of retail bakery, bakery cafe and all day dining restaurants. We are happy that we have provided an avenue for people to be given a choice to eat better.
2. When and why did you decide to become an entrepreneur / take over your family business? NOTE: If it is not a family business, ask: Do your parents have their own businesses too? Have they inspired you in one way or another? (Select appropriate question according to the entrepreneur being interviewed.)
I decided to be an entrepreneur as I want to make a difference and be free to express myself through my work. I also want to advocate healthy food and positive eating. My parents did have their own business but it is totally different from mine. Education was a priority in our family. My parents worked hard to ensure that their children received an education so that we can make a difference in our lives. My parents taught me virtue, life values, integrity and the value of education.
3. What are your reasons for choosing to do business in this particular industry?
The barrier to entry into the baking business was low. Also, baking is something that I have always done. Cooking and baking are very therapeutic and come as a second nature to me. So I went for cooking lessons and trained. Besides, I have an academic background and am strong in research, so I was confident that I could survive in the business.
4. How did you put together all the resources needed to start your business? For example: getting the start-up capital, hiring staff, doing sales and marketing, advertising, etc.
I try to hire people who are new to the business as they would not have any preconceptions. Also, you must first understand where you are now and what your business format is. I chose the appropriate marketing vehicle based on my budget and an understanding of where my business is. For example, television commercials may not be the best medium for a niche business like Cedele. It is better to find a medium that is more engaging and therefore, we have a website. In my first shop, I provided samples of our food for customers to try. I realized that sampling was one of the best ways to market my business, and calculated that it was cheaper than putting up an advertisement. We then built our customer base by introducing loyalty programmes such as loyalty cards or discounts. Communication is key and we implemented in-store communications posters and leaflets. Some of my thoughts or quotes even ended up on the blackboards in the stores! It is important to be newsworthy and have the press write about us. It is more credible for a third party to talk about us and this free publicity is a powerful vehicle for the public to learn about Cedele. We will also work with other organizations with the same ethos as us for joint promotions to further build the Cedele brand.
5. How did you go about designing the process? Did you have much knowledge regarding this industry when you first started?
I did not really have much knowledge about the F&B industry. I worked in real estate and telecommunications industries before. It was from an FMCG (fast-moving consumer group) multinational company that I learned a lot about business processes. I can resonate with the working style of an FMCG business. Thus I am very process-driven and would inject this discipline into my own business. Being in an FMCG company helped me understand and identify gaps in the market. For example, I noticed that people had to pay a lot for wholemeal bread and only selected groups could afford to buy. Thus I started a bakery business to make wholesome healthy breads more accessible to the public and sold at a reasonable price.
6. I am rather curious, why did you choose the name Cedele?
We started as Bakery Depot, which was essentially a bakery. When we first opened downtown, we decided to serve drinks and meals, alongside our breads, cakes and pastries. However people thought Bakery Depot was just a bakery and it would not be the first place in mind to go to for lunch. Hence we decided to use a different name – Cedele. It represents our retail brand. It does not have any apparent meaning but just sounds like Deli. We had to put a meaning to the Cedele brand in the initial years, as there was quite a lot of press already written about Bakery Depot. After 10 years of building the Cedele brand, landlords recognize and are comfortable with the brand. For the past few years, we have been positioning Cedele on a foothold emphasizing health, hence our “Eat Well, Be Well” proposition.
7. What are some interesting stories you have about your first few customers / first few years in business?
5 years ago, I met a couple who goes to our Frankel Avenue store every weekend. The husband liked to eat cakes and breads but could not as he was diabetic. I created a sugarless cake for him. He also inspired me to do a higher-percentage wholemeal bread and we now have a 100% wholemeal range. I think it is important to know what the customer needs. If a customer has special dietary needs due to medical reasons, we will try to provide a solution if we can at Cedele. Many years ago, I had a customer whose 12-year-old daughter was a recovering cancer patient and had not eaten a birthday cake for 6 years. I made her first birthday cake – a banana-bread cake – where I eliminated the sugar and ripened the bananas. She was so happy! She now regularly buys sugar-free cakes from Cedele. It makes me smile to be able to find happy solutions for my customers.
8. What were some of the challenges you faced when you first went into business?
One of the challenges would be getting the ingredients that we want. It was hard to get people to understand what I am doing, my philosophy and approach to creating and making food. I had peers in the industry who told me that I would fail and it was challenging to get bakers to work for me. For example, my bread recipes exclude fats and sugar.This was against the norm and many bakers did not believe that I could do it.
9. How did you overcome these challenges? Please share some specific examples of the action you took to overcome the challenges.
I did it the hard way by starting from scratch and training my people. I utilized my skills learnt whilst working in the MNCs which were useful in helping me to train my people effectively. I had to let my first baker go after 4 weeks into business as he would want to order improvers, which I do not allow. I also hired a junior baker, who was a cook but knew nothing about baking. Through training and mentoring, he is still with me today.
