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Features 3 minutes 30 May 2019

Behind the Bib: Song Fa Bak Kut Teh

A dining experience goes beyond food - it’s about getting families to share stories over the dinner table, say the second generation owners of Song Fa.

While iPad menus and electronic ordering devices are now dime-a-dozen in most bak kut teh chains islandwide, you won’t find many of these at Song Fa Bak Kut Teh.

At the 50-year-old business, which first started as a push cart stall peddling their signature peppery pork rib soup along Johor Road, orders are still taken by wait staff in person - an intentional business decision, says its second generation owners, Diana Yeo and younger brother Hart Pong.

“We wanted to retain that personal touch. We still have regular customers from our father’s time who sometimes come down and sit down and drink tea for half an hour before they order. And when they do, they don’t order off the menu - they have their usual preferences, they just have to wave to our staff, who already know what they want.”

“Even as we grow, we want to retain that same spirit of service, where we can recognise our customers and their preferences,” says Diana. The chain now has a total of 10 outlets across Singapore, seven in Indonesia, six in China and one in Bangkok.

Another value the Yeos are not compromising on is their family-first philosophy when it comes to dining. They’ve recently introduced a kids bento box meal of pork chop with minced meat noodles and seasoned corn for those below six who may be pepper-averse.

Families also receive a discount when they dined in with all three generations on Grandparents’ Day in November every year. “Whether you’re 70 or if you have young ones tagging along, bak kut teh is food for the whole family, for all generations,” says Hart Pong.

Yeo Hart Pong, current second generation business owner of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh in front of their Bib Gourmand-rated New Bridge Road outlet. Photo: Nicholas Ee
Yeo Hart Pong, current second generation business owner of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh in front of their Bib Gourmand-rated New Bridge Road outlet. Photo: Nicholas Ee

Where:
11 New Bridge Road #01-01
Tel: 6533 6128
www.songfa.com.sg

Who’s Behind It:
Song Fa Bak Kut Teh was started in 1969 as a pushcart along Johor Road. Its founder Yeo Eng Song, 68, is the second oldest of nine siblings in a Teochew family, who picked up his cooking chops by working for a zichar stall when he turned 19. He opened his stall at the age of 21, offering a basic menu of pork rib soup and braised pig’s trotters that attracted a queue of regulars such as taxi drivers and families.

In 1975, he moved into more permanent digs: a split shift stall within a coffeeshop along Victoria Street, next to the site occupied by Raffles Hospital today. It was where his three children - Diana, 38, Hart Pong, 35, and Zhi Yong, 32, who he has since handed the business over to - first started helping out with the business after school.

“It was also there where my father started to think about branding, or at least an early version of it. He created a logo and started to introduce uniforms for staff - pink ones because they were an attractive colour - something that very few hawkers had at the time,” recalls Diana.

Hart Pong was the first of the siblings to join the business after graduating with a business administration degree in 2007. “When I joined, we didn’t have any experience. We were still collecting cash payment using a pouches worn by waiters, and had to learn to shift to an electronic POS (point-of-sale) system. We had to slowly adapt.”

These days, all three siblings run the business full time. Hart Pong oversees the day-to-day operations, Diana manages the corporate and marketing departments, while youngest brother Zhi Yong leads research and development efforts, such as introducing new dishes such as sliced fish soup and their signature ngoh hiang.

Pepper is the hero ingredient in Song Fa's pork rib soup, made with fall-off-the-bone tender pork ribs and Sarawak peppers roasted in-house. Photo: Nicholas Ee
Pepper is the hero ingredient in Song Fa's pork rib soup, made with fall-off-the-bone tender pork ribs and Sarawak peppers roasted in-house. Photo: Nicholas Ee

How It Got Its Name:
Song takes after the name of founder Yeo Eng Song, while "fa" means to prosper in Chinese.

“As we grow the business, we want people to recognise Song Fa by our brand name, rather than by our location, or as ‘the bak kut teh stall from Victoria Street - the way most people tend to describe hawker stalls,” explains the elder of Yeo's two sons, Hart Pong.

Each of their 10 thoughtfully decorated Singapore outlets has its own unique flavour. The two outlets along New Bridge Road, for instance, are popular with a foreign tourist crowd and therefore showcase shophouses of the 1960s, while the design brief for outlet in JEM mall takes inspiration from the drive-in, open-air cinema that formerly sat on the mall’s premises. Their Seletar Mall outlet pays homage to the former fishing village in the area while the Centrepoint shop is fashioned after the now-defunct Glutton’s Square in the vicinity.

“We built each store with the whole dining experience in mind; we want them to be venues that the young ones want to be seen in, and yet where they can learn a bit about Singapore’s history at the same time,” says Ms Diana. “We also hope that they will prompt families to share memories and stories over a meal.”

The interiors of Song Fa's New Bridge Road outlet are fashioned after 1960s shophouses. Photo: Song Fa
The interiors of Song Fa's New Bridge Road outlet are fashioned after 1960s shophouses. Photo: Song Fa

What To Order Here:
The bak kut teh soup, naturally, made with your choice of pork ribs, loin ribs and premium loin ribs. They are brewed till they are fall-off-the-bone tender in a peppery broth concocted with a blend of garlic and Sarawak peppers, the latter all roasted in-house.

“Pepper is the hero ingredient of the soup. We’ve tried peppers from everywhere from Indonesia to Vietnam but we found this to have the best flavour,” says Hart Pong.

Refills of soup are all on the house - but it isn’t just a matter of topping up your bowl with extra water. “Every pot of soup is prepared according to standard operating procedures, from the litres of water used, to the number of minutes it is simmered for. Consistency is something we strive to achieve,” says Hart Pong.

For a fully indulgent treat, complete your meal with long-standing favourites such as Song Fa’s braised pig’s trotter and pork belly, or offal lovers can enjoy pork kidneys, livers and stomach served in the same peppery broth. A recent menu addition that has quickly become a bestseller is their traditional ngoh hiang filled with generous chunks of prawn and a paper thin crispy exterior, tediously handmade in accordance to grandma’s recipe and flavoured with a proprietary blend of five spice powder.

Wash it all down with a selection of traditional Chinese teas, particularly the Bu Zhi Xiang blend created by heritage tea merchant Pek Sin Choon specially to pair with bak kut teh, or Song Fa’s King’s Garden Tea, a blend of chrysanthemum, oolong and green tea designed to be drunk hot or chilled, for the younger generation.

Song Fa's signature braised pig's trotters. Photo: Song Fa
Song Fa's signature braised pig's trotters. Photo: Song Fa

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