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How the CEO of Cedele built her health food empire: loaf by loaf, cake by cake.

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If there were an award for the most soulful food, we are convinced that Cedele would win it hands down. Founded and ran by self-made entrepreneur Yeap Cheng Guat, Cedele has grown from a humble neighbourhood bakery at Frankel Avenue to health food empire spanning 28 outlets across Singapore.

In 1997, Cheng took a leap of faith to start a small bakery selling healthy bakes, at a time when the notion of organic whole wheat bread was practically unheard of. It wasn’t long before various customised requests started pouring in: sugarless cakes for a diabetic customer, a loaf of bread with no salt. As the only baker then, she had to figure out a way to give her customers what they wanted.

The result? She ended up designing Cedele’s very first sour starter and started selling sourdough bread some 24 years ago, way before sourdough bread achieved its popularity status today.

I listened as Cheng vivaciously reminisced stories of customers from all walks of life, trying her healthy breads for the first time and slowly becoming regulars – even friends. Not long after, her customers became so comfortable they started requesting for things like: refrigerator space to store sandwich fillings to go with her breads; some of the soups she made for her own lunch since it paired well with bread. It dawned upon me: She wasn’t just building a business. She was building a community.

Today, Cedele remains rooted in the same belief it was founded upon, helping others to eat well, be well. We got to spend some time with the womanpreneur behind this mission who grew it into something far bigger than herself.

Tell us a little about your background, before you started Cedele.

Cheng: The idea first sparked 23 years ago when I was doing branding and marketing work in the corporate world, specifically FMCG personal care. I remember that every Monday at work, there would be fried bee hoon, curry puffs – all the quintessential Singaporean favorites – to be shared amongst colleagues. So I found myself baking over the weekend, so that I could bring healthy alternatives to the table every Monday. I starting bring cinnamon rolls made of healthy flour. Oats bread. Low sugar brownies. My colleagues were very happy and said things like, “you can sell this, you know!”  They really encouraged me to open a bakery of my own. I was in my early 30s then and there was always a nudging thing at the back of my mind saying, surely there must be more to life than now.

Did you learn or study baking from any institution or was it all self-taught? When did your love for baking start?

No, up until then, everything was self-learnt. I was always cooking and baking for myself and for friends, especially when I was just a poor student in America. But because I was planning to start a bakery, I enrolled into a one-month bakery course at a baking school. Just in case something happened, I would be equipped to deal with it. To my horror, I found that there were so many additives and pre-mixes involved in baking. I also saw it as a gap in the market since there was no healthy bread available then.

Baking was something I grew up loving from back when I was 10 years old. I lived in Taiping, Malaysia at that time and from where I came from, there was no cake shop. In order to eat cake, I have to bake my own cake. I used to help my mum bake cakes, pineapple tarts – and to this day, our pineapple tart recipe we created in Taiping is still being used for our pineapple tarts in Cedele!

How did you start Cedele?

I started my first shop at Siglap, my own neighbourhood, in 1997 with my own savings. I began as a small bakery selling only organic healthy bread. I would also buy books from bookstores or from the US to read all about healthy bakes. I would make organic wholewheat bread without sugar and I made tags that gave people all the information about the ingredients that went inside their breads. People would read the tags and ask me questions about it. Many of them were not used to healthy bread options. I remember one customer complaining to me, why your bread so hard ah? I told her to spray a bit of water and lightly toast the bread and it will come back to life. There was a lot to teach and also a lot to learn.

It must have been difficult to get people on board with healthy bread at that time. Who were your first customers?

Mostly expats and people with dietary concerns. I have a customer Wendy who lives in Mountbatten and every last day of the month, I have to make her 6 to 8 loaves of bread with no salt at all. And salt is one of the primary ingredients of bread. At the start, I had to figure it out and design a bread with no salt, little yeast and ferment it. And that’s also when we built our sour starter. We’ve been making sourdough bread since the beginning of time, before it became popular. Our sour starter is 24 years old. We ferment the bread for 4 to 5 hours overnight and the fermentation process makes our breads easier to digest. You can have a feeling of ease after you eat our breads and not feel tired or bloated.

