Intrigued by the core of their business – a small family-owned spice business, now extending into its third generation – I traipse down to the Ang Mo Kio retail outlet at Mayflower Market for a chat with Jack Leow, Anthony’s son, to find out more.
The first thing that strikes me is how the stall stands out amidst all the other wet market stalls – I’d read about this in other features, but only when I reach the place does the contrast seem clearer. The first thing that catches my eye are the spice packets on the shelves, neatly labelled and packed in old-school brown paper packaging.
At first glance, one might mistake this to be a shop selling newfangled coffee or tea blends!
A Piece Of Family History
The story of Anthony The Spice Maker dates back to 1979, after the family relocated into the Housing Development Board (HBD) flats from the kampong. The family was formerly in the trade of purchasing raw, untreated shark’s fin, which they would treat and clean in order for restaurants to use in cooking.
The job of a shark’s fin trader and cleaner was a smelly one, especially when brought into a HDB flat – it was unsurprising that they received complaints, owing to the nature of the job.
Upon the suggestion of government officials, Jack’s grandfather took up a new trade – selling spices in a stall at a wet market. He sent two family members to Little India to learn from a spice merchant the basics of handling spice, as well as how to turn the spices into paste, or rempah.
Anthony helped out actively at the stall, where he grew to learn and understand the distinct cooking style that each race adopts for their recipes. Today, he runs the Chinatown outlet of the brand, while Jack runs the Ang Mo Kio outlet.
Carrying On A Family Legacy
However, growing up, Jack did not always foresee himself joining the family business. Jack, who describes himself as someone who “didn’t have to worry about money” when he was young, explains that the decision to join the family business resulted from a combination of factors.
After completing his National Service obligations, reality struck and he was forced to consider what he wanted to do as a career to sustain himself financially.
“I wanted to go into the arts scene in Singapore; I love sketching, painting and photography,” he says, explaining that the thought of being a tattoo artist also crossed his mind. However, Jack had persistent and chronic back aches then – which meant that being a tattoo artist would be difficult.
Jack adds that his dad has always hinted – not outright, but exuding vibes – that his efforts into the spice business was for Jack’s future. For Jack, it has been clear that in his father’s eyes, it is “naturally right” for him to take over what his father has been building up for.
“Personally I do not want to disappoint him, and I feel kind of obligated to join in and take over,” explains Jack. Hence, after a “brief and sincere” discussion with his dad, Jack decided to join the family business to “give it a try.”
“I love challenges, (and) it was completely new to me.”
Nonetheless, Jack is also “dead serious about (the) business” – and this comes through very clearly in the midst of our conversation.
His expertise, passion, and knowledge for cooking and quality food surpass what I would expect of the average millennial. Hence, it also comes as little surprise to me that he considers himself an “extremely rare breed.” Even in conversation, his emphasis on this is clear.
Yet, though he describes his position as “a picture where (he) doesn’t fit in,” and which can be “extremely awkward,” he remains undeterred.
“If I don’t carry this on, it might be a traditional trade that (will be) gone,” he explains.
Not A Bed Of Roses
Joining the family business wasn’t as simple or straightforward as having a job land on his lap.
Instead, Jack acknowledges that one of the greatest difficulties of working together as father and son is that each of them has an equal say and an equal amount of power in the business. This also means that the lines of family and work get easily blurred.
For this reason, Jack considers his six years with Anthony The Spice Maker as a tough journey.
Knowing that he will take over the business in the future means that Jack naturally feels responsible for it. Jack, who likens the business as a ship, likens himself to its captain.
“When you have two (captains) and the hierarchy is not clear, the two captains will tend to fight – and the ship ends up nowhere,” he explains, but not without adding that “the truth is, there is no right or wrong way to get something done – it is always a unique way.”
Hence, Jack gave up his ownership – on a personal level – a while ago, a decision which he says scared his father a lot.
Jack explains that “there was unhappiness (running the business) before (he) gave up (his) ownership,” and reasons that it was his father who created the spice business.
“It is his baby and not mine; I feel it would only be right for him to call the shots and have the final say in whatever decisions the company makes.”
In hindsight, Jack appears to be thankful for the decision to give up ownership of the business.
“The funny thing is after I gave up my ownership, it feels like (my father) trusts me even more. Not that he doesn’t trust me before, just that it feels like while I don’t want to take control, but I feel like I have more control than before,” he muses.
As Jack is a “rare breed” amongst today’s millennials, I am curious to know what he would do – if anything – to rekindle an interest in Asian cooking among millennials today.
Jack explains that if he embarks on events of this nature, it would be “(something) Singaporean, (which) reminds them of the times they help their grandmas in the kitchen.”
Tentatively, this would take the form of “a hands-on event” that is family-oriented, which involves multi-generational involvement.
“There’s always a small part inside us which is craving for acceptance from our grandparents. So, I believe if a grandchild is able to whip up a good pot of curry in front of Ah Ma or Ah Gong, it will be a very beautiful scene to look at, which benefits everyone.”
Jack is realistic and acknowledges that the incident could likely be a one-off; nonetheless, he believes that the atmosphere of appreciation will be one that is treasured across all generations alike.
His answer warms my heart, when I unexpectedly realise how much the idea appeals to me, too.
For now, however, the Anthony The Spice Maker team does hold events which aim to reach out to Singaporeans in other countries – especially Western countries in particular.
What Lies Ahead?
Jack doesn’t have specific plans – though he is clear on his requirements for the business. “(These include) gain(ing) more shares in the market in the Spice trade, and to simultaneously have a stronger buying power so we have buying power to buy for a lower price.”
He also wants to continue looking out for spices with better quality – even though they are at peak quality for their spices.
Thus far, I have had the opportunity to try the Golden Satay and Smokey Black Pepper spice blends – both part of the Grandpa’s Rub collection – as grilled pork kebabs and can vouch for the quality of the spices. Both spice blends had just the right amount of spice heat in them, and made for very tasty seasoning!
We ended our conversation with Jack giving a tidbit of advice to home cooks and aspiring home cooks –
“Keep your spices in the chiller, or freezer. And buy them in small batches!”