Four generations of selling youtiao: The dough that binds this family

Four generations of selling youtiao: The dough that binds this family

It started as a humble pushcart on Chin Swee Road. Now they've got stalls overseas. Xi De Li’s success for the Koh family is built on one simple rule: Never fight about money.

05:02
Where feuds beset other famous F&B families, the Kohs have stuck together like youtiao for 4 generations, amazingly - turning great-grandma's pushcart business into a modern franchise, with even stalls overseas.​​​​​​​ READ: Four generations of backbreaking work.

SINGAPORE: It’s a scenario that plays out time and time again: A family builds a successful business, only to fall out and feud over its fortunes.

In Singapore, such cases in the food and beverage industry that have made headlines include Hock Lam Street beef kway teow and Rochor tau huay, both of which have competing outlets owned by different siblings, each claiming to be the rightful successor.

It’s a potential pitfall that siblings Adrian, Valerie and Pathom Koh - fourth-generation owners of homegrown chain Xi De Li, Singapore's biggest supplier of dough fritters - are well aware of. 

To avoid it, they follow one simple rule: Never fight about money.

“Money is secondary. Family comes first. That’s what my father always says,” says Ms Valerie Koh, 37, in a mix of Mandarin and English. The middle child, she is the company’s managing director overseeing its operation and expansion. 

The Koh siblings, (from left) Pathom, Valerie and Adrian, at a Xi De Li stall. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

BACKBREAKING ORIGINS

Their father, Mr Koh Cheng Sai - a spritely man in his early 60s - has been hawking youtiao (dough fritters in Chinese) since he dropped out of school as a teenager. 

Work for him back then began in the wee hours. As his neighbours slept, he and his mother would make their way to Beo Crescent to set up their pushcart stall outside the market.

This was a backbreaking business passed down from his grandmother, a migrant from China who started the trade in the 1920s.

Just like she did, mother and son would spend hours every night making dough in the dim flickering light of the kerosene lamp - dough that had to be kneaded, left to rise and carved into the right size, all by hand.

Carving up the youtiao dough. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Frying began at around 4am, shortly before the first customers of the day arrived. This is the step that separates the mediocre cook from the master. 

To get the perfect fried dough sticks, some will say, there are many factors to consider - from the type and temperature of the oil used, to how long the stretched dough ought to be fried.

But ask Mr Koh the secret that makes his version of this breakfast staple famous, and he says with a throaty laugh: “There’s nothing special, lah. Everyone does it differently.”

Xi De Li youtiao. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

These days, Mr Koh can be found at his Clementi stall from 4am to mid-afternoon, six days a week. 

He moved his youtiao outlet here in 1980, running it with his wife, Madam Ong Soo Cheng, whom he married in the mid-1970s, a few years before his mother passed away from cancer.

Mdm Ong remembers her mother-in-law’s final days well. Despite her frailty, the old lady refused to stop working - her mind was never far from the business that made her only a few dollars a day, but nonetheless provided for her family.

She had summoned Mdm Ong to her deathbed. “Promise me you’ll continue the business,” pleaded the old woman. 

“And make sure he does it, too,” she added, tilting her head towards her grandson who was napping nearby.

Mdm Ong serving a customer at the Xi De Li Clementi stall. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

THE FOURTH GENERATION - AND EXPANSION

She would have been heartened to see him still carrying on the family legacy. Now 40, Mr Adrian Koh, an extroverted father of three, is the sales director of Xi De Li in charge of bringing in new customers. 

Today, the family company is the biggest dough fritter supplier in Singapore. They also boast no less than 20 franchise outlets.

Such an achievement was previously unimaginable to Mr Koh who, like his father, had little interest in his studies as a young man. He started to learn the youtiao trade at around the age of 15 after dropping out of secondary school. 

Factory-made frozen dough. The family company is the biggest dough fritter supplier in Singapore. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

By the time he completed national service, he was ready to run his own stall. The Tiong Bahru outlet that he set up 20 years ago is still there today, run by his wife. 

Unlike her elder brother, Ms Valerie Koh’s journey to take on the family business took a little detour.

Like Adrian, she started helping out around the Clementi stall as a young teen. “When my school friends enjoyed the school holidays, we would be working at the stall,” she says.

Then for ten years, she worked at another dough fritter company - one owned by her uncle, Mdm Ong’s brother. Her time there taught her a great deal about running such a business.

But in 2006, her father was diagnosed with diabetes and required frequent trips to the hospital. He needed someone he could trust to oversee the family business - and so, Ms Koh, then 26, returned.

The Koh family makes it a point to have dinner together once a week. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

In the last decade, with the two older Koh siblings at the helm, Xi De Li has expanded multifold. Two factories were set up to make frozen dough snacks and pre-fried fritters for food stalls and restaurants. 

“We cover about 70 per cent of the Singapore market,” Ms Koh says. 

KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES 

But up until three years, each dough snack was still painstakingly made by hand. 

Demand for their products was growing but workers couldn’t keep up - so custom-made machines worth S$200,000 were brought in to automate a good part of the process.

It was an expensive exercise that paid off. 

(Photo: Ray Yeh)

Owing to domain expertise like this, Xi De Li recently expanded beyond the shores of Singapore to Indonesia. And Ms Koh is eyeing other markets. 

My goal is to expand to places like Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand.

One of the Kohs’ biggest challenges is to entice younger customers who prefer croissants to youtiao, and customers who are health-conscious.

For example, Shou Yi - their more upmarket stall in the Food Opera foodcourt at Ion - was a cash-bleeding venture at first. 

Things turned around only when new items were introduced to complement the traditional snacks like the hum chim peng (salty dough fritters) and sesame balls. Bold additions such as Japanese sweet potato balls proved to be a hit with the Orchard crowd.

A selection of snacks from the stall at Food Opera foodcourt. (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Instances like this demonstrate the can-do attitude that the Koh siblings share. “What’s important is to take that next step and just try. Even if we fail, we learn a valuable lesson,” says Ms Koh.

Younger brother Pathom Koh, 29, who oversees the franchisees, believes the family’s secret to success can be summed up in three words: Give and take.

While their parents have no plans to retire just yet, they take a decidedly hands-off approach to the running of the business, focussing only on their own Clementi stall which they see as a duty to their loyal customers.

Their only concern is the issue of succession. Among the next generation - it will be the fifth for the Koh family business - 15-year-old Koh Jun Ni has already begun to show interest in pastry-making. 

Asked if she wants to join the youtiao business, she says matter-of-factly: “I will help if my parents want me to.”

Sisters Koh Jun Xuan, 12, and Koh Jun Ni, 15 - Xi De Li's next generation of youtiao makers? (Photo: Ray Yeh)

Source: CNA/ry

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