How did Cedele grow so successfully from a small bread shop?

I listen to my customers and do my best to give them what they want. I’m a firm believer that you should give customers what they like, regardless of what you like. I received lots of customer feedback, from people who are dairy intolerant, nut intolerant, those who wanted gluten free options – I accommodated all these customised orders. I started offering healthier cakes and muffins too because of that. In 2005, I also chanced upon a customer who turned 50 and was given bad news for his birthday – he was diabetic. He liked our carrot walnut cake and his wife came to me and asked if we could make it sugar free. So off I went to learn and research and experiment. I managed to make him a sugar-free carrot cake using natural apple juice. That’s how we built our business: loaf by loaf, cake by cake.

What made you decide to grow from bakery to food café serving up meals?

One and a half years into my bakery business, I developed a skin allergy. So I started to make my own food and I also switched to a plant-based diet. I would cook my own lunch for myself at my bakery and my customers will see me eating my food and asked to try some to go with the bread. I gave them my home-made mushroom soup to my regular customers and they loved it, saying this is unlike any Campbell mushroom soup they’ve tried. So I listened and added soups to the menu – namely my Mushroom, Pumpkin, Red Pepper Tomato soups.

And then another time, I was eating my home-made rosemary chicken sandwich for my lunch and my customers saw that. They began asking me to help them store sandwich fillings in my fridge so that when they popped by, they too could buy my breads and then make a sandwich for themselves for lunch. After a while, my fridge got complicated. There was Sally, Rose, Amanda, etc etc – with different sandwich fillings they would store in my fridge. So in order to stop people from bringing all their sandwich filling to me, I began offering my rosemary chicken sandwich on the menu.

Later on, one of my regular customers who was a real estate agent told me about a shop space in town that was vacant and said it was suitable for me. I listened to him and that’s how I opened up my very first café in Republic Plaza, selling only three types of soups – the Mushroom, Pumpkin and Red Pepper Tomato soup – and unlimited breads. I slowly started adding more dishes to my menu also based on customer’s suggestions and my own experimentations. A Canadian customer introduced quinoa to me, and I loved it. Shortly after, I bought up all the quinoa from this organic shop supplier – he was so thankful because nobody was buying all these healthy stuff from him except me. We quickly became good friends and he introduced me to more ingredients. So I started buying more – organic brown rice, millet, etc – and experimented with making a salad with these healthy ingredients. Another time he suggested using cranberries. So I bought cranberries from him and experimented, and came up with our cranberry cheese bread. Same thing happened with chia seeds. An Australian customer introduced me to chia seeds in 2010, at a time when nobody knew what chia seeds were and not much literature was available about it at that time. But I bought and experimented, and found that it also made my cakes very moist. In that same year, we launched our orange chia seed cake.

I experimented with more healthy ingredients over time for my menu. As a foodmaker, for every dish that I create, I make sure I cater to our six senses of taste: sweet, salty, pungent, sour, bitter and astringent – to make it wholesome and delicious. Quickly Cedele expanded into three main categories: bakery cafes, all-day dining restaurants and bakery kitchens.

Cedele has come a long way indeed from being your regular neighbourhood bakery to an F&B chain. How do you ensure the quality of food is not compromised?

We do things differently; we don’t have huge commercial machines. We continue to make our breads in small batches. It’s all about the production planning and I have different bread schedules for the breads. For example, we can only make a limited number of sourdough breads a day. There’s only so much space I can put my breads to let them rest.

Another thing is that everything has to be measured. When we moved to our central kitchen in Kaki Bukit in 2007, we had to buy 6 to 7 weighing machines. The vendor even asked me what I needed them for. (laughs) We have to weigh everything and this discipline is strictly adhered to.

