Her darkest moments prepared F&B CEO Jocelyn Chng to steer through COVID-19
Christine Leow // June 3, 2020, 4:05 pm
During the current economic uncertainty of COVID-19, business decisions that once drew criticism have turned into lifelines for Chng's companies. “I don’t know the purpose (of COVID), but I fear nothing because He says He will never leave nor forsake us." (Hebrews 13:5) All photos courtesy of Jocelyn Chng.
At age 21, she lost her father. At 37, she was widowed – just eight months after her beloved grandmother passed on suddenly. Naysayers disparaged her abilities and innovations. Contractors made off with her money. She also saw the ravages of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) on her business.
It’s an understatement to say that F&B CEO Jocelyn Chng has experienced more than her fair share of life challenges in her 53 years.
She was just a second-year student at the National University of Singapore when her father passed away after a prolonged battle with colon cancer. While juggling studies, she took over the flailing family business to help her mum feed her five siblings.
But she sees redemption in each soul-wrenching episode.
“I don’t know the purpose but I fear nothing because He says: ‘I am with you always’.”
“God showed a lot of mercy and grace. He helped me pull through. As I was seeing the impossible, God reminded me He was there in my darkest moment,” said Chng, managing director of Sin Hwa Dee, known for its sauces and cooking mixes. She is also CEO of JR Group, an international food manufacturing and F&B company she started with her late husband.
She knows God will be no different in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
She looks to the bible verse in her room: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
“I don’t know the purpose, but I fear nothing because He says: ‘I am with you always’.
“As I’m telling you this, tears are rolling down because I’ve really experienced this again and again,” she told Salt&Light.
During the current economic uncertainty of COVID-19, Chng’s business decisions that once drew detractors have turned into lifelines for her companies. In particular, her hot food vending machine business.
“People didn’t believe in it. But I kept believing the vision even when they didn’t.”
In 2003, while at a trade fair, her late husband Richard Wong caught on to the idea of bringing hot food vending machines to Singapore.
In 2016 – more than a decade later – Chng opened Singapore’s first vending machine café with a cluster of six vending machines that dispensed everything from drinks and snacks to cooked meals and desserts.
In the years between genesis and fruition of her husband’s dream, Chng lost him to lymphoma – within two weeks of being diagnosed.
Critics did not think hot food vending machines were sustainable on an island with an abundance of hawker centres, food courts and restaurants.
“When God opens doors, everything falls into place.”
Chng had to convince manufacturers, solution providers and customers because the idea was so far out of the box.
“It was so hard for 10 years. People didn’t believe in it. But I kept believing the vision even when they didn’t,” said Chng.
She did not know it then, but God was preparing her business for the current economic downturn. No doubt, the months since the coronavirus hit Singapore’s shores have been difficult for Chng. But she maintains that they have been “exciting times”.
“With eateries only doing takeouts and deliveries so expensive, people have been turning to our vending machines.
“Because of the better-than-expected business from the vending machines, we are able to get a lot of new insights into customer taste and eating patterns based on what foods they pick.
“A lot of people say: ‘Wah, you got vision!’ How can I say I have vision? … it was God who gave the vision.”
“We are experiencing so many new things which we have not done before.”
There has also been an increase in demand for the JR Group’s other offerings as Singapore hunkered down to eating and cooking at home. They include Chef-in-Box cooked and chilled meals that can be easily heated, as well as Sin Hwa Dee’s range of sauces and mixes.
The ready-to-eat meals were also part of Wong’s vision. He had wanted to supply these not just to homes, but to hotels, restaurants and caterers as well.
“When the Circuit Breaker happened and restaurants and eateries could only offer takeout, they bought from us because many of them have limited staff and no central kitchen.”
“The diversification has helped us,” said Chng of the increase in demand for these products even as the catering and restaurant arms of her business are affected.
“A lot of people say: ‘Wah, you got vision!’ How can I say I have vision? At that time, it was God who gave the vision.
