Monday 25 April 2016

Cafe owners worried as home bakers rise as 'rivals'

But greater oversight of those who do not need to be licensed could stifle hobby baking
By Ng Huiwen, The Sunday Times, 24 Apr 2016

From low-carb protein loaves to mango sticky rice tarts, more home bakers here are whetting appetites with their unique artisanal offerings. As they work from their own kitchens and do not run a brick- and-mortar shop, they are not required to be licensed by the National Environment Agency.

Most sell their products through word of mouth and social media.

However, concerns have surfaced over whether the authorities should be keeping a closer tab on the industry. In a forum letter published last month, Ms Chong Siew Yen, 41, highlighted how home bakers who sell their products to the public are putting licensed bake shops at a disadvantage.

"We are competing with a higher cost, which includes rental, utility bills and licence fee," she wrote.

Home bakers come under the Housing Board's Home Based Small Scale Business Scheme, which allows them to practise "baking on a small scale for sale" in homes "without turning the flat into a bakery".

But Ms Chong, who owns The One Bake Shop in Toa Payoh, and other cafe owners The Sunday Times spoke to believe that such a definition is a grey area that home bakers could exploit. "I've noticed several of them selling their baked goods to corporate clients and even catering a spread for functions," she said.

Ms Jessica Loh, who started dessert cafe Shiberty Bakes this month, said: "If I sell my cakes to my friends, is that not commercialism in a minor way?"

After baking from home for about four years, she decided to open her cafe at Owen Road. "If you want to reel in the big clients, they will definitely require you to be licensed and operating in a commercial space," she explained.

However, running a cafe in Singapore is extremely costly, she added.

"It makes the business very cut-throat."

For housewife Shireen Shen Jega, 31, home baking has become a viable way to pursue her passion while selling her bakes for a small income.

The mother of two, who has been baking cupcakes and customised cakes for the past three years, has dreamt of opening a cafe, but the high costs of doing so has held her back on several occasions.

Clamping down on home bakers would stifle opportunities for those who are simply pursuing it as a hobby, she added. "We have only one person doing the baking and that's definitely not going to generate a lot of business, compared to an established bakery," she said.

"In today's tough economy, we should be looking for opportunities to help everyone supplement their incomes."

Other home bakers believe that their baked products serve a niche market that would complement, rather than compete, with others in the industry.

For instance, 22-year-old Singapore Management University undergraduate and bodybuilder Yu Huimin enjoys baking "guilt-free" protein loaves and muffins for other health buffs like her.

A loaf, or a set of eight muffins, costs $13.20 and she receives about two orders of each every week. She earns about $80 a month from home baking. "I bake protein products that have really good macro-nutrients. I even label them for customers if they are tracking their diet closely," said Ms Yu, who has enjoyed baking since she was 13.

Though she believes some form of regulation of the home baking industry is necessary, in particular to ensure food hygiene, she added that this could be difficult to enforce.

"Most bakers do this on an extremely small scale, like me. If all bakers had to be licensed, it would probably greatly reduce the number of recreational bakers who don't rely on this as a source of income."

Start-up eyes slice of market pie
By Ng Huiwen, The Sunday Times, 24 Apr 2016

Eager to take a slice of the growing market pie here, a local start-up has started an online marketplace to connect home bakers with customers.

HomeBakee, which was launched last December, also hopes to act as a "regulator" to filter out the bad apples in an industry which has been largely unregulated by the authorities. Unlike restaurants or cafes, home bakers do not have to be issued a food shop licence by the National Environment Agency to sell their products.

There are currently 55 home bakers across Singapore listed on the HomeBakee website, all of whom have to be certified in some way, according to its founder, Mr Denis Edward, 28.

Some have been trained as bakers locally or overseas, such as at international culinary institute Le Cordon Bleu, while others have gone through commercial food hygiene and handling courses. "It is not a must for home bakers to get certified. But we make sure that they do so because it gives consumers the reassurance that they uphold hygiene standards," he added.

The HomeBakee team also screens these bakers by visiting their kitchens and sampling their products. "HomeBakee allows home bakers to continue baking as a passion, and earn some money from it," said Mr Edward. "They don't have to spend thousands to open a shop or buy a new oven, just to do what they love."