10. Can you remember your worst day in business or a time when you felt like giving up? What happened that made you feel that way and how did you triumph over it?
People do let me down, such as suppliers and stakeholders in the company. At times, we were unsuccessful in influencing certain people to join our organization or new workers from doing the opposite of what we want. I do get frustrated and start to question whether I should take the easy way out. However, I have never succumbed to such temptations and am clear of what I should do. I rethink how we should improve the shortlisting process and hire different groups of people. The solution is to hire the un-norm people, who have not worked in this industry, to fit into this un-norm business of ours.
11. What are some of your proudest business achievements to date? And why are they so important and meaningful to you?
I believe that it is the journey, rather than a fixed moment, that you can be proud of. Nevertheless, I did feel proud when I recently saw a local bakery truck carrying a label that said “No trans fat”. Years ago, Cedele was one of the first to introduce food with no trans fat, so I felt that I have made a shift by creating awareness and fighting against trans fat. You look back at your achievements, after a period of time in which you try to do the positive and right thing, and you see what has been the impact. Therefore another proud moment would be looking at how some of my staff have grown to be different and better persons compared to the day they first joined us.
12. How do you differentiate your business from your competitors? Please provide specific examples.
Cedele stands out from other cafe / restaurant operators because of our “Eat Well, Be Well” positioning and we translate this philosophy into creating and making of our food. We differentiate ourselves based on how and when we cook our food, how we buy the ingredients and how long they are kept. We continuously pay attention to our product quality and presentation, such that when a customer comes to Cedele, he knows that he will get a great deal, not of a low price but of quality and taste. Customers can be assured that our food has no trans fat since our “No Trans Fat” campaign was launched 4 to 5 years ago. We are the first company to use organic unrefined sugar in our products. We make our breads by hand, without using any pre-mix, improvers and preservatives, which are considered necessary in most bakeries. That is why we are artisan bakers, as we know what we are doing and follow the fundamentals. Our soups are gluten-free and thickened with only vegetables. Our cakes, cookies, pastries are handmade from scratch and we use organic unrefined sugar. We also buy diligently and responsibly. We purchase good quality and natural ingredients, with a focus on freshness. Our company has always been green. With a motto of “Waste Not”, we always recycle and order exactly to the required quantity. We also believe that we must give back to the society if we have an opportunity to build the business in a sustainable way. For example, our organic coffee is fairtrade and we buy from a UK-based company which contributes 60-80% of its profit back to the grower communities.
13. What are some business ideas you have implemented that created great results in your business or the industry as a whole?
I try to empower my customer with information, enabling them to make informed choices. I am pleased to make a difference and shift the thinking of people in their choice of eating better. Our all day dining concept was introduced in 2003 and it is doing very well. We were one of the first to make breakfast popular by serving a hearty breakfast, which is the most important meal of the day, at an accessible price. At our stores, our products have absolutely no trans fat. It has always been my mission to serve all organic foods in the future, and I see this as a natural progression for Cedele. We are one of the first to introduce freshly-baked organic breads in Singapore in 1997. Initially, there were not many organic ingredient suppliers and virtually no demand for organic products. However there are a lot of people buying organic products now. We are also the first to highlight gluten-free food in our menu. We have a wide range of gluten-free soups and salads for people who are looking for a low-gluten diet. Any small contributions matter and it may take awhile to gain acceptance, but Cedele has always been unafraid to take the first steps and make decisions outside the norm.
14. Can you share with us some ideas of how you maintain the high standards?
We have a buying department whose sole purpose is to examine the freshness of our ingredients and ensure the right temperature for storing them. Our storage capacity is small to discourage holding large volumes. My HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) team helps to enforce proper production processes to ensure that fresh quality, cleanliness and hygiene practices and standards are maintained. They scrutinize our entire process of buying, receiving, storage, production and delivery of our ingredients and foods. We train our workers from the start on the disciplines that must be adhered to. As we are manufacturers, we control the ingredients for most of the food that we make. Hence we are able to shortlist suppliers who offer innovations (eg. organic unrefined sugar, grapeseed oil) and fulfill certain prerequisites such as having no trans fat, artificial preservatives and flavourings. We work with local and overseas suppliers to deliver quality and freshness according to our specifications. We do not compromise on quality and freshness and if our specifications are not met, we will reject the entire shipment. The method in which we cook our food and the ingredients that we put into our food are also important. Again, we emphasize freshness and the quality of our ingredients.
15. Where or who do you get your business ideas from?
I build my business just from listening to customers who tell me what they need. I always design food by thinking about the impact to the health of my customers, and will not do it if it is not good for them. For example, our flour has no mold inhibitor preservatives and I was educated about this from a customer, who is the president for a club for children with disabilities. Through research, I learnt that margarine has trans fat and is cancer-causing. This was enough reason for me to stick with butter and exclude margarine from my recipes.
