Why S'pore wholesaler You Tiao Man founder reduced prices for struggling clients even as revenue fell by 50% in Covid times

Lessons on Leadership: The woman behind You Tiao Man shared that if one can show kindness, you must because you can. 

Fasiha Nazren | March 26, 2022, 06:57 PM

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I'll be honest.

When I was assigned to interview the founder and CEO of You Tiao Man, I was expecting to interview a man.

The fried dough stick manufacturer is called You Tiao Man, after all.

The woman behind You Tiao Man

Surprise, surprise. You Tiao Man is the brainchild of a 38-year-old woman named Audrey Chew.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Chew.

In my hour-long Zoom call with Chew, she displayed no airs or pretence — all I could see through my laptop screen was Chew on the foreground of the plain white walls of her office.

No flashy certificates or awards were on display, which somehow shows her quiet confidence and made her seem more approachable as a person.

She was also refreshingly candid, always answering our question in a matter-of-fact way.

When I asked why the brand is called You Tiao Man, this was her answer:

"It's easy to remember, it's extremely personable and it's very hilarious, more so with the fact that it is run by a woman."

Of course, she revealed, You Tiao Man isn't merely a brand. It is also the personification of her father, a hawker.

Her father has been a longtime hawker selling local fritters like youtiao and hum chim peng, among other things, at Toa Payoh West Market & Food Centre.

Photo from You Tiao Man website.

No F&B background

The funny thing is, Chew never saw herself taking over or even following in her father's footsteps.

In fact, she never had any formal training in F&B and was in an entirely different industry, where she spent five years in China working as a risk manager for a Brazilian mining company.

Upon her return to Singapore, she noticed that a lot of traditional snacks, like the youtiao, was dying out.

However, after years of working with traders, she could tell that there is a demand for them.

She said: "Everybody loves to eat youtiao but it's so hard to make because it is so labour-intensive. So I decided to use what I learned in China and the 10 years in [the] trading [industry] to start a factory."

In 2017, Chew acquired a factory and You Tiao Man was born in hopes of manufacturing fresh and frozen youtiao to the masses.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Chew.

While reading it as it is seems easy, Chew stressed that it wasn't an overnight success for the brand.

Shooed from hotels

Chew shared her initial struggles trying to find customers, even going as far as cycling from one factory to another to pitch her products.

As You Tiao Man started off as a business-to-business (B2B) enterprise, the brand initially considered hotels and caterers as their main clients.

"I visited every single hotel [and] every single caterer door-to-door. Sometimes, I even had a bicycle so I'll take the bicycle and go along the factories one to introduce myself. No shame in doing all these things, to me I think this is the hustle."

While the pitching part was no sweat, the numerous rejections were harder to swallow.

She recounted the countless times she was chased away by hotels and caterers.

She said: "Many people were quite mean to me. I still remember some hotels would say 'Eh shoo, go go go. What are you still doing here?'

To have people throwing you out time after time, I really felt like the greatest loser in the world."

But Chew wasn't about to wallow in self-pity.

"No matter what failures you face today or yesterday, tomorrow will be [a] new day. What's most important is tomorrow, you start off right. I think that was the spirit that helped me to pull through."

That's also the same spirit that got You Tiao Man to become the wholesaler for several hotels, restaurants, caterers, food courts and hawkers in Singapore.

Leading to serve

Interestingly, Chew told me that she tries to be a boss who practices "servant leadership".

As oxymoronic as it sounds, servant leadership is a leadership philosophy where the goal of the leader is to serve their people and take care of their wellbeing.

"It's my job to make this place as nurturing and a great place to work. I at least owe it to them. They don't owe me anything.


Some bosses give staff impossible tasks because they think they pay you mah, but that's not true. We need to be able to do the tasks ourselves and then safely say, 'I think my employee can take these tasks.'"

This is why she spent six laborious months at her dad's hawker stall just to learn the intricate art of making youtiao.

"Now, they call me shifu," she joked.

In its early days, Chew also took on less-glamorous roles like helping to carry and deliver the goods to their clients.

She also doubled as a promoter at FairPrice outlets, trying to get customers to add the conveniently-packed youtiao into their baskets.

Photo courtesy of Audrey Chew.

If there's another she learnt about being a boss, is that it's not only a huge responsibility on her shoulders, but it can get lonely at times, too.

