How the owner of New Ubin Seafood transformed his kampong-styled restaurant into a growing brand

From Pulau Ubin to Chijmes and Zhongshan Park, New Ubin has come far and wide. But it’s still going places.
Business Insider / Lamont Mark Smith

Pang Seng Meng was a pharmacist for most of his life before his 15-year spree to build the famous local brand that is New Ubin Seafood.

Coming from a Peranakan and Teochew background, the 64-year-old has led New Ubin Seafood from its humble beginnings in Pulau Ubin to sparkling upscale establishments in mainland Singapore, boasting expansive and “truly Singaporean” menus.

What was his biggest challenge?

In a chat with Business Insider, Pang credited a large part of his success to realising that New Ubin is not “just a restaurant”, but a brand.

The major breakthrough came in October 2019, when New Ubin decided to open a “kampong-esque” outlet at Tampines that tries to recreate the rustic feel of the old Ubin Seafood.

Pang said this allowed for flexibility in branding and made future expansion prospects easier.

It took him a while though, to understand branding and concept.

Before the Tampines opening, New Ubin Seafood had opened stores in Sin Ming, Hillview, Chjimes, and Zhongshan Park – only the latter two of which are still standing today.

Pang recalled: “When we worked in Sin Ming, it was just one outlet, and when we went to Chijmes, we just replicated the food in a different environment.”

Even when New Ubin opened its franchise outlet in Ramada hotel at Zhongshan Park in Balestier, Pang still felt tied to the concept of a restaurant.

He added: “A lot of people said that this is not New Ubin, because Ubin is supposed to be in a rustic, gloomy and dirty place, not with fine china.”

Psst! The Tampines outlet charges less for the same menu items.
New Ubin Seafood

No taking it easy

Now, Pang is not resting on his laurels, and neither is New Ubin.

The company is also working on what he describes as the next breakthrough: UbinEats and Garang Grill 2.0.

The former, he explained, is a “delivery and food court business model similar to Hawker Chan”, while the latter will be the second iteration of New Ubin’s charcoal grill arm.

Pang added: “It takes a lot of effort to start something like a full-fledged restaurant, because you have to get the chef up to speed, the menu is so wide, but if you do something like a food court, it’ll be much easier to replicate.”

Today, New Ubin Seafood not only serves seafood or zi char favourites like Hokkien mee, but also cultural meshes like fish roe masala, foie gras satay and claypot carbonara.

Pang is now on a food tasting tear and spends most of his time in the New Ubin test kitchen, creating his own versions of Singaporean classics such as nasi lemak and mee goreng.

Despite the challenges, the recognition from fellow chefs is what keeps Pang “inspired to carry on”.

He cited famous chefs such as Marco Pierre White, Joan Roca and the late Joel Robuchon, as a few examples of chefs who “loved the food and appreciated wok hei”.

Hawker culture evolution

An old picture of a hawker centre in the past.
The Straits Times

When asked if the younger generation should pick up cooking as a skill – especially since the hawker trade is dying out – Pang replied: “Seeing more young cooks would be encouraging, but it’s very difficult because they don’t have the passion”.

“There’s no shortage of new chefs. But they all don’t want to slog, they want their weekends. If you don’t open on weekends, how do you do business?”

As the owner of a successful zi char chain, Pang feels that hawker food can be preserved “quite easily” nonetheless. Even if there are no suitable Singaporean chefs, Pang says that New Ubin can always turn to Malaysian chefs as they have a similar food culture.

He added: “If we can’t get the chefs here, we can still retain the knowledge, as long as we can get cooks who can cook it.”

Pang said there will “definitely” be cooks who want to take up the hawker trade, as long as there is still a demand for hawker food.

Evolving for the future

A photo of New Ubin Seafood’s pop-up in Sydney during the year 2017.
Facebook / Audra Morrice

Currently, New Ubin is experimenting with incorporating Impossible meats into its dishes, but Pang said that is still in the early testing phase.

In addition, the chain is working with the Singapore Tourism Board to showcase pairing dinners overseas, where wines are paired with Singaporean food.

Some examples listed on New Ubin’s official website include chardonnay white wine paired with steam halibut, or even grenache red wine paired with garlic naan and butter prawns.

Pang said: “I keep telling people, why are pairing dinners in Singapore or elsewhere in the world always about wines and western food?

“It’s never about wines and local food”.

“We are truly Singaporean, meaning that the basic thing about Singapore is that we adapt…it hasn’t been instantaneous.

“As our experience grows more, we get more dishes. We have to adapt.”

Speaking on the possibility of an overseas expansion, Pang said that New Ubin is still “feeling (out) the global market” by doing pop-ups instead.

New Ubin had a pop-up in Sydney, Australia, and two others in the Spanish cities of Barcelona and San Sebastian, in collaboration with the Singapore Tourism Board.

Pang added that there could be a new Ubin Seafood pop-up in Beijing soon.

Read Also: