Tension, arguments & admiration: NTU grad, 23, starts bubble tea & pastry business with mum

It's a bumpy journey.

Fasiha Nazren | June 23, 10:13 pm


Starting a business is not small feat — especially for a fresh grad with no relevant degree or experience.

But that is exactly Wee Kim Wee graduate Jia Jia Phua (or JJ, as she is known) did.

With her mother, no less.

Phua is the 23-year-old general manager of Lalune Singapore while her mother, Jasmine Lim, is the cafe’s head of directors.

Photo courtest of JJ Phua

Tucked in a small corner of [email protected]’s B3 level, Lalune is a food and beverage (F&B) kiosk that pairs the now ubiquitous bubble tea with a variety of croissants.

Photo by Mandy How
Photo by Mandy How

Lalune has two other branches in Shanghai, although the one in Singapore is the master franchise.

“It looks simple, right, doing cashiering?”

While Phua and Lim had no prior experience in the F&B scene, stepping into the business industry is an especially bold move on Phua’s part as she was not business-trained at all.

As a matter of fact, Phua recently graduated from Nanyang Technological University where she majored in communications, which is an entirely different ball game.

But that didn’t stop her from hopping onboard when her mother offered her the career opportunity. .

“I know that if I didn’t take this opportunity, I’ll go back wondering: ‘Why didn’t I take this?’ It’s not going to be easy, but if it does succeed, I can give a pat on my back knowing that I was a part of this success.”

However, not having the experience of manning a shop proved to be a big challenge for Phua.

Still wet behind her ears, all her operational duties came as a culture shock to her in the earlier days of her employment.

“I didn’t realise how much effort goes into opening a shop. It looks simple, right, doing cashiering? But if the terminal goes wrong, who do we call? How much bread do we have to bake today? How much pearls are we supposed to cook? I had to figure all of this out mostly through trial and error.”

Mum and mentor

However, she considers herself lucky for having a mentor in her mother.

On top of serving her role in Lalune, Lim is also in the business of supplying supermarkets for close to 10 years.

Beaming with pride, Phua shared that her mother is a “great businesswoman” who would share with her the tips and tricks of the trade ever so often.

Photo courtesy of JJ Phua

Besides, she sees it as a plus collaborating her modern marketing acumen together with her mother’s tried-and-tested entrepreneurial ways.

“She has the traditional business methods while I have the newer marketing sense. Together, I think we make a better team.”

Reality of self-employment

As the general manager of Lalune, Phua typically works from home and comes up with marketing ideas for the business while also handling the operations and logistics aspect of the business.

Occasionally, the team player does go down to the shop to tend the store when they’re short on manpower.

Their job scope may sound leisurely to some, but that’s far from the reality.

“This is one of the perks of being self-employed because we don’t have a fixed schedule to follow but at the same time, we’re working almost 24/7 because we’re always thinking of how to elevate the business.”

Phua shares that she was a little angry at first whenever her mother would “nag” at her to do some administrative work, way after working hours.

But after running the business herself, she understands why her mother did so.

“I used to be very pissed about it but now, I can see why her requests comes in sporadic bursts because it really is so easy to forget when you have so much on your plate and no schedule to follow.”

Now, the duo has set some ground rules: Try not to talk shop at home after 6pm.

Mother-daughter tensions

While it seems like the job (and ultimately, the business) of the young daughter seems to have landed easily on her lap,  things aren’t as rosy as it sounds.

Just because they are related doesn’t mean that Lim goes easy on Phua.

“People around me know that my mom is a hard worker and she has had very high expectations of me since I was young. So every one knows that when I took this job, it was never going to be easy.”

In fact, for a brief period, things weren’t as sweet as their pastries and drinks.

Weeks before the opening of Lalune proved to be the most stressful period for both of them, especially for Lim, who was worried about whether they had enough stocks for the opening.

Phua, on the other hand, thought they should just go with the flow.

“I thought that as long as we have the bread and drinks, we can open the shop and figure things out along the way.”

As the distinction between family and business partner became blurry, simple differences in views blew up into a heated argument.

“She thought I was showing attitude while I thought she was being a naggy mother.

This, Phua sheepishly adds, resulted in her not returning home for a few days and even going for job interviews, ready to give up everything she has put into Lalune.

“My mother did tell me: ‘You know what? You can go find another job if this isn’t for you. Do what you like.'”

However, as the saying goes, blood is thicker than water:

“I did go for interviews and was even offered some acceptance letters, but I eventually rejected them. As a daughter, I know that my mother needs my help and as an employee, I can see that this business can do well.

The grass is always greener on the other side, so it took a lot of mental readjusting for me.”

Fortunately, the worst is over for them ever since they’ve overcome the big hurdle of officially opening Lalune.

My mother, my hero

Phua admits that they do argue a lot, attributing it to their similar characteristics.

Both are straightforward individuals, blunt when they need to be, and are true realists.

While clashes in personalities are usually a bad thing, Phua admits that the saving grace is that they are related.

“When your boss is being mean, you just feel like getting up and quit. But when it’s your mother, somehow it’s ok because she wants the best for you and things are going to work out.”

In fact, running this business has given her a newfound admiration for her mother, who in the past 20 years, has seen both successes and failures in past business ventures.

Photo courtesy of JJ Phua

And Lalune Singapore will definitely be more than just a business — it’s essentially a legacy from one mother to her daughter.

“You know, she’s a single mother and it’s not easy to raise two daughters on top of being an entrepreneur. When she started her own business, she told me that she did it because it was something she can leave for her own children.”

Top image taken by Mandy How and courtesy of JJ Phua 


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About Fasiha Nazren

Fasiha is only afraid of three things - cockroaches, her parents and the deafening screamos of post hardcore bands.

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