“Now, I am seeing that it was paving the way for us to survive in this situation. It is all God’s plan.
“It’s very scary,” she said of how wonderfully God has pulled everything together.
Known in the industry to be genuine, caring and friendly, Chng has always made it a point to build relationships with customers and employees. These contacts have been invaluable to her business during this season.
“During this crisis, I have friends calling me and asking me to cook meals for workers in the dormitories. I happen to have two Indian chefs. So I asked if they could provide suitable meals.” They could.
“Another friend asked me to prepare lunches for children who had to return to school during home-based learning. Then, a partner asked us to provide meals for those being quarantined.”
Friends have also been coming forward to donate meals to those in homes and shelters and getting Chng’s company to prepare the food.
On her part, she offers a special discount for all sponsored meals.
“When God opens doors, everything falls into place.”
“We have always wanted to supply meals to thousands. Today, we are feeding thousands.”
Years before, Chng had a dream. In it, she saw herself feeding thousands much like Jesus did with five loaves and two fishes in the Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-14).
It was just shortly after her husband passed away. Chng did not quite understand what it meant, but it placed a seed of desire in her heart.
“We have always wanted to supply meals to thousands. Today, we are feeding thousands,” said Chng.
“And we already had ingredients in our warehouse because were preparing for Chef-in-Box.”
Her 300-strong staff, too, have taken well to this season of challenges and change.
“We spoke to the restaurant staff: ‘Can you come back to the central kitchen and work? The job may be different. You may no longer be a service staff but a packer; you used to be a Japanese chef but now you have to cook rice instead.’
“They understand and they continue to work and we continue to pay them. We don’t lay off anyone because they still need the job.
“It’s a bit tough for the company. We don’t slash their pay even if the job scope changes. We are trying to ride through the storm.”
Lessons in loss
It’s not the first time that Chng has had to ride through a storm created by a viral outbreak.
“I don’t understand God’s wisdom, but I trust His will.”
“During SARS in 2003, I was fighting the battle quite alone because my sister, Kathleen, whom I now work very closely with was due to deliver her firstborn.”
Chng’s other siblings were too young to help in the business. “They don’t even remember the SARS episode.”
Even worse, her maternal grandmother passed on in April of that year. Chng was especially close to her. When her parents lost their jobs and started a small business to make ends meet, Chng’s grandparents cared for her. She was just 11 years old, the eldest of six children.
Then, less than a year after her grandmother’s passing, her husband died.
Chng believes the losses offer lessons that will fortify her for this season.
“I keep a prayer journal. Things that I saw as dead ends have turned around because with God nothing is impossible”. (Matthew 19:26)
“I believe everything that happens has a reason. (Romans 8:28) This has kept me going.”
Keeping the faith
Chng clung on to these verses when her two older sons fell ill with high fevers during the COVID-19 period.
“It started with Joel. His fever was so high he had to be warded in a hospital.”
Joel had just returned from the United Kingdom and the family feared he had contracted COVID-19. It turned out to be a bacterial infection. He has since recovered.
Then his older brother Noel got very sick. “His fever went on for days and it was so high, almost 40 degrees,” said Chng.
Again, the family feared that it was COVID-19. They sent him to the hospital.
“Things that I saw as dead ends have turned around because with God nothing is impossible.”
“It turned out to be dengue. But because of the COVID-19 situation, I couldn’t even visit him. His blood platelet count dropped to 12,000 when the normal range is between 150,000 to 450,000.
“He was so weak he couldn’t even pick up the phone to reply my texts.” The family prayed for him through their chat group.
Noel, too, has since recovered.
Through it all, Chng holds unwaveringly to the one big lesson she had learnt through her life. And which she believes will tide her through this pandemic: “God always has a purpose. We just have to wait for his timing.
It’s just a matter of time before it is all over, says Chng of the pandemic. “I don’t understand God’s wisdom, but I trust His will.”