Occasions Catering: How a small catering business is getting ready to feed a larger crowd
Dr Christine Lee, chief operations officer at Occasions Catering with members of her food preparation team. This temperature-controlled preparation room doubles up as an R&D room where new products are developed through kitchen-based research.
Tucked away in the northern industrial estate of Senoko, a local catering firm of 70 employees churns out over 3,000 meals a day from a modest facility of 2,400 sq ft.
Encouraged by brisk sales, especially in recent years, the 13-year-old company hopes to expand its capacity and move up the value chain by developing new product lines for both local and overseas markets.
“We want to go beyond just catering. In the future, we are looking at exporting ready-to-eat frozen food,” said Dr Christine Lee, chief operations officer at Occasions Catering.
But there is one roadblock – for now, at least. The company has been finding it hard to keep up with surging demand.
“We have reached a bottleneck where our staff are facing difficulties handling the orders that are coming in,” she noted. “It is a problem.”
Occasion Catering is not alone in facing such challenges. Amid the current economic climate, many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have found themselves buffeted by a host of challenges, from rising competition to manpower issues and the big shift to digitalisation.
But the good news is that help is at hand for SMEs embarking on their transformation journey. A slew of government grants has been rolled out over the past five years to help them build new capabilities, upskill their employees, and go international.
To plan for future and bigger growth, Occasions Catering has been rethinking its business model.
“We are still evaluating how new technologies can solve the problem. But just knowing that we can tap on help that is out there is a boost in itself,” Dr Lee said.
Head Chef Kam Jenn Weng (left) goes through an inventory list with Dr Lee. A new enterprise resource planning system that is currently being implemented will streamline and automate processes from procurement to inventory management.
Getting a technological boost
A key pillar of the economy, SMEs contribute to approximately half of the country’s gross domestic product and employ around three-quarters of the workforce.
Recent Budget measures have given a positive boost to Singapore SMEs. To help local sectors keep pace with changes and remain competitive, the Government in Budget 2016 unveiled a $4.5 billion Industry Transformation Programme to support local companies, especially the smaller players, in transforming and being prepared for the future economy.
The Government also set aside $1 billion during Budget 2019 to increase funding for capability building and growth assistance schemes.
Occasions Catering, for its part, has sought advice and financial assistance over the last few years from various trade associations and agencies, such as Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and the Singapore Food Manufacturers' Association (SFMA).
It has also tapped on various support measures to further develop its capabilities.
They include the Inclusive Growth Programme to kick-start productivity projects; the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme that encourages investments to boost productivity (which is followed by the Productivity Solution Grant introduced at Budget 2018); and the Capability Development Grant to build internal capabilities (which is subsumed under the Enterprise Development Grant announced at Budget 2018).
In 2019, the company sought assistance from the Food Service Development Grant and acquired a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software and an Internet of Things (IoT) temperature monitoring system.
“With this ERP system, we reduce the dependency on humans to process all the documents manually. We will only need a sales person to key the orders into this system and everything will be reflected to different departments,” said Dr Lee, who is also the director of research at SFMA.
From the order information, the system will be able to calculate the amount of ingredients required. If there is a shortage, the computer will send an alert to the procurement department or place orders directly with suppliers.
“At the operations end, the workflow is more seamless as manual calculations are no longer necessary. Humans have the tendency to make errors,” she noted.
Meanwhile, the new IoT temperature monitoring system will help to ensure that a cold chain is maintained throughout operations, so that food quality is preserved. This is especially pertinent given the recent spate of food poisoning cases involving caterers.
Armed now with these new IT solutions, Occasions Catering expects productivity to jump by 50 per cent.
The company is also exploring other high-tech solutions to further raise productivity, such as automatic stir-frying machines and vacuum packing machines.
Notably, the company applied for the Productivity Solution Grant last year to deploy a point-of-sale system, which streamlines payment and accounting processes.
Introduced at Budget 2018, the PSG funds up to 70 per cent of the cost of productivity-related IT solutions and equipment. This grant follows the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme, which has expired after the Year of Assessment 2018.
Beefing up skills and quality
But deploying technology is just one part of the equation. Operators also have to upskill and be trained to use any new system. Dr Lee is heartened that her staff have been very receptive to the technology upgrades so far.
The P-Max Place-and-Train programme, launched in 2015, has helped Occasions Catering to better recruit, train, and manage its staff.
Ensuring quality in its food operations continues to be a key priority. The firm used ESG’s Enterprise Development Grant last year to obtain the FSSC 22000 certification, an internationally recognised accreditation for food safety management systems.
After all, as with any food and beverage business, food safety is not to be compromised. The badge of assurance would bolster consumer confidence in the company’s food safety standards, said Dr Lee.
Moving beyond Singapore’s shores
With all that help, Occasions Catering has been able to dream big.
By next year, their newly developed frozen cooked food and pastry products will be made available to food service customers. In the next two to three years, retail consumers could see frozen ready-to-eat produced by the firm in supermarkets across the island – and even overseas markets.
Dr Lee believes it helps that the Singapore brand continues to be widely seen as trustworthy and high-quality.
“The moment consumers see that products are made in Singapore, it gives local and international customers more recognition and confidence in purchasing our products,” she said.
When the ready-to-eat products are ready for sale, she plans to promote them at international trade shows – with help from SFMA and ESG, of course.
“The world is our market, not just Singapore.”