We also buy good quality ingredients. For example, I buy raw good quality walnuts from California at first, and now Turkey. These walnuts are freeze dried and harvested when they are young. So they are very crunchy on their own and you don’t have to toast it at all. I believe if you can eat nuts raw, it will be best. We buy our carrots from Australia and they are very sweet on its own. 

Being the CEO and not just a small bakery shop owner anymore, how do ensure that you stay in touch with your customers since they have been such a big focus for you?

I visit my stores every weekend, especially the one at East Coast. I’m an East Coast person having lived there and it’s like a gathering of my customer friends. I am in full gratitude of the very sincere and authentic friendships we have and they give me good, honest feedback. And then I always go back to the drawing board to improve ourselves. I am just one person; in order to stay grounded I have to listen to the voice of others. As new information surfaces, I have to change with that to remain relevant and up to date so I can help people.

What would you say was your biggest challenge building your business?

Definitely staffing. The biggest challenge is to get like-minded people who understand your values and work towards a common goal. I always tell my staff, I’m not your boss, the customer is. I even get angry when they call me boss. (laughs) They have to prioritise the customer and respect the supply chain. It’s a challenge to influence or persuade them to see the business in this way, but this is how I run the ship. Sometimes new people who join us are puzzled over the way we do things. We only use unrefined organic sugar but it’s coarse in texture so we have to blend it. To prepare for Chinese New Year bakes, we start blending our sugar ahead in October. It’s also hard to get enough supply sometimes so I even have a warehouse to store my organic unrefined sugar. (laughs)

Why healthy food? 

I believe that food is medicine. I adopt a clean-eating whole foods diet which is nutrition dense, so that I don’t feel tired. I healed my skin allergy with a plant-based diet and my late mother, who suffered from diabetes, also benefited so much from a plant-based diet. Her kidney was functioning at 8% when I started preparing plant-based foods for her. Eight months later, her kidney was functioning at 23% and she did not have to go for dialysis anymore. Her diabetic condition improved so much by just switching to eating plant-based foods. In my family, we believe that this allowed our mum to live 11 more good years.

In brief, what is Cedele is all about?

Our intention has always been to be educate and advocate to make health available for people to eat better. For people to eat well, be well. We try our best to price our foods reasonably despite rising costs because I believe what nature’s gifts are not just for the haves, but also for the have-nots. We hope people can come to Cedele to learn how to eat better on the whole.

What do you envision the future of healthy food to be in Singapore?

I feel that Singaporeans are “over-proteined.” We eat too much meat. In time, I hope to see all of us being mindful and eating more nutritionally dense foods. Less is really more. I also hope to see more of us eating more fibre. I believe that most illnesses and diseases come about due to poor digestion and insufficient fibre. I make it a point to incorporate more fibre into my foods: live enzymes, sprouts, my soups are all thickened with vegetables like onions and potatoes. Our cheesecake base is also made of rolled oats that is high in fibre.

What is one health hack or tip you personally subscribe to?

I make a lemongrass and apple tea and drink it daily. I grow lemongrass in my own garden – we take the fresh lemongrass and boil it with a skinned and seedless green apple under low fire for 45 min. This daily drink is a great immunity booster for us and we don’t fall sick easily. I also eat a handful of blueberries every day.

What is one advice or tip you would give to women entrepreneurs today?

I would say, believe in yourself, your cause and your intentions. Understand and find out how to help people and offer solutions. Celebrate being alive and practise gratitude. It can get tough but you mustn’t give up. Be stubborn, like me. (laughs)

Cedele promo code for After Clinic Hours readers (2020)

Cedele is giving After Clinic Hours readers an exclusive 15% off all food orders via Cedele’s Website. Free same day islandwide delivery with min. spending of $60 is available.

Promo code: CLINIC15
Date of expiry: 27  June 2020

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