How HarriAnns turned a push cart company into a coffee shop chain

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Singapore is known to be the epicenter of local delicacies and cuisines. Even today, we still have many restaurants and cafes that offer flavors from the past.

HarriAnns Nonya Table is one such cafe chain that has grown together with Singapore over the years. This is a family business that sells traditional nonya kueh and other authentic Peranakan dishes.

HarriAnns has very humble beginnings as a handcart stand in the 1940s. It eventually opened its flagship outlet in the 1950s, in the form of a market stall located at the Tiong Bahru Food Centre.

Over the years they decided to expand the business further by opening their first ever Peranakan themed cafe in Bugis in July 2014.

Alan Tan at the HarriAnns Nonya table in Bugis Junction / Image credit: HarriAnn’s Pte Ltd

“We wanted to revolutionize the perception of nonya kueh and elevate it from an item found in a marketplace and considered very traditional to something more exclusive and modern,” said Alan Tan Thuan Yong, CEO of HarriAnns.

Being the first in Singapore to combine local kopi and kueh as a retail concept, HarriAnns has managed to stay relevant amid changing times, while keeping its F&B heritage alive.

Today, they have since grown into a mini cafe chain in Singapore, with outlets in Suntec City, Ocean Financial Center as well as Keppel Bay Tower.

A mother’s love in the form of a handcart stand

The origins of HarriAnns date back to when Madame Chia Nga Eng lost her husband in a freak accident in the 1940s.

To make ends meet and raise her two children, she relied on her cooking skills. Hawking her own sticky sticky rice and some varieties of nonya kueh in a handcart, Madame Chia could always be found selling these local delicacies in the Tiong Bahru area, rain or shine.

Madame Chia Nga Eng handcart stand
Madame Chia Nga Eng runs the family business / Image credit: HarriAnn’s Pte Ltd

Eventually, she managed to save enough money to rent a stall at Tiong Bahru Market on Seng Poh Road, which was a necessary step since peddling on the streets became illegal.

Ms. Chia, who contributed to the local food scene in Singapore through HarriAnns and whose love sustained her family over the years, died in 2019, leaving the business to her son and daughter-in-law Harry and Annie , hence the name ‘HarriAnns’.

Challenges over the years

Taking the reins was not an easy task, as running a handcart business can be very different from running a physical store.

Alan points out that a shopping cart business is mostly dependent on one person, while a brick-and-mortar store is highly dependent on traffic to the mall the store is located in.

“Many other factors also come [into] playing in a physical store like rental, labor issues, etc. “, he adds.

However, reconceptualizing a traditional market item and promoting it off the market in a mall was the main challenge for HarriAnns.

Alan, who was previously CEO of Certis Cisco Malaysia, points out that he and his wife Sharon have had to adjust to the rigorous hours of a peddler. Making nonya kueh and manning the Tiong Bahru market stall while building a team was a long and tedious process.

In the end, all those hardships they went through to carry on the family legacy and a dying business in Singapore were worth it. The originally empty space along Victoria Street has been transformed into a bustling walkway with the establishment of HarriAnns there.

HarriAnns Nonya Ondeh Ondeh Table
HarriAnns Nonya Ondeh Ondeh Table / Image Credit: HarriAnn’s Pte Ltd

Being a one-stop cafe offering all things handmade Peranakan from scratch, their food menu which ranges from savory dishes such as Chicken Curry, Nonya Laksa and Fish Soup, to local cakes and pastries such as Ondeh Ondeh Cake, Pandan Kaya Fudge and Pandan Chiffon.

These have been acclaimed by consumers, with tourists from all over the world also coming to try what they have to offer.

Along with their best-selling Ondeh Ondeh, Kueh Salat and Kueh Rainbow Lapis, their signature handcrafted Nonya Kueh remains the main attraction.

“We still, to this day, serve Grandma’s Sticky White Sticky Rice, and we’re one of the last grocery stores in Singapore to cook sticky rice like we do,” Alan shares.

Adapting comes naturally

Having a symbolic menu of Peranakan culture, Alan points out that HarriAnns helps keep local Peranakan culture alive in a “fast-changing world”.

HarriAnns and Singapore have grown and evolved together. Since the 1940s, we have amassed a clientele of discerning connoisseurs of local cuisine, customers who appreciate the artisanal quality of our Nonya Kueh as well as the value for money of Nonya meals.

– Alan Tan Thuan Yong, CEO of HarriAnns

Having adapted to the changing times, HarriAnns managed to do the same during the pandemic when closures were imposed.

Even though their sales have plummeted since they weren’t allowed to operate their catering stores, HarriAnns was quick to adopt online strategies such as advertising on Facebook’s “Hawker United” pages or streaming live to reach a wider audience.

harrians
Image Credit: HarriAnns

Alan recalls that they also took orders via WhatsApp even in the wee hours of the night and used group buying platforms to increase their sales. Additionally, they also produced ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook items to meet the needs of people working from home during the pandemic.

Since then, operations have stabilized, allowing HarriAnns to pursue other goals and plans.

Alan shares that in addition to developing a new range of authentic Peranakan ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook products for local and overseas export, HarriAnns is looking to expand its production space and move into a new central kitchen at Bedok Food City.

“We will continue to bring our good Peranakan food to the heartlands by engaging in more pop-up kiosks and we plan to open more Peranakan cafes in the heartlands,” he adds.

In addition, to contribute to the family legacy, Ethan Tan, great-grandson of Madame Chia and son of Alan, published a book titled “Happiness is Handmade – a Peranakan Food Legacy in Singapore” which highlights spotlight heartwarming snippets from the four generations of the Tan family that has helped HarriAnns thrive over the years.

Featured image credit: HarriAnn’s Pte Ltd

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