How 2 S’poreans Built A US$23M Taiwanese Street Snacks Empire With 250 Outlets Worldwide


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This year, Snack Empire was one of only six Singaporean companies to make it to Forbes Asia’s Best Under A Billion list with a market value approximating US$23 million (S$31.3 million).
Best known for its signature XXL Crispy Chicken, Snack Empire owns the Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks brand, which is a mainstay in the local F&B scene.
The group was selected for their consistent top and bottom-line growth, despite falling shy of the billion-dollar mark.
According to a 2020 Financial Times report, Snack Empire has grown its revenue by 13.77 per cent year on year with a 57.11 per cent increase in net income growth.
Currently, the group generates HK$137.99 million (S$24.4 million) in revenue and HK$20.23 million (S$2.55 million) in net income.
In this interview with Vulcan Post, Snack Empire’s co-founders David Tay and Melvyn Wong share the secret to their successful F&B business.
The idea for the Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks brand was first conceived when David and Melvyn embarked on an overseas exercise in Taiwan while serving their National Service.
During the trip, the two had their pick of Taiwanese cuisine at night markets, which ranged from finger foods and desserts to more savoury dishes.
Many of the dishes they tried out have been recreated under the Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks brand today, such as authentic Taiwanese crispy chicken, crispy floss egg crepe, handmade oyster mee sua, seafood tempura and even boba milk tea.
Immediately taken with “comforting and tasty” Taiwanese street snacks, the two decided to forgo a stable career and set up an F&B business after graduating from the National University of Singapore.
We decided to be entrepreneurs, strike out on our own and start the business fresh out of school. There was no turning back after that.
(Besides), there was an untapped market: NS boys who are familiar with (Taiwanese street snacks) would invariably introduce it to their friends and families.
The two are big on staying true to the authentic style of Taiwanese street food cuisine so that customers can enjoy Taiwanese cuisine without actually having to fly to Taiwan.
To replicate the tastes, David and Melvyn personally travelled to Taiwan to convince culinary masters to impart their knowledge and skills, and spent long hours spent in the kitchen to optimise cooking processes.
Recreating authentic Taiwanese cuisine alone wasn’t enough. The duo also insisted on providing the same kind of hospitality and care they experienced overseas.
In Taiwanese street food culture, there is a lot of emphasis in providing value-for-money and sincere service to the customer.
The emphasis is not on how much the brand can earn, but how you can provide the best for your customers at an affordable price point.
Only premium ingredients are used at Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks, according to the duo.
For example, fresh chicken breasts are used instead of frozen meat. Their mee sua is also hand cut despite machines being more affordable, while their egg crepes are custom made and imported from Taiwan.
Coupled with the desire to recreate authentic Taiwanese street food, the two were also intent on building an “efficient and scalable system for expansion.”
“Initially, it was very difficult to align (these goals) given our limited resources,” the pair admit.
As a result, getting started required a lot of economising. When the two first opened an outlet at Far East Plaza in 2004, they had to work around tight funds.
This meant being hands-on for store renovations, producing their own marketing materials, and even painting the outlet themselves because there was no money left to hire a contractor.
“From the onset, we received very high interest in franchising our concepts locally and overseas,” said the co-founders.
“We hardly did any franchise marketing over the years, and our overseas franchisees are actually loyal customers of the brand before they decided to take the leap to the next step.”
While Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks’ core offerings remain the same, their franchises adapt to diverse market demands.
This includes running adhoc promotions with a localised menu to appeal to local markets, and employing native marketing heads who have ground-up understanding of the local food culture.
By 2006, the brand had already sold one million XXL Crispy Chickens worldwide.
In 2012, Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks opened its 100th outlet and later expanded to the United States in 2016.
This year, the brand estimates that it has sold close to 63 million XXL Crispy Chickens.
In October last year, the brand sought a public listing under Snack Empire Holdings Limited on the Hong Kong stock exchange. The listing propelled the group to Forbes’ list, and has put them in a “better position to take on the big boys.”
Prior to the listing, the Snack Empire brand had been growing “organically” for the past 16 years, says the duo.
(We’ve) been focused on doing what it does best, gunning for process efficiency, and making clever use of capital to expand in an efficient and risk-controlled manner.
We also believe that by treating our customers with respect, remaining true to brand value, we can ensure customer retention and that will in turn allow the group to profit in an honest way.
The Snack Empire group may consider expanding into other business verticals by acquiring stakes in their partners, but the Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks franchise will continue to expand.
Currently, Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks have close to 250 outlets in four countries worldwide, with plans to expand into three yet-undisclosed countries in spite of the havoc Covid-19 is wrecking on retail.
“We will continue to seek quality franchisees and quality locations, and continue with R&D so that we can continue to bring new Taiwanese street food to our customers.”
Featured Image Credit: The Standard / Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks Facebook
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