Every day, Pang Gek Teng (or Gek, as she prefers to be called) travels between her home in Tanah Merah and Joo Koon.
Gek is the owner of Australian specialty coffee and grocer Surrey Hills Grocer, which opened earlier this year.
More specifically, the grocery store is located just opposite the SAFTI Military Institute.
To me, it’s the Wild West – uninhabited, only men and women roamed there out of function or obligation.
But for Gek, the drive is part of the experience, as every visit to a farm begins with a drive.
“I literally brought my five years of Melbourne memories back to Singapore with this store.”
An “experiential” café-grocery
My trip to Surrey Hills Grocer was definitely an experience. A 40 minute experience with the taxi driver and me doubting if we were going in the right direction.
The grocer is inside the D’Arena leisure center, which at first glance looks a lot like a ghost town on a Friday afternoon.
But as the taxi pulls up, I see the warm lights of the patio and people sipping their coffee outdoors.
Location aside, the cafe part of the grocer seems abnormally crowded for a weekday afternoon.
“During lunch on weekends, the waiting time was two to three hours,” says Gek. It’s the usual crowd for a Friday.
“It’s now been about an hour since we added more seats.”
The Surrey Hills Grocer cafe has been hugely popular with coffee-loving Singaporeans and westerners alike, with its charming ambience reminiscent of Australian cafes.
There’s even a special scent used in the grocery store, with fragrant notes of Australian flowers, to carry customers down.
Coffee, the most important element of any Aussie-style cafe, comes from Proud Mary Coffee, a Melbourne brand.
In fact, says Gek, nearly all of the ingredients used on the menu are sourced from their grocer, sourced directly from Australian farms.
The signature menu item is the ubiquitous avocado toast, or “Avo”, a nod to Australian slang for avocado.
“It’s my favorite dish,” Gek says after Avo arrives on our table.
Two large slices of bread with four globes of mashed avocado (Australian, Gek hastens to add) stare at me.
“It’s a simple dish, but it takes the most effort to be good. I think it’s a dish that represents the freshness of the grocer.
Coffee was the backup plan, grocer was the main business idea
Gek is likely a poster child for mid-career switches who gave up their 9-5 jobs in pursuit of undefeated paths.
Leaving her steady job as a banker to become an entrepreneur, she started and sold two business ventures before moving into Surrey Hills Grocer.
As a student, Gek had embarked on Newcastle University’s Bachelor of Commerce program with PSB Academy, eventually transferring her studies to the Australian university’s campus to complete her final year in Melbourne.
When Gek sold the first business venture she had started after quitting her job as a banker, Gek returned to Melbourne.
To fund her stay, she started a home-based bento business, sourcing fresh produce from farms in Melbourne.
I ask why she didn’t just buy her ingredients from a supermarket.
“I’ve always been interested in knowing the stories behind the farms and their products,” Gek replies.
Eventually, his home-based bento business grew into three brick-and-mortar stores, which were sold in late 2019 to a larger organization that could take the business forward.
By then, Gek had established relationships with farmers in Melbourne and had fallen in love with Australian agricultural products.
Back in Singapore in 2021, she had only one thing in mind: to bring the Australian agricultural products she loves.
“The cafe had to attract people,” says Gek, referring to the grocer’s remote location.
“That was the backup plan. And there would be no wasted food from the grocer either.
Australian products straight from the source
“Did you ever think when you were in college that you would become a grocer?” I ask.
The answer is no, of course.
As a student of both PSB Academy and Newcastle University, she says the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds has opened her mind to possibilities beyond what she knew.
Opportunity is also what drove her to start Surrey Hills Grocer in the first place.
“You drive here, you see produce that you can’t see unless you’re on a farm in Australia.” Geek explains.
So what about the reality of consumerism?
Did she really think her business would take off, opening an Australian specialty grocery store in the Wild West of Singapore and rivaling the big name supermarkets?
“My friends were all asking me if I was sure what I was doing,” she says.
But Gek is able to keep prices competitive at the grocer, as they import produce directly from its network of small Australian farms.
There is no middleman involved.
With this direct import strategy, Gek says it can and tries to cover all the grocer’s budgets.
She also says that for some fruit products, Surrey Hills prices are comparable even to those in large supermarkets.
“I talk directly to farmers. They tell me the best way to bring their products. When I place the products in the store, I send them photos. They are always excited and find it amazing,” Gek happily shares.
And because it works with small farms that don’t produce the volume that would attract supermarket brands, some of Surrey Hills Grocer’s products are exclusive.
Of course, the cafe definitely did its job of attracting customers.
Selling the Australian experience
We discuss how the business has evolved since its launch, and Gek shares that Singaporeans have a preference for fast service – a change for her, compared to the relaxed attitudes of most Australians.
But Gek has also received a lot of customer support, and the company already has healthy 6-figure sales.
There are plans to expand Surrey Hills Grocer beyond the Wild West.
“We would like to be closer to everyone across the island. I am an optimist at heart. I have the right team now,” she said.
At this point in her life, Gek knows she can take Surrey Hills Grocer to the next level, without having to sell the business.
Beyond Australian products, Gek is fully aware that Surrey Hills Grocer also sells the experience of being and living in Australia.
“Singaporeans crave a place to travel.”
Every visit to a farm begins with a drive.
All photos courtesy of Gek.
This PSB Academy sponsored article made the writer wish she had a good business idea.