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Bao Makers interview: Pang Su Yi shares her journey of taking a restaurant experience online

21 July 2020

By: Adibah Isa

The little bao cafe that could. Bao Makers pivots in COVID-19 by taking their contemporary baos into an e-commerce revenue maker.

When Bao Makers burst into Singapore’s dining scene in 2015, they were lauded as the first ones to bring the trendy concept of modern baos to the little red dot. Riding on the success of fellow contemporaries Baohaus in New York and Bao in London, Bao Makers shacked up in the then burgeoning hip hood of Jalan Besar. Giving the popular Taiwanese snack a makeover, the family-run business filled the open-faced baos with local and international flavours such as chilli crab, salted egg, mala, and more.

From its humble beginnings at Jalan Besar, they moved into another food enclave at Jiak Chuan, and debuted in the heartlands with a cafe at Westgate in 2019. Gaining a strong following, Bao Makers earned TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for two consecutive years in 2017 and 2018. Through its growth, Bao Makers was always quick to move with the times, introducing grain bowls and sharing plates to their menu to keep up with consumer behaviour.

At its helm is Pang Su Yi, whose years of experience in marketing communications for hospitality, food, and beverage shaped Bao Makers’ branding and growth. Having majored in e-commerce marketing, it’s no surprise that this was the route taken when Bao Makers found themselves needing to pivot on the onslaught of COVID-19.

During Singapore’s Circuit Breaker (where restaurants were ordered to suspend dine-in services), Bao Makers shifted their operations to delivery and e-commerce. Besides delivering fresh baos, they converted their most popular menu items to Bao Kits, where diners can have restaurant-quality meals at home on their own time. Retailing on ChopeDeals, these Bao Kits (another first in Singapore) could either be picked up, or delivered straight to the doorstep.

Taking it one step further, Bao Makers also created branded insulated bags that can be reused for gifting, groceries, and takeaway. Throughout their journey, Bao Makers never lost sight of its brand look and voice, even as they moved into new menus, outlets, products, and revenue streams such as delivery and e-commerce. Pang tells us more.

Bao Makers has always prided itself on offering fresh ingredients. How did your restaurant’s ethos translate into a take-home, frozen DIY product? How did you ensure you were providing diners with the same standard of product and service?
We are still using the best and fresh ingredients, even for our DIY Bao Kits. We blast-freeze our products to ensure all nutrients and freshness are locked in. As branding is very important to us, we designed our box that is suitable for gifting and most importantly, keep our kits frozen as they are being delivered.

What were your considerations in planning which menu items would translate well into these Bao Kits? 
Convenience was key in planning the Bao Kits. We prepared the Bao Kits such that there would be fewer number of steps the diner had to take to enjoy the end product. We wanted our customers to enjoy their two favourite flavours in the comfort of their own home, which was why we debuted with Chilli Crab Bao and Salted Egg Chicken Bao. 

It took quite a while to perfect the fried bun for the Bao Kit. We were afraid that it would turn soggy after being frozen. To our surprise, it worked really well — especially when diners use the air fryer!Are there plans to expand the Bao Kit menu?
We’ve introduced two more new flavours: Belly of Pork Bao and Sansho Pepper Chicken Bao.

Since pivoting to e-commerce on ChopeDeals, what do you think are the benefits of a digital storefront above a physical space?
It would be the flexibility of adding new bundles, deals, and menu items easily. We can upload images and prices in just a few clicks, whereas a physical space requires us to print, which takes more time.

Now that you’ve reopened, what’s it been like juggling dine-in, delivery, takeaway, and e-commerce? 
It was really tough at the beginning as we did not know what it was going to be like in Phase 2. But we are thankful for our regulars and new customers who have shown their support in a really strong way. Our Box of 12 Baos and Bao Kits continue to be well-loved — we still receive orders for both gifting and dining at home in Phase 2.

Bao Makers tapped into their advocates and key opinion leaders on social media to promote Bao Kits. What were your reservations in putting an added budget into marketing and ad spend when cash flow was tight? 
We were definitely afraid that the budget spent might not reap any returns. We were unsure of how receptive people would be to our Bao Kits, because this was something new in the market. Thankfully, even some people who weren’t too keen on the Bao Kits ordered our hot baos too. Although sales weren’t too good at times, our brand presence was strengthened on social media.Looking back on Circuit Breaker and Phase 1, what were three invaluable lessons you learned that can go into a playbook for restaurants pivoting to e-commerce?
1. Be brave and follow your heart.
2. Adapt to new environments and trends quickly.
3. Read up on government grants to utilise them!

Check out our restaurateur interviews with Cynthia Chua of Spa Esprit, Loh Lik Peng of Unlisted Collection, and John Gamvros of Aesop’s Bangkok.


Adibah Isa

A digital and print journalist turned content manager for brands that believe in the power of storytelling.


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