To be sure, this is a common scenario that occurs daily at the Yu Kee flagship outlet in Kim San Leng Food Court, along Bishan. At present, Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck has five outlets spread across Bishan, Joo Chiat, Ang Mo Kio, Adam Road, and Lavender. There are plans to open their sixth outlet along Beach Road early next year.
But the story behind this popular stall dates way back to 1954, when first generation founder Seah Teck Yew started hawking braised duck from a push-cart along old Yishun road. The Yu Kee brand, along with its recipe, was then passed on to his son and daughter-in-law, who opened their first stall in the now-shuttered Lakeview Food Centre.
This very first stall would become the playground for third-generation owner Eunice Seah, who recalls her earliest childhood memories picking glossy saga seeds and snacking on bai bing (a flat biscuit dusted with sweet flour).
Seah recalls how the early 90s' were golden years for her younger brother and herself. Then, their parents had expanded the Yu Kee business, with close to 30 outlets in shopping malls such as Lot 1 and Tampines Mall. Both siblings enjoyed material perks, such as being chauffeured to school.
But opening in the air-conditioned comforts of food courts presented a challenge. Says Seah: "Our cashflow was tied up back then. A lot of things like the suppliers and amenities had to be paid in cash, but the common practice was for the landlords to keep all the earnings for 45 days, deduct rental and then return the money to you. Because of this, cash flow was really tight, and it was very challenging."
The early 2000s also saw the outbreak of bird flu scare in Singapore, coupled with some bad investment decisions by Seah's parents that led them to scale down the size of the business.
It was around this time that Seah's youngest uncle began expanding his own braised duck business as well, bearing the same brand name — Yu Kee — and logo as his older brother.
Still, neither Seah nor her parents bear him any grudges. In fact, Seah shares that the family still remains close, often gathering during festive occasions for feasting and merry-making.
She jokingly points out ways to differentiate between the two Yu Kee brands: "Our uniforms are green in colour, whereas his staff are dressed in black. My uncle used to display the same Yu Kee logo too, but he doesn't use the logo anymore. His gravy is also much thicker than ours!"
The 33-year-old also has no wish to follow in her uncle's footsteps. Rather, her game plan is simple: Focus on Yu Kee's original DNA, and stick to doing what the brand has always done best.
"I will never get tired of eating our duck meat. I can have it every day," says Seah with a laugh. She also shares that each duck has a different thickness, and needs to be braised according to their weight and size.
"When the ducks are ready and we pack them to send them to our outlets, we make sure to only put four to five ducks in each vat, even though a vat can take up to 10 ducks," says Seah.
Keeping The Software
When asked where she sees Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck in the next five years, Seah pauses to ruminate on the question. She has, after all, been blessed — to date, Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck has retained most of their staff from nearly 30 years back, easily solving the manpower issue that most hawker stalls today struggle to overcome.
"Some of our staff are actually from our very first Lakeview outlet, and they have never left," shares Seah. "Our oldest staff member is nearly 60 years old. We also have young staff in their 30s who have been working with us since they were in their teens."
"There's so much talk about losing our heritage, but I can't even think about not having Yu Kee five years down the road," says Seah. "To me, it would be a waste to lose my grandfather's legacy, and I plan to keep it alive for a long time."