SINGAPORE: A slice of Singapore can soon be found in a prime shopping district in Tokyo as Bee Cheng Hiang sets up a shop in Ginza. It will be the first food manufacturer from Singapore to sell meat in Japan, which has strict food safety laws.
Its Ginza outlet is expected to open in late September this year, and is a dream that is almost 20 years in the making, according to Bee Cheng Hiang’s group general manager, Daniel Wong. The company is famous in Singapore for its bak kwa, or barbecued meat.
Bee Cheng Hiang has had to adhere to Japan's food safety laws, which are stringent when it comes to the source of meat used as well as the manufacturing process. This is especially so because Singapore does not have sources of meat, and has to import them, explained Mr Wong.
There is also the language barrier and the fact that bak kwa is something that the Japanese are unfamiliar with. The breakthrough was made possible with help from Government agencies, said Mr Wong.
"When it comes to importation, it’s actually a government-to-government level kind of decision and agreement. So there must be establishment at the government-to-government level,” he added.
According to Mr Wong, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) was the agency that spearheaded this. However, as the written correspondence was all in English, it took the Japanese agency more time to reply, he said.
However, Mr Wong said that with the help of trade agency IE Singapore, the centre director who is based in Tokyo could walk up to the equivalent of AVA in Japan and follow-up on the letter and the matter. It takes many rounds of discussions and negotiations before all this can happen, he added.
IE Singapore’s group director for its lifestyle business group, Lee Yee Fung, said import regulations are often challenging because food safety is on the top of every regulators’ mind.
However, in addition to meeting such regulations, IE Singapore also helped Bee Cheng Hiang to test the field. “A fair bit of energy is spent in letting the local mall developers understand the value proposition,” he said. “We helped them to do some pop-ups, in malls like Takashimaya, so that they can understand that this is a new brand and concept from Singapore.”
Mr Lee also said he hopes Bee Cheng Hiang’s success can be one that can inspire more companies to spread their wings.
"As companies think about growth and exports overseas, it's not just about the traditional markets,” he said. “Japan is one of those, they do have high consumption power.”
Added Mr Lee: “It's not a traditional market that companies think about immediately, but hopefully with Bee Cheng Hiang's success, we can see more companies think about the non-traditional markets. Even though the market could seem difficult, it's not something that’s insurmountable."
Meanwhile, Mr Wong shared that the company does not adapt its bak kwa flavours for overseas markets, after prior experiences of doing so in countries like China and Taiwan. “We realised that customers still prefer our original tastes. Since then, we have decided that we will not tweak our tastes for any specific market.”
Instead, the company offers special flavours such as mala-flavoured bak kwa, kimchi-flavoured bak kwa, or curry mutton bak kwa that has been developed over the years to suit the local palate.
To cater to Japanese customers who are known to be particular about packaging, Bee Cheng Hiang said it will sell its bak kwa in special boxes for the Japanese markets.
Bee Cheng Hiang's special packaging which will be used in Japan.
STRICT FOOD SAFETY REGULATIONS NOT ONLY IN JAPAN
According to Singapore Food Manufacturers' Association's deputy president, Jimmy Soh, Japan is not the only market with strict food safety regulations. For example, there are standards for labelling and ingredients to be followed in the United States.
However, strict regulations are not a deterrent for food manufacturers. Without expanding, many will not be able to survive.
Said Mr Soh: "Every market has its own challenges in terms of import regulations, largely dependent upon the manufacturers' product. Singapore itself is really a very small market. For a lot of food manufacturers like us, we have to step out of Singapore - the world is basically our market."
The association also works closely with the Government and the industry, to help food manufacturers expand internationally. For instance, it organises trade fairs and overseas missions to help member companies better understand the local conditions in markets outside of Singapore.