“I always dreamt of doing what I do now. It’s not unexpected but still, it’s quite a dream that has transformed into reality because I was never the one who stood out,” said Pang Gek Teng
How I’m Making Itis a weekly series in which Tatler speaks to influential individuals about their unique journeys and what keeps them going.
Unless you live in the West of Singapore, you likely don’t know very much about the gems the area holds. However, the it might be worth a visit this week, because tucked away in D'Arena in Joo Koon is a cosy, Australian farmgate-experiential grocer. It is sustainable, provides store-to-boot services and is run by an ex-banker who is determined, gritty and extremely passionate about putting the right items into the hands of Singaporeans.
Pang Gek Teng is the co-founder of Surrey Hills Grocer, an Australian-inspired grocer and experiential lifestyle and dining destination in Singapore. However, food was not always Pang’s greatest passion.
Pang actually began her career as a banker before realising that she wanted more out of her life, and that banking was simply just not her calling.
“I learnt that we all have something that we are made for, and you will know it when what you’re doing is not quite what you’re meant to do–it’s like an instinct,” she shared.
When Pang decided to quit banking, she decided to try her hand at becoming an entrepreneur and tried starting a number of small businesses.
Some of these businesses included a local watch brand, Daybook Watches, that was, at that point, stocked in Tangs Singapore.
Eventually, though, she decided that this was also not what she wanted to do and decided to take a break. Pang closed her business and booked a ticket to Melbourne with no idea when she planned to return.
“I felt I needed to see what’s beyond the walls. Australia was where I studied and I truly felt that it would give my parents comfort and security if I went back to a place I’ve been before,” Pang said before adding that she studied marketing and management at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales and that her parents’ wish for her to graduate from university was what pushed her to complete her degree.
While in Melbourne, Pang was forced to live on a tight budget, which only pushed this self-starter to become smarter and more innovative with her time and resources. It was while she was on the hunt for cheaper but healthy meals that she realised that many of the foodcourts in Melbourne did not represent the fresh produce that the country boasts.
Seeing this need in the Melbourne food scene, Pang decided to try her hand at opening another business in 2017. This time, it was a farm-to-table concept called Surch (which stands for surprise lunch).
Surch is a farm-to-table, Western grain bowl concept that Pang started to support herself, as well as to bring good food to the people of Melbourne.
At that point, Surch was the first to brand itself as a sous vide protein bowl concept in Australia and the idea was so well received that Pang soon found herself opening her second and then third outlet shortly after launching the brand.
“Starting Surch was unexpected but it was also one of the best times of my life. It truly is still a memory that drives me today. All its success and failures included. I was wanting to pay for my home rental then and selling door-step grain bowls was a necessary way to keep life going. One sale led to another, and eventually, it became a viable business,” Pang shared.
Seeing the potential in the business, Pang decided to sell Surch in 2019 to another company that she knew had the capacity to bring the cafe to greater heights. Unfortunately, shortly after the sale, Covid-19 hit, as well as devastating bush fires that derailed plans.
Pang decided to return to Singapore in 2020. However, she was still very much inspired by her years in Melbourne and missed the carefree, free-spirited, unpretentious, and authentic way of living she got to enjoy while being there.
She was keen to recreate this experience for Singaporeans especially with Covid-19 closing borders between countries and suddenly restricted travel. This was when the idea to start an Australian grocery store began forming.
“Beyond my emotional memories of the country, I also wanted to spotlight the lesser-known micro farmers, growers, and makers as they have great products and brand stories to share but haven’t had the means to do so on an international level. I wanted Surrey Hills Grocer to be a platform to showcase the wonderful craft behind these brands,” said Pang.
With this idea and the support of business partners and close friendships with Australian farmers, Pang was able to make her dream a reality and finally opened the doors of Surrey Hills Grocer in December 2021.
As an artisanal grocer that prides itself on providing high-quality items to consumers that come directly from the source, Pang is passionate about ensuring that as many of her products as possible are imported herself.
"We know these farmers personally and there are personal relationships that are quite unlike other commercial stores. Because of that, we can price our products at very competitive price points as most of our products are directly sourced and without middleman fees. These cost savings are naturally passed on to the consumers," said Pang before adding that it was also important for her to ensure that all her products remained affordable.
“I usually prefer working with micro farmers as they give me confidence that they are hands-on with their produce. I start by sharing about what we stand for at Surrey Hills Grocer in Singapore and our ideal partnerships with each brand. I also share how we focus on only a handful of brands in each category which gives the brand owners confidence that we have full interest to grow and share their stories to the rest of the world outside Australia,” continued Pang.
Her relationship with these farmers also has allowed Pang to bring in Australian products that Singapore has never seen, such as Koko Black, an iconic gourmet chocolate brand from Australia.
