Stepping into the cheekily named Tenderbest Makcik Market restaurant in Bedok Point, it’s a little hard to imagine that the Tenderfresh brand, Singapore’s very own fried chicken chain, began 42 years ago as just a hawker stall.
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This particular outlet opened two years ago, marking the brand’s 40th anniversary. It’s a stylish restaurant with trendy interiors, boasting floor-to-ceiling windows, neon signage, wood accents and faux plants. The restaurant is a shining example of how the homegrown Singaporean hawker brand has evolved over the years, emerging to become a culinary empire.
I am here to meet with founder Jimmy Soh, who opened the first Tenderfresh stall in Whitley Road Hawker Centre in 1979. With him is the company’s chief operating officer, Kelvin Chua, who joined the company in 2013.
Soh's affinity for chicken began in his childhood days. “I was born in a kampung in Lim Chua Kang. My parents were poultry farmers, so there was a lot of running around with the chickens,” the now 63-year-old recalled.
After national service, Soh took up his first job as a salesman for a poultry company. There, he was one of the company’s top salesmen – “I knew a lot about chickens,” said Soh – but the factory eventually closed down.
“A friend of mine had several hawker stalls at Whitley Road and he invited me to take up one of his stalls to sell fried chicken,” Soh shared. “Every day, we had no business. We earned only about S$50 to S$100 a day.”
To capture the attention of diners, Soh took photographs of his food and displayed them on his signboard. “That was one thing I did right. At the time, nobody displayed food photographs at their hawker stalls,” said Soh.
Gradually, the stall gained popularity, so much so that Soh and his wife decided to open a second outlet in Jurong. The early days of Tenderfresh were gruelling.