Bean there, done that

Soya bean chain Mr Bean is keeping its customers going back for more as it refreshes its menu with creative new items.

SOYA milk and beancurd used to be traditional breakfast items typically found only in Singapore's hawker centres - that is, until homegrown soya bean chain Mr Bean came along.

It has upended the notion that soya should only be consumed in the mornings, with more than 60 stores in Singapore prominently located at MRT stations, malls, hospitals and more that do brisk business serving an extensive array of innovative soya-related offerings throughout the day.

But Mr Bean is not content to be just a household name in Singapore. In the coming year, it has big plans to expand more aggressively overseas through its franchise model, as well as to push forward with its new online-to-offline sales strategy.

It is also doubling down on research and development, as one huge draw that keeps customers going back for more is the creative new items that constantly pop up as the menu gets refreshed.

Loh Jwee Poh, founder and CEO of Mr Bean International, told The Business Times: "We might sell tau huay zhui (soya bean milk), but my people are qualified professionals. To prepare ourselves for overseas franchise development and to open more stores, we need to have a strong R&D team."

Currently, the company's research and development (R&D) team consists of five people who are responsible for imaginative offerings that appear each month, with products such as soya patty burgers, oatmeal, soya porridge, eggwiches, black soya milk and icy soya chendol to tempt the changing tastebuds of the ever-fickle consumer. One of its most recent developments on the R&D front is its soya granola bar that is a result of a collaboration with students from Republic Polytechnic.

Mr Loh explained that the central kitchen generates a large amount of soya pulp, also known as okara, that is left over after making soya milk. Instead of letting the soya pulp that is rich in fibre and proteins go to waste, it was commercialised to create a granola bar. That is now being sold at Mr Bean stores with plans to expand the range further. This is another way that the brand is keeping itself relevant by reaching out to the millennials of today and keeping its pulse on the latest trends.

Another area that Mr Bean is looking to move into in the new year is the e-market space. While delivery of its products is already available through its partners such as Foodpanda and GrabFood, one new segment that Mr Bean has entered is e-commerce platforms which allow customers to order online and collect offline.

For instance, Mr Bean participated in Qoo10's 10/10 online sales campaign for the first time to see if customers would bite. In the end, it clocked more than 20,000 sales transactions for its bundle deals - apparently one of the most popular items on the platform.

"The overwhelming response took us by surprise. We didn't know we could do so well online - all along, we thought of ourselves as an offline operator," chortled Mr Loh.

"Going online (to sell) is a trend, and we cannot escape it. We have to follow the trend to bring online customers to the offline store."

Even with Mr Bean's plans to move the needle on its topline, it is also intent on tackling a perennial challenge of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) here - manpower.

The company will be focusing on training and building up its workforce this coming year. It recently built its own training centre within its headquarters at Sims Drive, where new employees are equipped with the skills and knowledge required before moving on to their roles. Designed exactly like a typical Mr Bean outlet, it is also a test bed for the R&D team to try out the workflow of preparing new menu items in-store.

The investment in a brand-new training centre is a signal of Mr Bean's commitment to train workers from all walks of life.

"You come in to Mr Bean, I don't care how old you are. The most important thing is that your attitude is right, you are healthy, you are prepared to work - then we are prepared to train you," declared Mr Loh.

Currently, about 35 per cent of its 600-plus employees are over 50 years ago, with a significant proportion of them senior citizens and former homemakers.

He praised this pool of workers as being especially reliable and patient with customers because of their experience taking care of the needs of their family.

"Sometimes, they are reluctant (to work) because they have been at home for too long already," he noted. "But we let them start behind the kitchen, let them build up their confidence before training them to be cashiers and frontline staff. Some eventually become store supervisors."

With technology advances such as new payment methods cropping up all the time, Mr Bean is also making the effort to train its staff to keep up. It is certainly a challenge to train older workers, but Mr Loh said that the investment is worth it.

"They need a lot of encouragement as their fear is the first hurdle. But after training, they can do everything - it's a matter of getting used to it," he observed.

While the company is also looking to improve productivity by streamlining processes and embracing technology, Mr Loh believes that this must go hand-in-hand with being responsible with their people.

He mused: "We are a home-grown brand - all our achievements are thanks to our consumers, and that is why we must pay it back to society. If SMEs like us don't hire our own people, who would?"

Even as Mr Bean continues to run full speed ahead with plans to open more stores in Singapore and abroad next year (it declined to give exact figures as it is still in talks), it is clear that Mr Loh has no plans to take his foot off the pedal.

But he has also given the matter quite a bit of thought. Unlike many SMEs that regard the management of the company as family-only, Mr Loh said that he is open to letting professionals run the business in the future. Currently, his children are not involved in the business.

"We need to get out of the mindset that we need to have a person to take over my seat. I don't want to create a successor - I want to create a team," he said.

"It may not necessarily be my children. Professionals who know how to run the business is good enough."

But this is not an issue that worries him currently. "I'm not working alone. As it is now, I can leave the company for three months and it is still working perfectly," he said, crediting his management team.

"The system can run on its own. We are a traditional SME, but we are run like a professional company."