"The company feels and lives by you. Your decisions [and] your actions will influence where the ship is going. Screw up, and the company sinks with you. If you make a bad decision, everybody fails. If you don't protect your company, everything will crash and burn. So your job as the leader is alone."

She laughed it off as she told me that the journey sounds "like a sad one," but it is just a sacrifice that has reaped valuable returns.

Thanks to the steady hands steering the ship, You Tiao Man received the Healthier Choice certification and halal certification in 2018.

All these were just two years shy of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Maintaining friendships in Covid-19

Like most businesses in Singapore, You Tiao Man wasn't spared from the commercially destructive nature of Covid-19.

Chew told Mothership that revenue fell by 50 per cent during the circuit breaker phase.

When tourism and dining-in were slowing down, so did the hotels and restaurants' demand for youtiao.

As the hotels, restaurants and caterers weren't doing too well, these clients asked for credit extensions from the usual 30 days to 90 days.

Although You Tiao Man was struggling just the same, Chew made the decision to accede to all requests and on top of that, offered to reduce their product prices during that period.

Her reason: Maintaining friendships.

Some may think it's naive, or counter-intuitive even, to do so in a time when it was every man for himself.

But to Chew, it was something that she had to do.

"When you have a chance to act with integrity and to show kindness, you must because you can.

During this time, we found out that when you extend generously to other people, it comes back. It comes back because they remember your generosity and friendship with them."

And she wasn't wrong.

She beamed as she shared that the clients she helped either increased their orders with You Tiao Man, or recommended it as a supplier to their contacts.

From B2B to B2C

Now, you've might have seen You Tiao Man from the ads that pop up on your Instagram Stories.

Or perhaps you've heard of them for their recent campaign on Valentine's Day:

Soon, you'll probably see it at your local supermarket, as it will also be available across 80 FairPrice outlets islandwide.

But the move towards becoming a business-to-consumer (B2C) enterprise wouldn't have happened as fast if it weren't for Covid-19.

"Business was very bad. We needed to change because if we didn't, we would have been dead," Chew said.

A few days into the circuit breaker in 2020, You Tiao Man opened its online store offering just five items.

Photo courtesy of You Tiao Man.

And while it didn't sell out immediately, she fondly remembers one of the early customers who was on the page just minutes after the page went live.

She said: "We didn't post any ads at first, I don't even know how she found us. In the beginning, we only had five stock-keeping units (SKUs) and she bought S$40 worth of items."

Chew told us that she took it as a sign that they were heading in the right direction.

As a gesture of gratitude, Chew wrote this special customer a card when You Tiao Man hit its 1,000th online order, thanking her for being the one who "gave [her] faith".

From just five offerings, You Tiao Man's online menu now has over 40 items on sale, including traditional kueh and dim sum dishes.

Growing the demand for heritage foods

To Chew, it's not just about supplying the current demand for youtiao or making profits.

It is also important for You Tiao Man to grow the demand, especially with the gradually disappearing heritage foods.

She explained:

"I'm not sure if young children will remember [having youtiao with their grandparents]. That's the dangerous age where if we lose them, they will not know this anymore. We have to start [growing the demand] with this generation and we hope that the awareness of such products will trickle down."

And how do they grow the demand? By innovating new products for the different target markets.

Busy parents would appreciate the convenience of just popping the frozen youtiao into air fryers for their children.

Photo courtesy of You Tiao Man.

Those counting their calories might be surprised to know that a stick of youtiao contains 340 calories.

Chew also hinted at the possibility of a dessert youtiao, which You Tiao Man is in the midst of creating in collaboration with a prominent player in the market.

Let's also not forget that one time where You Tiao Man jumped on the "BTS Meal" bandwagon.

Household name in five years

It's safe to say that in less than five years, You Tiao Man has made itself into a household name.

However, Chew admits that it is still a surreal experience whenever she hears people talking about the brand.

"The other day, I was in the back of a lift when I overheard two ladies saying, 'Did you hear about You Tiao Man? Their youtiao very good, later I want to buy.'

That's when I understand the impact that we have. It's an extremely proud moment that we gave birth to this thing that everybody knows about. I'm very proud of my colleagues and everybody who made it possible."

They say behind every successful man is a woman.

And behind Youtiao Man is, well, a successful woman steering it in the right direction.

Top image courtesy of Audrey Chew.

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