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How Killiney Kopitiam is evolving their heritage brand with foodtech

It was like walking into the past of Singapore as I entered into Lorong Telok, a group of restored shophouses nestled within the financial district, next to iconic Boat Quay attraction. Yet this area is filled with modern eateries, cafes and entertainment spots that seeks to attract the business crowd for their daily meals and enjoyment.

One iconic signboard stood out among the others. It provided reminisce of the good old days of the 80s and 90s era. In the interior of the shophouse stood the familiar setting of a Kopi-tiam, a traditional coffee shop found in South-East Asia. It was a dichotomy of sorts having a traditional setting vying against the upbeat modern setting of its neighbors.

In a timely fashion, my interviewee came walking down from the upper floors of the shophouse to greet me as I arrived. He was dressed very casually, unexpected of a man whom I would have assumed should dress up for the important role that he represent in his business. But that casual dressing belie the depth of thought and vision he has.

Woon, Director of Killiney Kopitiam, standing in front of a Killiney cafe.

Tien Yuan Woon, 32, is Director of Killiney Kopitiam, and the second generation of Woons who owns the brand of the same name. The first generation consists of his father and his three uncles whom painstakingly built this business to where it is today.

I spoke to him about his career, the evolution of his family business and his vision for sustainable future cities.

Started a career by giving back first

Woon is a graduate from the School of Business at the National University of Singapore. Instead of diving into the family’s main businesses in property, construction and food and beverage, he first started work at his family’s foundation, the Woon Brothers foundation.

Spearheaded by one of his uncles, the family’s foundation focuses on giving back to the arts and education. The family felt the art scene in Singapore was ‘very empty’. Woon further adds the point, “Singaporeans are trained to go through STEM courses (as these are practical skills). But art becomes neglected. Art has no barriers. It is our universal language.” He further explains the importance of understanding art which is the key to bridge cultural differences and bring different geographies together. Aside from his family’s art collection, Tien Yuan is also an avid art collector himself.

Part of Woon’s art collection

The Woon Brothers foundation currently supports a few programs. This includes cash prizes for Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) students for final year projects to encourage their artistic works, and a financial assistance bursary to full-time students in Singapore Management University.

While working at the foundation, Woon also honed his investment skills in art collections. He bought a piece of art and sold it for a good two-and-a-half times return within a six month period. But looking back, if he choose to keep it longer, it would have been worth five times the original price he paid for it. He shares, “Just like investing in art, one needs to be patient and have a long-term view in business. It is not just about making quick money.”

Changing consumer tastes demands innovation in food

While still working for the foundation, Woon has now also embarked on a new journey to help with the main food business. There are 35 Killiney Kopitiam outlets across Singapore and another 54 internationally. The business is mainly a franchise business, except for five outlets which the family owns. Woon’s main job is to develop a new division of new products using food technologies.

The coffee chain still draws and serve young consumers. “Customers want consistency, expects the same standards and quality of food and cooking in any outlet they go to.”

While business is consistent for now, he had noticed subtle changes in the tastes of his customers. He found younger consumers wanting healthier choices. Woon felt that Killiney will likely struggle if it does not keep up with the changing consumer preferences. Alternative business models were needed to grow internationally. This led him to consider working with foodtech startups, the first was Hoow Foods.

Engaging a startup to kickstart innovation

Hoow Foods founder and CEO is Yau Png Ow, who happens to be his primary school classmate and former neighbour. It was easy to reconnect and rebuild trust in the working relationship.

It was a timely meetup as Woon was seeking an improved version of their 3-in-1 instant coffee, but did not have an ideal solution to produce the required product outcome. It was also a significant point for him to prove to his elders and gain respect.

Left to Right: Woon, together with Hoow Foods co-founders Sherman Ho and Yau Png Ow

Together with Hoow Foods and using their proprietary food reformulation methodologies, a new recipe was created after a few rounds of iteration. This method was faster and his elders agreed the product was an improvement. They were so convinced they agreed to fund and build a new factory to produce this new product line.

Using this small win, Woon took it further and convinced his elders to invest into Hoow Foods, citing strategic synergies in the development of new food products for the business. It was also a first for Killiney to invest into a startup.


Taking on the family mantle and managing family dynamics

We talked next about family dynamics. Woon’s father and uncles wanted a semi-retired life. No one in the family wanted to manage the operations in the next business. Today, a non-family member is appointed General Manager to handle day-to-day operations.

Woon saw his father and uncles as key influencers of his life. “They were typical Chinese who do not talk much. I watched them by their actions. How they do things everyday and subconsciously learning. I saw their giving back via the family foundation, contributing back to society.”

Founders of Killiney Kopitiam (clockwise from top row left): Woon Wee Hao, Woon Wee Teng, Woon Tek Seng and Woon Wee Phong

I prodded him about why he chose to remain when the others have left. To him, in retrospect, he never asked to join in the first place. His father as well never wanted him to join. Even with a good brand name, there was this sensing the brand was difficult to grow bigger.

However, through his engagement with Hoow Foods, he realised the opportunity of combining foodtech and a heritage brand as the future of business.

Now that Woon has committed to managing the business, what weighs heavily on his mind is how to fully transit in the succession. He explains that while his elders are semi-retired, it is understandably difficult for them to cede complete control to the younger generation who has less business experience.

During this transition, any decision made has to be unanimous with his elders. It is a sign to him that a family is united. And through these little milestones will he see a full transition.

Creating a future of sustainability

Being a second generation business owner, I asked Woon on Killiney’s sustainable goals. He seeks to reduce food wastage and better quality food at a lower price point using food technologies.

He saw that the outlet chefs could waste up to 50% of the ingredients. If food ingredients were not used in a correct proportion, the quality of the product will reduce. Food wastage also drives up food costs. He envisions creating prepared food paste sauces/products which are processed centrally and used by the chefs. This in turn cuts down on food wastage and yet producing a consistent outcome.

Through the strategic arrangement with Hoow Foods, he also seeks to formulate new recipes that are not only affordable, but delectable with less negative impact to health. He sees this as a form of sustainable living, where consumers enjoy great food at affordable prices.

As we end off, Woon gave for his vision for Killiney, “I want to keep the brand as a family business. There were offers in the past for the brand but we have decided to work hard on it to further grow this brand name. It is harder nowadays to find a Singaporean heritage brand and I want to build Killiney into an international brand through the creation of new FMCG products.”

This article is part of the Sustainable Future Cities Series, where I interview the next generation of family-owned businesses and thought leaders about their visions and goals for a sustainable South-East Asia by using innovation technologies. Disclaimer: TRIVE is an investor of Hoow Foods.