With 13 stores and supplying to 10 vendors and hotels, Ann Chin Popiah is arguably one of the most popular popiah brands in the country. Even the Michelin Guide itself has recognised it, specifically for its Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre location.
First established all the way back in the late 1950s by a Chinese immigrant, Ann Chin Popiah is still run by the family today. Speaking to Vulcan Post, the third-generation leader Pamela shared that she operates Ann Chin together with her mum, Wendy Lim.
Here’s the story behind how this family business has lasted and grown over the past 60 over years, and where it’s going next.
Roots in the 50s
“In my grandfather’s early days, he struggled and worked multiple odd jobs such as a ‘coolie’ at the docks, or as a hawker assistant at the night market just so that he can support the family,” Pamela said about her grandfather, Mr Lim Kam Chwee.
“It wasn’t until the late 1950s that he finally found a breakthrough in life.”
Back in Fujian, China, Lim had mastered the skill of popiah skin-making. Wanting to showcase his skills in Singapore, he took out all of his savings, invested in a pushcart, and named it “Ann Chin”.
In 1958, Lim set up shop in “Orh Kio”, which is now known as Upper Thomson Road.
According to his granddaughter, he built a name for himself in the area, with many recognising him for his fragrant, thin and chewy popiah skin—something that Ann Chin is still known for today.
Onto a new generation
While 13 outlets sound impressive, for a business that’s 66 years in the making, that can also be seen as quite low.
To that, Pamela said, “While it may seem enticing to expand quickly, we believe in a tactical and conservative approach to our expansion especially since the overheads and rentals are high.”
Rather than rapid expansion, the mother-daughter duo who now leads the business is much more concerned about upkeeping quality.
In any case, Pamela and Wendy didn’t always plan on running the Ann Chin business, though.
“My mum used to own a garment factory that subcontracts for sports brands like Nike and Adidas before founding Shirtivo—a custom menswear brand which was subsequently sold to Marcella,” Pamela proudly shared.
As for herself, she helped out in Marcella for a year after graduation before joining a corporate uniform company.
“Neither of us expected to helm the business, but we were determined to continue my grandfather’s legacy of crafting the best popiah skin,” she said. “Back in the olden days, popiah skin was a simple delicacy and that’s what my grandfather focused on.”
Reinventing the business, Wendy brought the simple popiah skin to the masses in the form of local coffee shops and hawkers. Eventually, they went on to have their own mini cafes, and Pamela created their DIY sets to cater to bigger events.
Wendy also created the so-called secret recipe for their popiah filling which they have continued to fine-tune and improve over the years to bring out the best flavours of the ingredients.
Together, the mother-daughter duo breathed new life into Ann Chin. But some things don’t change, Pamela said. “Our belief [remains] in the unique texture of handmade popiah skin that can never be replaced by machines.”
Getting recognised by the Michelin Guide, Pamela said that she felt like all the hard work that she and her mum put into Ann Chin finally paid off.
“But having said that, the recognition also came with a fair share of criticism where some felt that we’re undeserving of the title,” she admitted.
The team understands that every customer has their own preference, and that it may not be possible to satisfy everyone. Still, Ann Chin is determined to stand by their recipe as they continue to grow.
Sustaining and growing Ann Chin is not without its challenges, though. Pamela cites rising material costs and rental rates as some of the toughest obstacles they’ve faced.
“The evolution of the food culture in Singapore also has been changing,” she added. “There are more trendy foods in the coming years, and we are also trying to keep up.”
To stay relevant, the Ann Chin team makes sure to stay abreast on customers’ preferences and cater to them. For one, there’s the customisable DIY sets that are suitable for vegans.
There’s also the prawn and chicken cutlet fillings available exclusively at Ann Chin’s outlets. Additionally, the chain has introduced new menu items such as the kueh pie tee.
Innovation is also done through behind-the-scenes efforts such as using omni-channel marketing solutions and tightening quality control standards.
Pamela shared that in 2023 alone, Ann Chin sold close to a million popiah rolls, a great feat that is helping the team achieve the brand’s vision of spotlighting and sustaining their traditional popiah skins.
“Hand-making traditional popiah skin is a tough and labour-intensive skill that is losing its foothold in today’s society,” Pamela pointed out.
Going forward, she intends to continue expanding Ann Chin’s local presence. The focus now is to continue improving the quality and service across all outlets.
But in the bigger picture, Pamela has dreams of bringing bring her family’s legacy abroad, introducing the heritage of Singapore cuisine to other countries.
Featured Image Credit: Ann Chin Popiah