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From pushcart to franchise chain

FAMILY BUSINESS: Xi De Li managing director Valerie Koh with her company's signature dough fritters. The home-grown food manufacturer, which sells traditional snacks, is run by the fourth generation of the founding family.


    Mar 12, 2014

    From pushcart to franchise chain

    IT ALL began with a pushcart in the 1920s.

    Now, dough fritter store Xi De Li is a 20-outlet chain - thanks to family.

    The franchise business - which has since diversified to sell other food items like goreng pisang (battered fried bananas), ham chim peng (flat dough fritters) and tau suan (mung bean dessert) - started off as a small pushcart stall in Chin Swee Road run by managing director Valerie Koh's great grandmother.

    It sold only dough fritters back then. At 5 cents per fritter, trade was meagre.

    "She earned only a few dollars a day," said Ms Koh.

    Her grandmother took over the business in the 1940s. In the 1970s, the family opened their first brick-and-mortar stall in a Clementi hawker centre, with Ms Koh's father taking over the store after the grandmother died.

    Ms Koh started helping out at the age of nine, and dropped out of school to run the business at the tender age of 16 when her father was diagnosed with diabetes.

    "He seemed to be suffering, and I wasn't doing well in school anyway," said the bubbly 34-year-old, who failed her N levels. "All I really wanted to do then was to help out at the store."

    But work, she said, was gruelling.

    For years, she woke up at midnight to mix and knead the dough, mould them into fritters and pop them into the fridge to set. She was up again at the break of dawn to fry them in large oil-filled woks in time for the morning work crowd.

    Then she hit the shop floor and - with the help of her two brothers and, occasionally, her mother - she would start selling fritters at 15 cents each - the going price in the 1980s.

    In 2006, Ms Koh, together with her siblings, decided to explore the idea of expansion. But to do that, they needed a brand and a more efficient way of making and transporting the fritters.

    They renamed the store Xi De Li, after their father's name, Xi, and the English word "Deli". They also started tinkering with the concept of frozen dough fritters - the solution that would put an end to bleary-eyed mornings and delivery kinks.

    When they started franchising their outlets, they opened a central kitchen to make and supply the frozen fritters - these could last a week.

    "We didn't need to wake up early every day and this model also kept the quality the same," Ms Koh told MyPaper.

    The chain has about 20 outlets in hawker centres and foodcourts here. They also supply enough raw dough to make 120,000 fritters to other stores daily.

    Her elder brother also started marketing the fritters to other food outlets - like bak kut teh, porridge and rojak stores.

    The store also started selling soya bean milk and a range of self-invented fritter products, like glutinous-rice ham chim peng.

    The chain, which turns a profit of more than $20,000 a month, hires 50 staff members.

    Ms Koh, who drives a BMW Five Series and lives with her mother in a five-room flat in Tiong Bahru, is working on a healthier version of dough fritter. She is tinkering with recipes for gluten-free and baked dough fritter, but has yet to discover a good one.

    "It's going to be challenging," she said with a laugh, adding that she eats dough fritters every day to make sure the quality is upheld. "But I love experiments."

    The next frontier? Overseas expansion to the United States or Britain, where she plans to market the product as "Chinese croissant".

    Does she regret her decision to quit school?

    Never, said Ms Koh, who is not married.

    "It's a family business. If we, the younger generation, did not continue it, no one would be doing it," she said in Mandarin. "Making you tiao (dough fritter) is a dying trade."