Saturday 5 March 2016

Having your cake and eating it too

Why shouldn't Lana Cake's recipe be worth millions?
By Tan Hsueh Yun, Food Editor, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2016

It occurs to me, reading comments on social media about the impending retirement of Mrs Violet Kwan of Lana Cake Shop, that Singaporeans really like having their cake and eating it too.

We want the quality of our food to be consistently high, we want it cheap and we want the people who make and sell it to live forever and keep slogging to supply us with our favourite cake/char kway teow/nasi lemak/briyani.

This is crazy thinking.

I come to this conclusion in the days after Feb 25, when The Straits Times runs a story I write about Mrs Kwan's search for a successor to her successful business. She is 88 and soon to be 89, she keeps reminding me during the interview, and time is running out.

She does not want to discuss a selling price but her shop in Greenwood Avenue is worth $4 million, as the story makes clear.

Social media is soon buzzing with comments. Along with die-hard fans who write about what the cake means to them and those who wish her a happy retirement, there are those who ask why she does not take in "disciples" who can learn her secret recipes for free.

One calls her a hypocrite for wanting her successor to be passionate about baking and not just looking for a business opportunity, as she is asking millions for her business.

Many people say $4 million is too much to pay, and just as many point out that the price is for the shop space alone.

Yes, the final selling price is likely to be higher.

For more than 50 years, she has been baking cakes using recipes her sister-in-law Lani taught her, and has added a few of her own creations.

But it is the chocolate fudge cake that is the bestseller, and it has become part of the fabric of people's lives. They have celebrated special occasions and marked milestones with it. In a nation of food-obsessed people with short attention spans, that is quite something.

The value of the recipes and techniques has not been determined but, of course, that $4 million figure is handy to bandy about. Anybody with half a brain will know that they can flip the property or rent it out to a restaurateur, because everybody knows Greenwood Avenue needs yet another restaurant.

How much though, are people willing to pay for the recipes and techniques?

At lunch with friends, some of whom own food businesses, I ask that question. The answers shock me. No more than $200,000.

Is that all 50 years of hard slog is worth?

Then what about the decades of knowledge and skill that our precious hawkers have built up? We like to angst, beat our chests and lament that hawkers are dying out without passing on their secrets. But how much are we willing to pay for these recipes and to learn from these masters?

These same issues came up when Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint went up for sale and was finally sold for $4 million in October 2014. Half of that was the value of the property and I am happy the owners got $2 million for their recipes.

It tells me that the buyer, the Aztech Group, values them.

Not many others do.

They see no value in the hours that hawkers, bakers and chefs have spent perfecting killer recipes and special techniques to make food that people will stand in line hours for, whether it is an old-fashioned chocolate fudge cake, a plate of char kway teow full of wok hei and cockles cooked just right, or a bowl of lontong that warms hearts as well as bellies.

But these recipes and techniques have value, the way property, stocks and shares, art and fine wine have value.

We do not bat an eyelid when people sell their assets. We even cheer on savvy tech entrepreneurs who sell their apps for billions. Yet, we get huffy when hawkers try to sell assets they have built up painstakingly over decades of hard work.

Some seem to think that "monetising" food businesses is somehow distasteful.

One SZ Lau writes on The Straits Times' Facebook page, in response to the post about Mrs Kwan's retirement: "If every retiring hawker, chef and baker were to seek millions for their craft, the culinary future of our country is looking extremely bleak."

What is bleak is that we expect these people to simply give away their secrets for free, out of some sort of warped altruism, and go gently into the good night.

What is bleak is that good hawkers have been calling it a day, are calling it a day and will continue to call it a day, but few people want to pay to learn from them.

What is bleak is that we think these people are being audacious in wanting to sell their businesses to ensure a comfortable and well-earned retirement and to secure the future for their children and grandchildren.

One wag on Facebook even asks what an 88-year-old wants with $4 million. Why should that be anybody's business?

This sort of double standard has to stop.

Recipes and techniques need to be thought of as intellectual property with value, and the willing buyer and seller will need to work out what that value is.

Expecting anyone to give it all away for free is laughable.

Sometimes, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

"(Singaporeans) want the quality of our food to be consistently high, we want it cheap and we want the people who make...
Posted by The Straits Times on Thursday, March 3, 2016

After 50 years of selling her famous chocolate cake, Violet Kwan of Lana Cake Shop wants to call it a day. She is...
Posted by The Straits Times on Wednesday, February 24, 2016

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