Keen to maintain standards, egg tart institution Tong Heng is reluctant to expand

CONTRARY to what most successful businesses might do, Tong Heng is reluctant to expand, be it within Singapore or beyond local shores. 

When asked about her plans for Tong Heng, Ana Fong, the brand's fourth generation owner, said: "Not expansion, at least not for the next couple of years - maybe not at all."

Known for its egg tarts, Tong Heng is one of Singapore's oldest pastry shops, having started out in as early as the 1920s as a pushcart hawking pastries and drinks. In 1935, Fong Chee Heng, Ms Fong's great-grandfather, opened Tong Heng's first shop in Chinatown, where it still stands. 

Today, the business has only one other outlet - at Jurong Point Mall - despite having operated for decades. 

Ms Fong currently manages Tong Heng with two of her aunts. Her two brothers, both of whom are younger than her, also help out with the business. 

She tells us how she came to join the family business, and why Tong Heng is gun-shy about expansion.  

What made you take on the family business?

Well, I grew up with this brand, starting from going down to the shop in Chinatown with my parents on weekends to visit my  grandparents. Then when I was old enough to work, my grandma would ask me to help during the festive seasons. 

Over the years, I would work full time at Tong Heng for two to three years, then work elsewhere for another few years. This pattern went on for a while, until I decided - about eight or nine years ago - to commit to working at Tong Heng. 

It took me more than a year to make the decision because I knew that it would involve taking on a lot of responsibility, and that I would likely lose my social life.

But I decided on it anyway, because my bosses - my paternal aunts - were single and getting on in their years. There was also no one else in the family who had picked up the pastry making skills. To do something well, my aunts believe in being hands-on and in being able to do the work from scratch. 

How were the starting years like? 

The initial three to four years weren't easy at all. I needed my bosses to trust that I could do the job properly and take on responsibilities.  I also had to earn the trust and respect of the workers, from those in retail to production, many of whom have been with us for over a decade.

What are some of the skills that you have had to develop and that you think are most crucial to your role? 

Soft skills, like being self-aware or sensitive when dealing with people, from difficult customers to colleagues. 

Diligence is also very important. Patience, I'm still working on it.

What do you think was your worst bet for the company? 

I don’t think I have any - I take them as lessons learned.

And your best? 

Giving the flagship store and brand a fresh, new look that, at the same time, does not turn our long-time customers off. 

What plans do you have for Tong Heng? 

Not expansion, at least not for the next couple of years - maybe not at all. Firstly, it's quite easy getting around Singapore, so I would think our current stores are quite accessible. 

We also have to make sure that our standards are maintained. When there are too many units, it's not easy to manage them altogether. It's like if you take too many subjects in school. 

It's the same thinking when it comes to expanding overseas. Franchising the business is definitely out, although we won't rule out exporting our products. If that does happen, pastries for export will have to be produced out of our central kitchen so that we can maintain the standards. 

As for succession, I'm single, and my nieces and nephews are still too young.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far, and why?  

That Tong Heng's revamp has been accepted and welcomed by both new and regular customers. 

When you are not working hard in the office, where are you to be found? 

Out of Singapore - probably travelling, diving or trekking. I'm also involved in community work like building houses for the less fortunate in developing countries.