Consumers can place orders for a variety of baked goods, including scones and pies. Each order has to be made in a limited quantity to ensure that the bakers do not flout guidelines, which permit only "baking on a small scale for sale" in homes. HomeBakee then delivers the items to the customer for a base fee of $10.

Housewife Felicia Rajandran, 35, prefers to buy home-baked goods for small family gatherings. She has ordered through HomeBakee three times, including once to order a customised birthday cake for her daughter. "I like that I can speak to the bakers before and after purchasing the baked goods to tell them my preferences and give feedback," she said.

Get tough on unlicensed home bakers

I recently entered the food and beverage industry and opened a bake shop. I noticed that there are many home bakers who do not have a National Environment Agency (NEA) food shop licence, yet are selling their products to the public.

This puts those who comply with the regulations at a disadvantage, as we are competing with a higher cost, which includes rental, utility bills and licence fee.

While I understand that those without a licence can sell small amounts of their goods to friends and relatives, there are several who sell their goods to companies or prepare a spread for functions.

How is NEA enforcing its regulations and is it trying to control the spread of unlicensed home bakers who are selling to the public?

I hope the NEA will comment. Otherwise, many bake shops such as mine will not be able to compete with the big players, who have more resources, or low-cost home bakers.

Eventually, the licensed bake shops might just close and join the home bakers. After all, if you can't beat them, why not join them?

Chong Siew Yen (Ms)
ST Forum, 17 Mar 2016

Clamping down on home bakers will not benefit sector

Ms Chong Siew Yen has correctly highlighted that small bakeries face challenges such as high rental fees and stiff competition from larger bakeries ("Get tough on unlicensed home bakers"; last Thursday).

However, I disagree with her suggestion that the right response to these problems is for the authorities to clamp down on home bakers.

I am the founder of an online bakery marketplace for home bakers and baked-goods consumers.

Many passionate home bakers featured on my website have a strong commitment to good hygiene practices, including tips outlined in the Housing Board's and Urban Redevelopment Authority's Home Based Small Scale Business Scheme.

These bakers produce their goods in small quantities to ensure that their focus remains to deliver high-quality products to their customers.

Indeed, several home bakers have been selling their goods for many years without any health or hygiene incidents.

Instead of clamping down on home bakers, we should recognise and reward them for providing the market with artisanal and unique baked items that are not offered by large bakeries.

It is important that home bakers are accountable for the baked goods they sell.

However, heavily regulating and shutting them down are over-reactions that will ultimately harm innovation within the baking industry and reduce choices for consumers.

It will also not reduce rental fees for small bakeries or protect them from competition against large ones.

Denis Edward
ST Forum, 22 Mar 2016

NEA: Home bakers must be mindful of responsibility towards customers

We thank Mr Denis Edward ("Clamping down on home bakers will not benefit sector"; Tuesday) and Ms Chong Siew Yen ("Get tough on unlicensed home bakers"; March 17) for their feedback.

The Housing and Development Board's (HDB) Home Based Small Scale Business Scheme and the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) Small Business Guidelines allow small-scale home-based business to be conducted, as long as it does not cause disturbance or inconvenience to neighbouring residents.

Residential premises are not allowed to be used as a restaurant, food shop or food-catering establishment. There should not be external signboards or advertisements promoting the business.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) does not regulate such home-based businesses.

Residents intending to conduct small-scale business from their home premises should, however, note the various conditions laid out by the HDB and URA.

Guidelines on good food hygiene practices for residents preparing food under HDB/URA's home-based small-scale business scheme are available on NEA's website.

Members of the public are advised to buy food from NEA-licensed premises, to ensure that the food they consume is prepared hygienically in premises equipped with the necessary facilities.

All licensed premises are inspected regularly for compliance with NEA's licensing requirements, such as approval from the relevant authorities, infrastructural design requirements and hygienic practices.

Home-based businesses involved in selling food to the public are not regulated as such, but should be mindful of their responsibility towards their customers and ensure that good hygiene practices are observed at all times.

Members of the public who notice any hygiene lapses are encouraged to contact NEA on 1800-2255532 or via the MyENV app.

Adeline Oi Kheng Leong (Ms)
Food and Environmental Hygiene Department
National Environment Agency
ST Forum, 25 Mar 2016

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