Eatery with a cause expands overseas

Social enterprises usually find it hard to stay afloat while doing good, but a few have managed to expand and one is even making its mark overseas.

Pork rib soup eatery Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh, which has former convicts making up about 80 per cent of its staff, will soon see its signboards hung up in Indonesia. A Chinese Indonesian businessman has paid for the rights to start five franchise outlets in Indonesia, with the first to open in Jakarta next month.

With about 180 seats, it will be bigger than each of Soon Huat's two outlets here, in Bedok and MacPherson.

There are also plans to open two more branches in Jakarta, and one each in Medan and Surabaya.

Soon Huat is believed to be the first social enterprise here to set up a franchise outlet overseas.

Founder Jabez Tan, 40, told The Straits Times that he looked forward to his business expanding overseas.

"I am excited, and I am also encouraged that our business attracted someone to start a franchise, even though most of my staff are ex-offenders," said Mr Tan, who served time in prison for drug-related offences from 2003 to 2006.

While the Indonesian outlets will not employ former convicts for now, they will still be run as social enterprises - at least 10 per cent of the profits will be set aside to help former convicts in Indonesia and Singapore financially, such as paying for rent or their children's education.

Mr Tan said some of his staff do not have a home to call their own after their release from prison because of family members unwilling to let them return.

Soon Huat's expansion comes almost a year after Western food chain Eighteen Chefs became the first social enterprise here to start franchises.

Eighteen Chefs has five outlets here, including a franchise outlet in Dhoby Ghaut, but no outlets overseas so far.

Indonesian entrepreneur Samuel Santoso was interested in setting up franchises of Soon Huat after hearing about it through a Singaporean friend.

"Their food is a mix of Singaporean and Malaysian styles. I went to the Bedok outlet, tried the food and fell in love with it," said the 22-year-old, whose main business is in tin. His mother, who is helping with the business, has more than 10 years of experience in the food and beverage industry.

"Indonesians who often go to Singapore love bak kut teh. The Chinese community is always looking for something new and exciting to try, so I believe Soon Huat can be a big hit here."

Mr Santoso said he was also interested in supporting the cause of helping former convicts, but Mr Tan noted that social enterprises have to do well as businesses first in order to succeed.

"As a food business, our food quality and customer service are the most important factors. Food bloggers have given us good reviews," he said.

"When people like our food, they will come to us and then, after that, they can learn about the cause we support."

The 42-year-old administration executive said: "I won't eat at a stall just because it's cheap. But if it's cheap and good, and value for money, then I will."

This article was first published on October 21, 2014.
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