Tasneem Noor met her husband Joakim Smidhagen, 45, when she was on a backpacking trip in Sweden in 2006.
After they got married, Joakim moved to Singapore to settle down with his wife.
But it was tough on him because he was terribly homesick and often craved for authentic Swedish food, which was lacking here.
To curb his cravings for home-cooked food, Tasneem decided to learn how to cook traditional Swedish dishes, picking up recipes from her mother-in-law and various cookbooks.
Her hard work paid off, because soon enough, she was able to whip up a mean pot of Swedish meatballs.
It was so good that the couple figured they could actually make a business out of it.
FOLLOWING IN HER FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS
Their dream became a reality two years later when Tasneem’s father chanced upon a great location near his shop that was up for bidding.
Her dad runs a wholesale shop retailing scarves and a local delights cafe on Baghdad Street, and he had always wanted all of his children to run their own businesses as well.
That said, he gave his all to help Tasneem kickstart her entrepreneurial journey, including rendering financial support.
“It was a beautiful, newly-built building combining three shophouses. Thinking that it would be a good location for our new venture, he bid on it,” said Tasneem.
So from working as a graphic designer for eight years, Tasneem made her first foray into the F&B scene.
Her husband, who was also a designer and fine artist, joined her as a business partner.
Together, the two started up Fika Swedish Cafe & Bistro in August 2009, which prided itself in serving authentic, yet halal, Swedish food.
Tasneem emphasised that although they’re halal, they made it a point to “follow the recipes to a T”.
“It is Joakim’s strict rule that we do not substitute ingredients in recipes. If the recipe calls for pork or alcohol in it, we simply do not serve it.”
“Our guideline for authenticity is that if a Swede were to come in and dine at Fika, he would be pleasantly surprised that the dishes served would be the same as the ones they had back home, or even better than their mamma’s cooking!”
A GIRLBOSS AT 26
Tasneem was only 26 when she became her own boss.
But despite her young age and lack of prior experience, business was great from the get-go.
“Our business was booming and we were constantly fully booked!” exclaimed Tasneem, adding that it only took five months for them to break even.
She mused that they had a huge advantage because they were pioneers in the Kampong Glam area.
“We were in the area way before the rest of the hipster cafes started popping up, and back then, there were also many ‘shisha’ stores in the vicinity that helped supply us with hungry patrons.”
Spurred by good sales, the couple decided to expand the business and open another two outlets at Millennia Walk mall and OneKM mall.
However, sales at OneKM badly suffered. Tasneem reckoned that it was because the mall isn’t situated in a very strategic location, and it also had no good anchor tenants to pull people in.
Following the closure of OneKM, the couple also shut their store at Millennia Walk so they could focus on running their flagship outlet at Beach Road.
Another challenge they faced is staffing.
The hardest part about building the business is managing people, said Tasneem.
“Hiring, training and retaining staff is a challenge that needs constant attention and can be very trying. Especially for the F&B line, the turnover rate is really high”, she added.
“In 2010, when I was 7 months pregnant, some of the staff I had were incapable of responsibility and seven of them left at one time, leaving me with no choice but to come in one week after giving birth to cook!”
“It was tough as I had to be in the kitchen the whole day, and it was very demanding because I was rather heavily pregnant then.”
That’s why it’s so important to know how to do everything! That way, when people leave, the business is still able to run.
NOT DAUNTED BY FAILURES
Unfazed by these setbacks, the couple set up an European artisanal bakery called Konditori in the Kampong Glam area about a year ago.
The idea for Konditori grew from wanting the desserts served at Fika to be made in their own bakery.
The offerings at Konditori are done in small batches and freshly baked by hand daily. Its best-sellers include red velvet croissant, fresh cream semla buns, and pain aux chocolat.
“Because we are an artisanal bakery and pride ourselves at baking all our goods from scratch daily, the investments for baking machinery was the bulk of the startup cost,” said Tasneem.
And with Konditori, it took them 10 months to break even.
“Our handsome Swedish stone oven is the heart of the bakery, and with it, our passionate bakers are able to whip up amazing European bakes. We are now known to have the best croissants, and that makes our team very proud.”
The team has also recently started baking their own cakes for events, which the couple personally helps to design.
“We are constantly learning, reinventing, and improving, so it will be an interesting journey ahead.”
AND BECAUSE THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM FOR DESSERT…
Now that the couple are running a restaurant and a bakery, I guess it only makes sense for them to conquer the dessert space.
Earlier in June this year, they pumped in a handsome six-figure sum to open up Lickety Waffles and Ice Cream right next to Konditori.
Unlike its sister stores, Lickety aims to attract the younger crowd, which explains its Scandinavian decor of pastel pink and mint green.
Lickety mainly boasts an Instagram-worthy pairing of egglet waffles with ice cream.
Out of the 30 flavours available, the stand-outs are Lingonberry Swirl, Red Velvet and Dark Angel, which boasts chunks of chocolate bread from Konditori.
When asked if it was intentional to have the two businesses running side by side, Tasneem said that whenever she’s behind the counter at Konditori, she often gets customers looking for ice cream.
And since the Kampong Glam area lacked a good ice cream parlour, she figured that she could tap onto this opportunity.
“With Konditori right next door [to Lickety], it helps me save time and resources. It also helps make the management of the two businesses easier.”
She added that her three brands all compliment each other very well.
“We’ve had customers walking in to Lickety for dessert right after they had their lunch at Fika. And then they head to Konditori to shop for bread loaves to bring home.”
Moreover, launching all her businesses at Kampong Glam made sense to her because it is a “thriving location”, with a good mix of locals, tourists, and office workers.
REMAINING RELEVANT IN THE F&B SCENE
The Kampong Glam area is dotted with halal F&B joints, and there are so many eateries popping up in the area every other day.
So with such stiff competition, how do they work on sustaining interest among consumers in this ever-changing industry?
Tasneem agreed that remaining relevant remains a constant challenge.
To overcome this, she said sticking to their branding has been a good strategy thus far.
Being true to our branding has worked for us for the past nine years. With trends coming and going like the salted egg yolk or ondeh-ondeh, we have to remember that as a Scandinavian brand, we can’t quite hop onto the same train.
“It was important that we got creative with different methods such as seasonal menus, which we have included in addition to our regular Fika menu. We are now on our Autumn menu, and will soon start on our Winter menu, which we are very excited about.”
They also made it a point to provide consistent quality in terms of both products and services, which is a tried-and-tested way of retaining customers.
When asked about her future business plans, Tasneem said that they plan to work on their existing outlets till end next year.
“The focus will be on strengthening our business structure, SOPs, staff retention, training programmes, to name a few. We want to look into areas of each of our existing brands that could be be better expanded on, such as our event cake department within Konditori.”
She also shared one business mantra that she lives by, which is inspired after a quote by Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
Always keep in check what being successful means for you. When you are clear about your values, it would be easier to make decisions, be it for business or for life.
This article was first published in Vulcan Post.