Passing down the family's tradition, this is the tribute of an entrepreneur's to his family
Updated: Aug 31
Traditional sauces never cease to amaze one’s taste buds as it just seems perfect to go with anything and everything. While we appreciate the taste and richness in the sauce, the heritage of traditional sauces seems to date back to many years ago and quite frankly many of us are not exactly familiar with the history. However, one such individual took it upon himself to continue his family’s legacy and continue the tradition. 5 years ago, Ken Koh joined the family’s business and got involved in the rejuvenation process of Nanyang Sauce to ensure that it stays relevant in today’s context while keeping their roots intact.
From left: Madam Tan Poh Choo (Sauce Master), Mdm Ng Soh Lian (Mr Koh's grandmother), Mr Ken Koh (Third Generation Owner of Nanyang Sauce)
Prior to joining back his family business, Ken was involved with corporate companies, Multinational Corporation (MNCs) and government agencies like consulting and doing the training line for about 14 to 15 years. This was a very big switch for him as he had to learn and adapt to his new environment while also trying to find out more about how Nanyang Tea can stay relevant while working with what they have currently.
Founded in 1959 by Ken’s grandfather in Singapore, this family’s secret recipe has been passed down through generations which traces back to China. Starting off by adding flavour to their plain porridge Ken’s grandfather was eating, he fermented his own soy sauce using his grandmother’s recipe. Passing down to three generations, this sauce is naturally hand-brewed from the best Non-GMO soybeans for 9 months to create the umami taste as compared to many other companies that uses a faster chemical hydrolysed method which takes anywhere between days to a few months.
What about their heritage and how exactly does Ken do it? To answer all of our questions, we got to hop on a call with Ken. Here’s Ken!
How have you been able to preserve this heritage for so long?
My parents and their siblings have been able to maintain this as we promise our customers a healthier option with our whole soybeans which many companies do not provide. This way, it is a lot more nutritious and tastier and with the help of our loyal customers, we manage to keep this going. We have been able to create a concept stall which is a boutique opened in Jewel where we have products that cater to everyone’s needs. We are now embarking on our next phase which brings other similar artisanal brands from overseas together. We will be helping to create awareness for other old source makers that are about 5000 years old since many are on the verge of extinction.
How did you help to make Nanyang Sauce more related in today’s times?
Once I took over, I had to find a way to gain more awareness in what we do and have a social media presence among the younger generation. I realised that things like having a sauce making workshop was attractive to our target audience. Many of them also wanted more variation in our sauces, hence we made sure to provide them different traditional flavours to give them a tastier experience. We also found out that having mobile sauce bottles were needed to allow our customers to bring them around whenever they would like to use it.
What has the competition been like for Nanyang Sauce?
The last 5 years have been quite intense I must say! As we launch new products, there are always duplicates of them. While it does get me worked out at times, we have managed to stay a float and even take a step higher. Since many other sauce making companies uses are hydrolysed method, the cost of production is more than 10 times higher than the rest. Almost 99% of them uses a different method of production. While our costs are high, we do not have that kind of margin which modern sauce makers have. Their products costs lower with a high margin which was a challenge to us previously. But thanks to our customers as well, we have been doing well.
Third Generation Owner of Nanyang Sauce, Ken Koh
Could you share with us more about your feelings towards preserving this heritage?
At first, it was not easy to carry on this business. In fact, my parents tried to dissuade me from it. But I felt that I would never be able to find this kind of sauce outside anymore and as a user of the source, I felt like it was a pity, to not carry on. Secondly, I felt that there was a responsibility to my grandfather since I got to know him the best. He passed when I was 12 years old. Hence, at that time all my cousins were all younger than me. I felt that we should continue this since it was going very well this entire time and I’m very proud to have taken this up.
Have you ever wanted to try something else like a new career path?
I actually gave myself 5 years to do a turnaround. From loss making to making it profitable, as long as we do not lose money. During my grandfather's time they made a lot of money, but they lost a lot of money every year too. Now that I’m at my five-year mark, it's got a certain amount of awareness with good amount sales.
It's funny because ever since last year, I've started to not see it as a 5-year attachment anymore. I see it as a masterpiece I'm painting, which makes me feel that it is all quite meaningful especially now that I am also uplifting our older sauce makers. I understand their plight and I feel that in this lifetime, if I can do my part to make a small impact to preserve these sauce makers and food brands, it is worth living.
What is one thing that you look forward to everyday?
I look forward to discovering a new sauce every day. I actually read a lot and I always stay updated on all the social medias. However, it is very hard to find many sauce makers because a lot of them do not have these platforms. They don't have a website, just like we didn't have one five years ago. They also don't have any social media presence. It's usually like a small family business, maybe about five to ten of them? But I’ve recently found many of them which still uses the traditional way using fermentation and it is mind blowing how they are still going on. While it may be hard to find one every day, I can usually find one every week.
Would you like to pass down this heritage to your children?
It would be very heart-warming if one of my children or both of them enjoys this heritage and takes over however I feel that it is alright either way. If they can develop an appreciation for sauce making and work their way from there, that would be good enough.
When you look back in time, what is one thing you would like to be grateful for?
While I am spending my time and dedicating it to Nanyang Sauce, I would like to know that my effort has paid off in terms of keeping the business alive and thriving over the years. I would also like to remember that I have spent equal amount of my time with my family especially my children. I’m glad to have the opportunity to free up my time to be with them so that I do not miss out on anything.