Homegrown dough fritter (youtiao) maker Xi De Li is one of the pioneers of the youtiao and dough food industry in Singapore.
Now helmed by fourth-generation owners Adrian Koh, Valerie Koh and Pathom Koh, Xi De Li’s history actually dates all the way back to the 1920s.
Starting out as a push cart stall helmed by their great-grandmother, Xi De Li now runs a central kitchen that can produce up to 10,000 youtiaos a day.
Today, the Xi De Li brand also spans over 60 standalone and franchise outlets across Singapore, raking in a few millions of revenue a year.
The Dough That Binds The Family
Formerly known as Jing Wen Tai You Tiao, it started out as a pushcart stall along Chin Swee Road by their great grandmother in the 1920s.
Along with the tradition of hand-kneading the dough, the stall was passed down to their grandmother in the 1940s.
Subsequently in 1966, their father — who created the signature ‘butterfly bun’ as a token of love for his wife — took over the reins of the business.
“Last time, there were only youtiao and ham chim peng (salty dough fritters). Our mother wanted a version in the shape of a butterfly so my father created it for her. It was a profession of love for her and I think it was very sweet,” said 41-year-old Valerie.
The family then decided to add the ‘butterfly bun’ to their product line-up. To date, they have retained the original recipe and taste of the butterfly bun.
In 1980, they shifted to a Clementi food stall which is still operational today.
A few decades later in 2006, the siblings — together with their younger brother — took over the business and rebranded it to Xi De Li. The name is derived from their father’s name “Xi” and the English word “Deli”.
Taking Over Despite No Business Experience
In the early days, their father would be up at the crack of dawn every day to begin preparation and delivery of dough fritters.
On the other hand, Valerie had to wake up at midnight to mix and beat the dough, before making each piece of dough fritter by hand. She added that she often toiled away for 16 hours a day.
Older brother Adrian, who was then in his teens back then, used to help out at the stall after school. Even when he was serving national service, he would still lend a helping hand after booking out.
“I had to painstakingly shape each butterfly bun while Adrian had to knead, cut and fry 3,000 youtiaos a day. Imagine doing all that by hand. My hands would be covered in blisters,” lamented Valerie.
When the siblings took over the business from their father in 2006, they struggled with all sorts of challenges.
My older brother and I had zero knowledge about running a business. We were not much of students and dropped out of school at 12 and 16 years old respectively.
– Valerie Koh, Director of Xi De Li
They knew nothing about managing a stall or balancing accounts. They also found it difficult to craft emails “that usually take any person a mere few seconds” because they were simply not proficient in English.
They had to learn everything from scratch and face each challenge that came their way head-on.
For instance, suppliers doubted their capability and asked for cash upfront to pay for the raw ingredients before they were willing to supply the goods to them.
When they opened a central kitchen to produce and supply frozen dough, product quality occasionally missed the mark although the used the same ingredients each time, leading to complaints.
Valerie recounted times when she would get scolded with vulgarities over the phone at wee hours of the morning, or hawkers discarding the suppliers in anger in their presence.
“We would head down to the hawker stall and try to resolve the issue. Sometimes, it is an issue on the hawker’s side and despite informing them on where the issue lies at, they would not hear any of it,” she said.
They then have “no choice” but to let the customer lash out as them, because she is sure that they would “still purchase from [them] just like they have been doing so for the last 10 years”.
“Whenever we faced a roadblock, we ask people for help. The most important thing is to not be scared and place your ego aside to ask for help,” she continued, in a mix of Mandarin and English.
There will always be challenges in any business and failing is inevitable in any entrepreneurial journey, she added.
From Hawker Centres To Shopping Malls
Today, Xi De Li has numerous outlets and supplies youtiaos and other dough food to hawkers and restaurants such as Song Fa Bak Kut Teh, Long Beach Seafood and Jumbo Seafood.
Under the siblings’ tenure, they started franchising their business and the Xi De Li brand now spans 60 over standalone and franchise outlets in hawker centres and shopping malls.
Before they took over, they were only present at hawker centres as they were apprehensive about venturing into shopping centres due to higher risks and costs.
Their first shopping mall outlet was unveiled at Food Opera @ Ion Orchard named Shou Yi Fried Fritters. Essentially, they sell the same products as their Xi De Li branches under a different name.
They also have two other Shou Yi Fried Fritters outlets at Jewel Changi Airport (to be shifted to Tampines Hub after contract ends) and Food Republic @ VivoCity.
Under the siblings’ helm, they have also attained halal and ISO 22000:2005 certifications.
As business grows, the siblings invested in machinery for their central kitchen.
As production is now divided between manual labour and machines, they no longer have to hand-knead everything. They can now produce up to 10,000 youtiaos a day.
With increased production, Xi De Li is steadily rolling in the dough (pun intended), raking in “a few millions” of revenue a year.
When asked about their individual roles, she said that there isn’t much segregation of duties as “each of them does everything” though Pathom mostly oversees the factory operations.
“Anyone of us can deliver the goods, liaise with suppliers, do accounts, anything. Whenever any aspect of the business requires attention, one of us will jump on it right away,” she added.
This is a huge leap from when they first started out. Their father on the other hand, helps in training new workers.
Adrian’s wife, the area manager who takes care of the headcount, said that she feels fortunate that they were able to hire “good and hardworking employees” who have been with them for over 10 years.
Surviving The Pandemic Times
When shopping malls saw a drop in footfall during Covid-19, Xi De Li closed their outlets at Ion Orchard, VivoCity and Jewel Changi for more than two months.
“We are lucky that we still have outlets in hawker centres and coffeeshops. Those were not affected much,” said Adrian.
When they reopened their shopping mall outlets in Phase 2, sales dropped by 40 per cent as the bulk of their customers are tourists.
“But this couldn’t be avoided. We just had to persevere,” said Valerie, adding that pivoting and reacting to change fast is critical.
For instance, they were unable to sell tau suan (mung beans dessert) because it falls under desserts, so they swapped it to porridge. They were then able to reopen their stalls the very next day.
In the same year, they also wanted to open new concept stores selling “fusion” youtiaos such as stuffed youtiaos with unique flavours to target the youngsters.
However, these expansion plans now have to be put on hold as they focus on sustaining the business.
Moving forward, the siblings plan to continue their longtime tradition of hand-pulled dough.
“If we don’t continue it, the tradition will be lost forever,” said Valerie.
She added that this line of work is not at all easy. Sustaining blisters and burns from oil splatters comes with the job, but she does not regret it a single bit.
Featured Image Credit: Xi De Li / Food Republic