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We have to work hard to earn our customers. Customers may be drawn to our social mission, but to have them as our long-term patrons, our products must be good, and prices, compelling.

- Perry Ong, CEO, NTUC Foodfare Co-operative Limited

Ntuc Foodfare Ceo Perry Ong
Perry Ong, CEO, NTUC Foodfare Co-operative Limited

Mention the word “Foodfare” and the picture of a food court or a coffee shop comes to mind. This ready association of the co-operative with community dining space is understandable. Since its establishment in 1995, NTUC Foodfare Co-operative has made great strides in growing its footprints: 12 food courts, 11 coffee shops and 33 Wang and Heavenly Wang cafes. Recently, it was appointed by the National Environmental Agency (NEA) to manage 9 hawker centres across Singapore.

A lesser known aspect of NTUC Foodfare Co-operative (but certainly not less in the impact created) is its community outreach project, Rice Garden. Started in 2009 with the first outlet in Aljunied, there would be 55 outlets in Singapore by this year's end, and mostly located within coffee shops and food centres in the heartlands. A Rice Garden outlet dishes out staple food, commonly called chap chye png among the locals (comprising rice with dishes like meat and vegetables on the side), to customers who are on a tight budget.

Ntuc Foodfare Coffeeshop Yishun Angsana Breeze 2
Rice Garden at NTUC Foodfare

“There is this person I know who makes a point to bring his elderly parents out for the occasional makan.  His favourite place is a Rice Garden outlet. It costs just $6 for three persons. The food is great value for money, so he can bring his parents out more often. They are our regular customers for years,” recounted Perry Ong, CEO of NTUC Foodfare Co-operative. The numbers are telling of the extent the project has impacted lives. In 2017, 4 million meals were served, and in 2018, the number has grown to 6.6 million.

Back at the food courts and coffee shops, the co-operative approaches its social mission of keeping prices affordable through a differentiated pricing strategy. “There is a range of options available for varying budgets. There are value meals, such as our NTUC breakfast set consisting of coffee/tea with toast and two eggs costing $1.80 for union members and $2.20 for non-members. Moving up, we have the common food types, such as chicken rice, fishball noodles and the likes – we practise general price moderation on these items so that the public can access the staple meals at affordable prices to help them manage their cost of living. At the other end, there are the non-basic items such as beef steak to allow pricing to be competitive. The idea is to have something for everyone,” explained Perry.

Ntuc Foodfare Coffeeshop Yishun Angsana Breeze 1
Foodfare coffee shop

The ability to serve up affordable meals, and to do so continually, hinges on the stallholders’ ability to sustain their businesses.  The rent payable by a stallholder is determined after considering several factors such as the stallholder’s pricing plans (for items on his menu), and projected sales volume. Stating it simply, prices influence rent, not the other way round. Additional support to stallholders, such as tapping into the co-operative’s central procurement system for greater economies, and training for hawkerpreneurs is available. The anchor principle guiding business decisions is sustainable surplus creation as opposed to profit maximisation.

“As stewards of a social enterprise, we are careful where we channel our surplus. We are keen to create more new outlets – whether it is food courts, coffee shops or Rice Garden stalls. The more outlets there are, the more touchpoints we have with customers, and more people stand to benefit. So we invest to grow our presence, and building our food manufacturing capability and capacity at our NTUC Foodfare Co-operative’s headquarters at Senoko, which is equipped with a central kitchen.

The kitchen is important as it enables us to ensure the consistency of certain key products or ingredients across our outlets and stalls. We also invest in transformative projects, such as one targeting productivity three years ago which has now expanded in scope to include digitisation of services and processes. We are exploring the possibility of having unmanned stores, and ways to enable stallholders to fulfil takeaway orders more efficiently. To sum up, we invest surplus in initiatives that would allow us to excel in and grow the business so that we can continue to plough back into our social initiatives like Rice Garden,” he elaborated.

ntuc foodfare foodcourt marina bay financial centre

Foodfare food court at Marina Bay Financial Centre

Social enterprises are a misunderstood lot. A common misconception is that they are funded by the government and they operate in a ‘protected’ environment.  This is incorrect, Perry clarified. NTUC Foodfare Co-operative is self-sustained like any enterprise entity. It operates in the same environment as its peers and in food and beverage (F&B) industry.

He continued: “Competition is intense. Today, F&B outlets constitute 50% of the tenants in shopping malls, compared with 30% in the past, while foot fall has remained largely unchanged. This is due to the digital disruption faced by the retail sector disrupted by online shopping; we see brick-and-mortar outlets pulling out from shopping malls, and taking their place are restaurants, cafes, food courts and the likes.” Indeed, it is a crowded place that NTUC Foodfare Co-operative has to contend with. Besides competition, rising costs and shortage of labour are universal concerns and NTUC Foodfare Co-operative is not spared.

ntuc foodfare hawker centre fareground pasir ris 1  ntuc foodfare hawker centre fareground pasir ris 2 

FAREGROUND at Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre, offering modern hipster food at affordable prices.

While the Management sees to the practical concerns of the present, NTUC Foodfare Co-operative has on its radar its future customers. “The millennial generation is important to us. We make an effort to draw them in, by creating the right dining ambience and digitising our services,” shared Perry who sees the millennials forming the bulk of NTUC Foodfare Co-operative’s customers in ten years’ time.

It is Perry’s twelfth year at NTUC Foodfare Co-operative. He came from the private sector (food logistics), and thanks to a headhunter, the co-operative movement has one more difference maker. As he learnt the ropes and soon was directly involved in applying co-operative principles at work, he came to appreciate the strength of the co-operative model more and more.

NTUC Foodfare Co-operative is centred on one social purpose (the goal) and using a commercial approach (the means) to achieve it. The business world has seen how private companies veered away, committing all kinds of excesses to society’s detriment. The co-operative model provides a balance – the core purpose to do good helps keep in check the tendency to rely solely on profit maximisation.

Perry has made numerous contributions to the Co-operative Movement. He joined SNCF Executive Council in 2011. In his second term, he took on the role of Second Deputy Chairman, Chair of NTUC Sector & Audit Committee Chairman.  During his tenure as Chair of Audit Committee, he expanded the role of the Committee to include internal audit and redefine its scope to strengthen governance. Perry has been very supportive of SNCF key thrusts especially in engaging students and youth. He believes in staying focus on social mission while doing well as demonstrated in the good work done by NTUC Foodfare Co-operative. For his efforts, he was named “Friend of MCCY” and received the award given out by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) in appreciation of his assistance in building a better Singapore.


Learning Tips

  1. A co-operative must offer a compelling proposition to customers – good products, attractive pricing etc. Doing good alone is not enough to retain customers in the long-term.
  2. A co-operative/social enterprise must have a business model that is just as good, if not better, than a commercial enterprise, for it to excel, succeed and grow.
  3. The enterprise is an ecosystem of stakeholders who are interdependent on the other. To do well as a whole, we must first help one another. 

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