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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Fancy some fries with that ice cream?

Udders, Ya Kun spice up menus to widen appeal amid high rentals, labour shortage.
The Straits Times - November 26, 2012
By: Toh Yong Chuan
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Fancy some fries with that ice cream? Ice-cream chain Udders has started selling pancakes, fries and baked chicken this month in its Upper Thomson branch to attract the lunch and dinner crowds in addition to dessert fans. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

TWO local food chains - Udders and Ya Kun - have expanded their menus beyond what they are famous for in a bid to overcome steep rentals and a labour crunch to grow their business in existing outlets.

For now, the two companies are testing the waters in one branch each.

Udders, known for ice cream, started selling pancakes, fries and baked chicken this month to attract the lunch and dinner crowds in addition to dessert fans.

Coffee and kaya toast chain Ya Kun added nasi lemak, mee siam and curry chicken to its menu this month.

At Udders' Upper Thomson branch, founder David Yim invested $40,000 in new kitchen equipment and hired a chef and two cooks. "The cost is still more manageable than opening a new outlet," he said, adding: "After all, the service staff are already there, the rent has been paid and the air-con is already turned on."

He would have preferred to grow by adding outlets to the current six but rising rent is a hurdle. The rent at one store was renewed this year with a 60 per cent hike.

But demand for the new items is still slow, he noted. Declining to reveal exact sales, he said he sells one plate of food for every 10 servings of ice cream. He hopes the ratio eventually will be one plate of food for every two cups of ice cream.

When The Straits Times visited the Upper Thomson branch last Thursday at 7pm, it was occupied by one family of four who were sharing two plates of ice cream.

Next door, nearly all the tables in the popular Ming Fa Fishball Noodles, which sells ba chor mee (minced pork noodles), were taken up.

More customers started streaming in at Udders only at 8.30pm, filling two-thirds of the tables, but not many were ordering the new dishes.

Over at Parkway Parade, Ya Kun renovated its outlet and reopened it as the chain's first family cafe two weeks ago. The company's chief executive Marc Leoi said the outlet's customer traffic previously would dip by one-third during lunch and dinner times because "they don't come here for full meals".

To widen its appeal, the cafe started selling dishes such as nasi lemak, mee siam and curry chicken and also introduced items such as bread balls filled with kaya.

Ya Kun invested about $5,000 in a fryer and hired one chef and three cooks to whip up the new dishes. "We also bought forks and spoons for the first time," Mr Leoi said with a laugh.

At 6pm last Friday, The Straits Times saw all the tables in the cafe were filled, with an even number of customers going for the traditional staple of kaya toast and coffee and the new dishes.

Mr Leoi said 30 per cent of the outlet's sales now comes from the new menu which is "encouraging". He hopes to gradually roll out the new menu to Ya Kun's other 47 outlets.

Business consultant Stella Lim, founder of consulting firm ServiceWorks, said Udders and Ya Kun are doing the right thing by innovating and diversifying.

But she cautioned that it is vital for them to meet the expectations of both existing and new customers: "If they don't like the new items, they may not come back for the old ones."

Corporate communications executive Zeng Ruili, who is in her 30s, is open to trying Ya Kun's new menu: "It is local food and not something completely different like Western food."

Student Danny Tan, 14, said he will try the pancakes at Udders because they are similar to waffles that it already sells, but not the fries and chicken as they are "very common". He added that it also depends on whether the prices are affordable.

Udders' Mr Yim said he has no choice but to innovate: "It is a matter of survival for us. So even if it fails, I must still try."

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