16. What do you see for your business in the next 5 years, and does it include any plans for expansion?
It is inevitable for a business to expand and the form must change regardless of which way your business expands. Our proposition is relevant in a Western country and may probably be better-received there than in Singapore. It is our dream to bring our business into the West. Cedele, as a brand, will evolve to a different form, if the market conditions are ready. Another of my dream is to have a group of entrepreneurs working for our company in their own divisions. Our future end-state is to be all-organic. We will also be moving towards more fair trade products. The costs are higher but I believe I can bring positive impact to the lives of the growers.
17. As you are currently working with mainly overseas suppliers, do you have any plans to work with local firms as well?
I do purchase from local suppliers currently. I would love to support and work with more local enterprises. However, it is hard to find suppliers in the region who are able to complement our business. I strongly encourage young enterprises to work with us and we will be very happy to share our thoughts and philosophy. Hopefully, we can create a positive footprint. We admire people with a sense of responsibility and reliability, and they are whom we can resonate and work with.
18. What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
I do not think it should just refer to a quality of a person who has his own start-up. It can also mean a person who works for a company and starts his own project, thus building ownership, creativity and thoroughness in the business. If they drop their ego, which is always what stops people in their businesses, they will succeed. It is about having a thought in the beginning and putting them into a tangible form.
19. In your opinion, what does it mean to have the ‘spirit of enterprise’?
Always think out of the box. Give yourself the permission to take risks and apply the processes that you have learnt. If you do not dare to take risks or only have a small appetite, then work for people but still be an entrepreneur within the organization.
20. Who or what motivates and inspires you?
My ex-company was an US-based multi-national company. It was a socially responsible company which gave back to the society. I had an ex-colleague who stuck quotes at my desk. 2 quotes that stayed with me through the years: One was from Confucius, “If you enjoy what you do, you will never work another day in your life.” Another one is, “The best ideas are usually found in the graveyard.” Many people have good ideas but they never execute or share them in their lives, so their ideas go to the grave with them. This is for entrepreneurs who want to do something but never did. I decided not to procrastinate anymore and drove myself to open my bakery business. Even if things did not work out, I could still go back to the corporate world and my resume will look better. One of my professors told me that we will probably not remember what we have learnt after our course. The one thing he wanted us to remember is the importance of research and to apply this in our working life. I am very lucky to have had many mentors in my life and I pay attention to the people I meet, how they can engage and add value to my life, so that I can be more educated. Education never stops until the end of your life.
21. Would you quit your business and go back to the corporate world again?
It depends. I will not mind if any corporation can engage my service and I can add value to them.
22. What are some of your business values and what would you like to pass down to others, particularly the younger generation?
It is our mission to impact our customers positively by providing higher value in terms of better quality food at very accessible prices. I made a pact with myself years ago that when the company expands, we will not cut back on ingredients: we would want to buy higher quality ingredients but at lower prices because of our larger volume. This will enable us to pass these benefits to our customers. If you have a regular customer base, you cannot take them for granted. You must respect your customers. They will know when you try to cut corners, so do not even try. Believe in yourself. You should learn the right skills as you work and they should become your habits. Be very interested in your surroundings. Be observant, hardworking, methodological and organized. Do the right thing. Do not venture into business just for the sake of money. Stay true and focused.
23. Can you share some of the more significant events / incidents that affected or shaped your business philosophy and the way you conduct your business?
The recent economic downturn affected us a little but not significantly, as we have always been very sensible with controlling our costs. Previous major incidents such as 9/11 and SARS did not affect us adversely. In fact, the reverse was true: it affected our wholesale business to a major airline. When the contract ended with this client, it gave me a new opportunity to focus and open more shops. I see every downturn as an opportunity. I have always been a healthy eater who exercises regularly. When my ageing parents became ill, I read a lot on nutrition to nurse them back to health. This period helped me to be clearer about the position of my company – to advocate “Eat Well, Be Well”. As our customers continue to patronize us over time, we will need to introduce product innovations with health benefits, to provide a solution for their lifestyle change. For example, we just launched grapeseed oil to be used in our cakes and at our all-day dining stores. Grapeseed oil is a better oxygen carrier to the brain. With grapeseed oil, we use less oil now, so less calories. We subscribe to the concept of “less is more”, and it is a win-win strategy.
24. With the changes in the market today, do you think it has become harder or easier to succeed in business? Why do you say so?
Change is constant. In business, you must constantly create a niche for yourself and seek opportunities. There is no such thing as the market being too crowded. The probability of competition is endless. There are a lot of ideas and opportunities in the food business.
25. What advice would you give young people who want to do their own business?
You should start a business that you can handle. Otherwise it becomes overwhelming and you have to give it up when it becomes too difficult. It is about awareness. I hope all young people view their lives this way: apprehension will always be there but enjoy the journey and do not be worried. Ask yourself what is your strength and build your career from there. Think about the topic that you can resonate with, what you can positively contribute to society and never waste time. Do everything legal and help people.