“I always wondered how and why it’s not brought in here and then I realised it is close to impossible due to the challenge of maintaining the temperature throughout the shipping journey,” Pang laughed.
Recently, Surrey Hills Grocer, which tries to reduce its carbon footprint by using unsold produce as ingredients in their adjoining café or by delivering them to other food establishments, also launched a direct-to-boot concept service at their grocer.
This is the first of its kind in Singapore and allows consumers to make their purchases online, select a specific date and timeslot, and drive down to have their grocery purchases loaded into their boot conveniently.
“The idea of someone wanting to buy bread and butter for breakfast the next day but already dressed in their pyjamas came to my mind when it came to this idea,” Pang shared.
With her work at Surrey Hills Grocer, her communications with farmers and her constant eye on the quality of her produce, Pang certainly has her hands full and Tatler decided to speak to Pang to find out just how she does it all.
What is a typical morning like for you?
Pang Gek Teng (PGT): Most days I wake up before the alarm clock rings and I enjoy the quiet of the morning. In the darkness, I will go through in my head what the plans are for the day. Occasionally, I will also engage in calls with my Australian farmers and suppliers as that’s the best time to catch them before the busyness of the day kicks in.
What do you usually have for breakfast?
PGT: I never used to be a breakfast person until I lived in Australia for five years. Since then, I’ve begun to appreciate starting the day with a good and hearty meal. I usually like avocado on toast from Surrey Hills Café for breakfast.
What does a standard workday look like for you?
PGT: I get into Surrey Hills Grocer, talk to almost everyone in the team and communicate some key points on the situations we are facing operationally. I try to spend time chatting casually with individuals in the team as well during this time.
I will then reply to most of the calls that come into Surrey. I also enjoy taking a good look at our grocer display every day to see how we can better ourselves. I pick a few random items to try in our grocer daily as well, especially the new ones, to ensure it is of the curated artisanal quality that we are proud of.
I spend most of my time sourcing and keeping myself up to date with Australian news, updates, products and new trends. Currently, I’m mostly engaging with the operational needs of our business as we are new.
What time do you usually have lunch? What do you usually have for lunch?
PGT: We usually have home-cooked meals prepared and delivered by a home-based mum. I believe in giving the right nutrition to our team and taking care of their well-being so they can function effectively at work.
How would you describe your working style?
PGT: Empowering and trusting—I give my staff the autonomy to manage their day-to-day tasks.
Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?
PGT: Personally, I don’t particularly categorise or compartmentalise my time into ‘work time’ or ‘free time’. Being at the store hardly feels like work to me as I really find joy and satisfaction in the things I do—every day is just different (in a good way). When I have pockets of time, I will be thinking about new ideas, or reading up and researching to get fresh perspectives and inspirations to grow the brand.
How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you set boundaries?
PGT: Cliché as it sounds, I’ve never felt like I’m really working. I enjoy most aspects of it and can accept everything that comes along with it. When I spend time with family and friends, I try my best to be present in the moment.
How do you deal with your shortcomings?
PGT: I try not to be too hard on myself and constantly remind myself that no one is perfect. I also learnt to find the right teammates to compliment my shortcomings.
How do you chase your dreams?
PGT: I always bear in mind that if I fail, I can always start again and it’s always a 50/50 chance for every dream and every outcome.
Risks: should you take them? Why or why not?
PGT: Yes, always take it. I used to ignore all risks but having done several businesses, I have now learnt that we can take calculated and mitigated risks. Not everything needs to be bulldozed over.
What is the best piece of advice that you have ever gotten?
PGT: “You were made for a purpose.”
What is an idea/thought that you heard recently, that you thought was interesting?
PGT: Everyone has similar goals in life (to be successful and happy), but we each end up in vastly different places from the little decisions we choose to make daily.
How do you manage stress?
PGT: I choose to think that I’ve made daily choices to not be stressed and handle each day’s woes as it comes. I try to lean on goodness and change what is within my control while letting go of the rest.
How do you stay grounded?
PGT: I have a simple family set-up, most of my close friends are not in business so they show me a side of life that is humble and true.
How do you unplug?
PGT: I unplug daily when taking the long drive home from West to East. I’ll listen to my favourite playlist and simply enjoy the alone time for that 30 minutes. It helps to disengage from the multiple conversations I have daily and allows me to be quiet and sensitive to what my heart seeks.
How do you stay motivated?
PGT: The team I have constantly keeps me motivated because I know that I can potentially change each of their lives if we make it (as a brand).
Do you have moments of doubt and how do you overcome them?
PGT: Yes I do, but often I’ll look at how far I’ve come (and the miracles I’ve experienced in my life), and feel contented as I am already living the impossible. Doubt is just there to show you that not everything is perfect and that it is ok to be so.
What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?
PGT: I use our exclusive brand, Rich Glen’s farm-to-body products on rotation so I know what to share with our shoppers next.