Tan Hock Seng bakery prepares to close after 90 years – but a potential buyer awaits – CNA

Famed for its beh teh saw and tau sar piah pastries, Telok Ayer Street bakery Tan Hock Seng plans to close at the end of October. Over its final weeks, third-generation owner Tan Boon Chai gave CNA extensive access to its kitchen and revealed plans for a potential buyer to continue his family’s legacy. 
Third-generation Tan Hock Seng owner Tan Boon Chai and his wife, Yeo Ah Suei, at the shop on Telok Ayer Street. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)
SINGAPORE: Come the end of October, traditional pastry shop Tan Hock Seng plans to pull its shutters down for the last time. 
But the 90-year-old Hokkien bakery’s time may not be up yet.
Talks are underway for someone else to take over the business, third-generation owner Tan Boon Chai told CNA, although nothing is firmed up just yet.
“It’s gone on for months now,” he said. “To take over my business is not an easy feat.”
With the bakers’ painstaking craft and stubbornly traditional methods, it may not be difficult to see why.
It’s 4am in the central business district and it’s perfectly still, save for a sole lit shopfront on Telok Ayer Street. 
A lone figure is bustling around behind the counter. 
In the kitchen behind him, the furnace stirs into action with a gentle hum over the animated voices of bakers, slowly filling the shop with thick buttery fumes. 
At famed pastry shop Tan Hock Seng, the day has already started.
For the past 90 years, the traditional Hokkien bakery’s routine has remained unchanged: Open in the wee hours of the morning; meticulously prepare the tau sar piah, beh teh saw and other crowd favourites from scratch; bake.
Also largely unchanged through the decades is the shop’s character, from the little handwritten cardboard signs for the pastries to a payphone that takes only older coins, and the appliances in the cavernous back kitchen.
But boss Tan Boon Chai intends to pull the shutters down on the local institution, which his grandfather started in 1931.
“I have been here since I was 20 years old,” said Mr Tan, now 71, in Mandarin.
He grew up watching his father, Tan Kah Teng, make the traditional pastries that he had learned from his father, Tan Tiam.
“I’m the third-generation owner. There is no fourth generation. It’s difficult now. There is a saying that wealth never survives three generations. Isn’t that right? It is true for many trades. Few businesses last till the third or fourth generation.”
He added that his staff, too, are getting on in age and want to retire. 
“My staff have been pretty good for the past decades. Where can you find an employee who would work under you for 10, 20 years?  
“The man outside has been working here for 56 years. He’s been here for the longest.”
And with the shop’s lease ending, Mr Tan felt it was time to call it a day.
“I miss the good old times. When I was young, I had a lot of drive. I had the energy to hustle,” he said. “Now, business is poor. It is not as good as before. It may be getting worse by the year.”
He added: “People are eating less of our pastries because they fear sugar and diabetes. But such pastries must be sweet. If it’s not sweet, it isn’t nice. 
“So, the time has come for us to step down.”
With that, Tan Hock Seng announced that it would cease operations once it used up its stock of ingredients to make the pastries.
Dear customers , thank you for your continuous support and loyalty. You are the direct reason that our shop has been…
It drew snaking queues of people outside Tan Hock Seng every morning, in anticipation of each batch of freshly baked tau sar piah or beh teh saw – never mind that each customer was only allowed to buy limited quantities.
“When I heard they were closing, I was very sad because we literally love (their pastries),” said a customer who had been waiting in line for an hour.
“Every one or two months, we would come and buy them, and each time we (would) buy 40 pieces because I have to give them to my brother and sisters. Now I don’t think I can even get 10.”
Another patron who also declined to be named said that she worked in the building opposite the bakery two decades ago, and would frequent it for breakfast and tea.
“I was like: ‘Really? They’re closing? My God, I need to come here (again) before they are really gone’ – just to bring back memories of the taste when I was still working here,” she said.
Despite their efforts, some have had to leave empty-handed.
A foreign domestic worker was delighted that she had finally managed to snag some beh teh saw for her employers – on her third try. 
“I’ve come down three times (so far) – on Saturday, yesterday and today,” she told CNA.
But on her previous two visits, the beh teh saw had been sold out. 
“Then the (shop) auntie said to come earlier tomorrow. So I went earlier (today) and I queued up very long. Almost one hour,” she said.
“Today, I’m very lucky – I (managed to) buy.” 
Regulars who have patronised the bakery for decades also stopped by to say that they will miss the pastries very much, Mr Tan said.
“They said they will not be able to taste pastries like these anymore. I told them no, and that there are many pastries like ours that get imported from Malaysia. 
“They said those don’t taste good.”
Determined as Mr Tan is to call it a day, there is a potential buyer to carry on the Tan Hock Seng legacy.
He declined to name the buyer as talks are still in progress.
Regardless, Mr Tan plans to close the current shop at the end of October, pending the outcome.
But if the talks go through, he said he would work with the new owners for another year to teach them the ropes of the business, as well as impart the family’s secret recipes.
“If they really take over the shop, it would be great. It would mean that our brand name, our reputation, will live on and continue.”
But what would the next incarnation of Tan Hock Seng look like?
“I have told them that we want to keep things traditional. It will be better that way. Because that’s what all our customers know us for… Once you start innovating, it becomes different. 
“You wouldn’t use durian filling for our pastries,” he quipped. “They wouldn’t taste nice.”
But Mr Tan acknowledged that the potential new owner might feel otherwise. “Maybe they will innovate and make other changes. 
“But no matter what, these three characters, Tan Hock Seng, have to remain.”
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