Her garlic bread was once served in First Class cabins on national flights, and she counts celebrity couple Xiang Yun and Edmund Chen among her clientele.
But to get there, Yeap Cheng Guat, the 56-year-old founder of healthy-eating brand Cedele, spent two decades growing her bakery to a national chain of 36 outlets, including restaurants and cafes.
Speaking to Business Insider ahead of the brand’s 21st anniversary, Yeap said that her starting capital of S$200,000 to buy a small shop in East Coast has now grown to become a health foods empire worth S$40 million.
Her passion for baking started as a child, but Yeap held a corporate job as a trade marketing manager in a tissue paper company until the age of 35. She would often bring her bakes to the office for colleagues to taste, and they encouraged her to start her own bakery.
She quit her job six years later to do precisely that.
As the bakery grew popular, subsequent years saw her move stores to progressively larger locations in quick succession.
“As we got more shops, we would hold weekly meetings where I would go to the shops and help out there. I asked the staff to write down four questions that customers had asked, which we put into a box and used to do our consumer research,” she said.
The initial store sold just bread, cakes and muffins, but Yeap credits the brand’s expansion into its current – and vast – selection of health food offerings to the practice of listening to what customers want.
Yeap said she only started selling sandwiches after customers – who were friendly with her – began requesting space in the bakery’s fridge to store lettuce, tomatoes, smoked salmon and ham, which they would then use to make sandwiches on the spot after buying her bread.
Another time, customers who saw her cooking vegetable soup for her lunch requested some to go with the bread, resulting in soups being added to the menu.
Another customer asked her to open an outlet in the business district so he could buy her bread before work, leading her to open her first small cafe in town.
Other instances include a customer requesting quinoa and salmon (which was later added to the menu), and another asking for shredded chicken instead of chicken ham in the sandwiches.
“Over the years, the food and bread that we bring forward are from listening to our customers – what they want, how they want it,” said Yeap.
One key form of customer requests came from customers with medical conditions, such as gluten and dairy allergies, diabetes, and cancer. This inspired Yeap to tweak her ingredients, taking Cedele from the bakery business into the health foods industry.
“I work actively, and talk a lot to my customers,” said Yeap. “It has been a very good learning experience, listening to customers that tell us what they need: vegetarian solutions, vegan food, clean food. We try to incorporate that into the menu. We’re here to serve the customer – that’s what creates a sustainable business.”