Growing up in a confectionery shop, 45-year-old Lawrence Lim fondly remembers spending his childhood playing with dough and prodding the tau sar piah (red bean paste biscuit) his father made.
About 40 years later, his own children are running about the flagship store and stealing curious glances at the adults interviewing their father, who is the second-generation owner of Gin Thye, a traditional confectionery specialising in Chinese wedding pastries.
A Familial Business
Established in 1964 by the late Lim Bak Chai and his nine other younger siblings, Lawrence formally took over Gin Thye when his father was suddenly diagnosed with cancer in 2003, then passed away in 2005.
The elder Mr Lim had learnt how to make pastries when he was living in a kampung and for about 10 years every day, he would ride his motorcycle from where he lived to a market in Sembawang to sell his confectioneries, Lawrence recounted.
His father moved to Sembawang Road in 1950, and in 1973, a year before Lawrence was born, he bought a shop at Sembawang Road where Gin Thye calls home.
Along the same row of shophouses they’re located, they have also converted a storage unit into an air-conditioned retail space where it also doubles up as a mini café while the original unit maintains its nostalgic interior and facade.
It cost about S$180,000 to renovate the storage unit-turned-flagship store two years ago.
Lawrence decided to help his father out and joined the family business when he was 21 years old after he completed school and National Service (NS), and that was when he took pastry-making seriously.
He shared that he didn’t have intentions to strike it out on his own and didn’t consider career options outside of the family business as he felt that he didn’t have high academic qualifications.
“At that time, I haven’t gotten married yet, so I was still playing around. I faced little pressures and wasn’t serious about (taking over) the business,” he said with a laugh.
As he grew up with the business, Lawrence has developed a strong bond with the workers who have worked at Gin Thye since he was born, and to him, they’re like family members who have also played a role in bringing him up.
One of their oldest workers is now over 50 years old.
“A lot of the workers have worked here for 30 years, 40 years. So they’re like ‘longtime service’ (recipients),” he told me cheerfully.
Lawrence’s 75-year-old mother continues to help out at the shop and overlooks the business, and the rest of Mr Lim’s siblings have retired except for the youngest sister.
But to keep up with the new demands of the business, they hired more workers. Even so, Lawrence himself has to make deliveries and fulfil orders during peak periods.
The hardworking boss shared with me that their products change seasonally, but their staple Chinese pastries and traditional Chinese wedding peripherals are available all year.
Based on his years of experience, wedding season starts sometime in the last quarter of the year as it’s believed to be inauspicious to get married in the seventh lunar month (Hungry Ghost Festival), which typically happens between late July to mid-August.
The first three months in the lunar calendar are also off-peak seasons for weddings since it’s Chinese New Year and Qing Ming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day).
Over time, Gin Thye has automated some processes of the pastry-making, but Lawrence explained that for certain products, like cakes, kueh lapis, and log cakes, the layers and textures cannot be replicated by machines.
Had 7 Bakeries At Its Peak
Sometime in the 90s, when he had just started working at Gin Thye, Lawrence wanted to upgrade some aspects of the business like its overall image, in a bid to widen its market share.
While they have always sold traditional butter-and-cream cakes, the “volume of orders fluctuated”, so they decided to expand their offerings to include wedding cakes to complement their repertoire of Chinese wedding pastries.
“Back then, we were a very traditional confectionery. So the problems I faced at that time was that, when young customers came to patronise, they don’t appreciate Gin Thye’s wedding cakes, they could only appreciate the traditional cakes and wedding pastries,” he explained.
“As I used to work the retail part of the business, receiving orders and serving customers, I would try to convince these young customers to order our wedding cakes. It was difficult because they see our environment, our old facade, and our packaging design, and decide not to try them.”
In the 2000s, Lawrence decided to set up bakeries as he wanted to let more people know that Gin Thye not only sells traditional biscuits and pastries, customers can purchase freshly-made modern cakes and Western-style bakes too.
The first Gin Thye bakery opened at Bukit Batok about 15 years ago and business was “very good”, according to Lawrence, and they rapidly expanded to a total of seven bakeries in Singapore in a short period of time.
Lawrence believed that they were successful at that time because there weren’t a lot of bakeries then, and they kept their prices low and competitive.
“At that time, opening a bakery was a trend and I hopped onto it,” he shared.
“(I wanted people to know that) Gin Thye is more than a traditional confectionery, trying to get more brand exposure.”
But about three to four years ago, Lawrence said that the government started tightening regulations for hiring foreign workers and imposed heavier levies on local businesses to encourage them to hire more Singaporeans.
“On top of that, water, electricity bills, and rent were increasing. I had so many shops, and I sold my products at $0.60, $0.90,” he lamented.
“We thought that our venture has reached its limit so we decided to close all the bakeries.”
He went on further, saying that it wouldn’t make sense for the other arms of the business to keep covering the costs of the bakeries if they weren’t profitable.
“At the start, we opened so many shops and we were profitable. But by the end, we were making losses,” Lawrence said.
“We felt that, as we kept the bakeries running, it was quite tiring because we were losing money. Since some of the contracts were about to end and landlords wanted to raise the rent, we decided not to renew the contracts lor,” he added lightheartedly.
Worries Of Being Obsolete Prompted e-Commerce Move
Lawrence reckons Gin Thye is the largest traditional confectionery business in Singapore now, seeing that “not a lot of these Teochew, Hokkien speciality shops are left”.
“Businesses that didn’t upgrade have been eliminated… [having] been in contact with these shops and seeing their plight, I [make it a point to] evolve and innovate or else we’ll meet that same fate,” he stated.
He recalled the time when the bakeries were in a slump and they were winding them up when Peter, an employee, suggested that they try e-commerce.
While he wasn’t familiar with it, he had been observing and keeping himself up-to-date on the subject, eventually setting up an account on Qoo10 and “uploaded a few photos… to try”.
At that time, in 2016, it was Mid-Autumn Festival, Lawrence recounted, and customers had already liked the mooncakes they made so they listed them on the platform along with their new durian mooncakes.
“To our surprise, sales volume suddenly skyrocketed,” he shared happily, “[that was when] I tasted some success and thought, ‘Hey, not bad,’ we could go on to promote [our products] in that direction.”
With that, he slowly finalised the winding-up of all the bakeries last year.
As I have been a customer of Gin Thye before, I noticed that their online prices were slightly lower than their retail prices and asked Lawrence if it’s a tactic to encourage people to shop on their e-commerce platforms.
Confirming it, he answered, “It’s also like a service to our customers. We need to, at least, be true to their expectations that it’s cheaper to buy online.”
When Peter first made that suggestion, Lawrence told me that he wasn’t worried that they might fail, or rather, he wouldn’t deem it as a failure if reception was bad since they were only trialling it and their main business is doing well.
“If it sells well, good lor. If it sells bad, never mind lor,” he said candidly.
Lawrence commented that sales improved with each year since introducing e-commerce into the business, so they are focusing more on developing that front.
Gin Thye joined Lazada in November 2018 and participated in the Christmas campaign selling their own log cakes.
He described the response on Lazada as not bad and he’s looking forward to the upcoming festivities of this year.
Now, he has three capable full-timers to manage the e-commerce arm.
“One person is not enough for two platforms as it gets very busy,” he explained.
“They handle the designing, answering customer queries, the operations, and all that, and we help with the packing, fulfilling and delivery. It’s a lot of work lah.”
He thinks that investing in e-commerce was worth it and he has already seen a good return on investment with this move.
Monthly sales numbers from both retail and online platforms are about S$80,000 on average, and this number can double during festivities like Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival.
Make It Easy For The Next Generation
“Gin Thye was established by my father and his siblings and it has been in the market for a long time.”
“Our reputation is due to the strong word-of-mouth recommendation from their time. My role now is to continue to expand the product variety, bring up the standards, and improve the packaging – and just steer a little bit of the direction of the company,” he said jovially.
Lawrence attributed Gin Thye’s good reputation to its longevity, emphasising that it’s also the quality of their products and service that has helped retain and cultivate loyal customers.
On top of that, the low-to-mid price range of the confectioneries makes it accessible to customers.
He believes that if the reputation and product are good, people will naturally recommend it to others and the business doesn’t have to spend a lot on advertising.
Since embarking on the e-commerce journey, Lawrence shared that Gin Thye sees more young people patronise the shop despite its “ulu-ulu” location.
“Even aunties and uncles have become more tech-savvy, taking out their phones to redeem their orders [from us],” he chuckled.
A part of Gin Thye’s orders come from temples in Singapore, Lawrence told me.
“Actually Singaporeans are still very much traditional as they continue to preserve the praying rituals of their cultures, so we also provide for them.”
If there are young people who want to prepare for an upcoming Taoist or Buddhist festivity, he said they can ask anyone at Gin Thye on what to do and what to buy for these festivities.
When asked about Gin Thye’s succession plans, he shared that his siblings, a younger brother who is a pilot in the Air Force and a younger sister who works at a “big company”, “don’t like this type of work” as they find it “very tiring” due to the long working hours.
“Well, I’ll see how it goes. Since I have kids, I’ll wait for them to grow up and let them decide,” he contemplated.
This way, he continued, it’ll be easier and less complicated for him to pass the baton to them, if not they wouldn’t even consider, seeing that the work is so tough.
He added, “This is one of the problems traditional businesses face. Because they don’t change or innovate, when their children see that situation, they are intimidated by the thought of having to work so hard.”
The humble businessman hopes that Gin Thye will become a one-stop shop for couples of every dialect looking to get accessories for the traditional dowry, like the matrimonial bedside lamp, tea set, baby’s bathtub, among others, as well as wedding pastries.
Besides improving on and bolstering the e-commerce business, Lawrence also plans to brush up on providing better customer service because he believes that it’s important for Gin Thye’s growth.
Logistics is also an important aspect of the business he wants to boost too.
“I’m only 45 years old this year, I believe that I can continue to work here for another 30 or 40 years just like my mother.”
“I hope I can continue [Gin Thye’s legacy] until it’s in its 90s or even until it’s 100 years old!” he cheered.
“In the next three to five years, [I hope we] can jiak ga liao (dominate the market) in e-commerce,” he added with a laugh.
I’d like to thank the warm and friendly Lawrence for taking time to do this interview.
Featured Image Credit: Ryan Lim