Food is the focus of Joycelyn Tjioe’s family business. Her late father, Zhou Ying Nam, opened his first restaurant, Charming Garden, in 1980, but it was her brother Andrew who founded the Tung Lok Group in 1984, which was family-owned until it was listed in 2001. Both Andrew and another sister Tjioe Ka In, currently work for the company — he serves as president and CEO, while she is its COO. Tung Lok Group currently owns and manages 42 outlets across Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, China and Vietnam.
In her 20s, Tjioe (say ‘chew’) was a music teacher. She next joined her father’s now-defunct garment business in Singapore (it manufactured mostly undergarments for European export), before becoming a member of the Tung Lok Group some 30 years ago. She started out as a personal assistant to the purchaser and worked her way up to her current position of Senior Vice-President of Administration.
Taking care of business
Each generation brings fresh ideas to the table, Tjioe shares. For example, Andrew’s plan for the group is to launch a promising brand in every new geographical market, and focus on quick service restaurants and casual dining concepts to offer greater convenience and choice to consumers.
Her eldest son, Norman Hartono, 30, who joined the company as the head of Business Development and Marketing, would also come up with new ideas and concepts. “He started as an intern with the company during school holidays and after graduation, he was offered a job to help develop trendy concepts and franchising overseas in countries such as Indonesia, Japan and Russia. He always comes into a meeting with unique ideas that we can explore. For instance, he conceptualised the menus of Dancing Crab and Lokkee, our modern concept restaurants,” she says, beaming proudly.
“Before the company was listed, we could run the business based on our passion. We could create concepts that we liked without focusing on the profit margin. We could take our time to perfect the ideas. Now, the focus is creating shareholder value to increase earnings. If we have a new concept, we have to convince our shareholders that it will be profitable, otherwise we have to let it go after three years. But the upside is that we have family members working together and sharing ideas,” Tjioe says matter-of-factly.
Work pressure and tension are inevitable. “Thankfully, I have a supportive and understanding spouse,” she says of her husband of 33 years, Thomas Hartono. He is the managing director of PT Anandini Vimala, and the company conceptualises lifestyle projects such as resorts and villas. “He knows how work stress can be pressurising and empathises with me. He’s always there when I need someone to talk to or discuss something with.”
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Leading the way
In Tung Lok, Tjioe is in charge of not just procurement but also negotiating with landlords and looking for good, reliable locations for expansion. When it comes to the former, she makes it a point to source from sustainable suppliers. “We make frequent trips to farms and leading suppliers to source for wholesome, reliable food provisions for variety, and also because we want to cast our network wider and not just limit ourselves to a few traders,” she shares.
Her eco-consciousness was driven in part by the worsening haze situation in Indonesia some years ago. Farmers there favour the slash-and-burn agricultural method — the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to clear land, usually for palm oil plantations — which not only destroys the ecosystem, but also releases a huge volume of greenhouse gases and causes thick smogs that negatively impact agriculture productivity locally. The smog also affects the quality of life and health of the people in the neighbouring countries, which in turn also impacts the productivity of agriculture, driving up produce prices and indirectly affecting Tung Lok’s business.
Three years ago, Singapore experienced its worst haze crisis, and Tjioe decided she wasn’t going to sit back and wait for solutions. She joined the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international non-governmental body that is in the field of wilderness preservation and the reduction of human impact on the environment. Tung Lok is also part of the South-east Asia Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil, an initiative led by the WWF, and Tjioe spearheaded the group’s commitment to have all its restaurants switch to using sustainable palm oil, and also to encourage its suppliers to use only sustainable palm oil for its products.
“We also endeavour to play our part in being a responsible citizen of earth by changing our plastic cutlery, straws and plateware to 100 percent biodegradable and compostable materials. The group also switched to using bamboo for its napkins and wet tissues in 2017,” she says proudly.
It doesn’t stop there. As consumers are becoming ever more health conscious, Tung Lok, in 2016, became the first company in Singapore to join the Health Promotion Board’s drive to get F&B companies to replace sugar with healthier alternatives as part of its War On Diabetes campaign. “We’ve started using Allulose, a low-calorie cane sugar substitute found in certain fruits, for some of our desserts and cakes, such as this year’s moon cakes,” Tjioe shares.
By Tjioe’s own admission, her parents are her role models. “They taught my siblings and I that in business, we shouldn’t be afraid to try something untested; we shouldn’t be daunted by failure. They also stressed that we need to have passion in whatever we do and to care for our staff,” she says.
“Family means love, care, respect and support. We share laughter and tears. Their presence reminds us that we’re not alone,” says Tjioe reflectively. For her, family is everything, and this includes the in-laws and her siblings, along with their extended families. She may be half a globe away, but if ever any of her family needs her, she will be there in a flash.
Even though she’s a regular on the social circuit, Tjioe says she, in fact, prefers to spend time at home with her family and friends. She loves travelling, working on flower arrangement, and enjoys listening to music for relaxation. “My youngest, Nydia, and I enjoy our regular shopping and coffee outings on my days off,” she adds.
Her grown-up children still live in their family home in a quiet suburb in central Bukit Timah. For them, the familiar and strong family ties have never given them a reason to leave the nest, though she stresses that she will be fine when they do eventually move out. “Our children are all grown up and have their own commitments,” she explains. “Most weekends, it’s just me and my husband.”
Her eyes light up when she talks about her children. Her two younger ones are in the arts and entertainment industries while Norman joined Tung Lok Group four years ago. Nydia, 24, graduated in cinematography last year and recently interned at a Los Angeles-based production company. “She also freelanced as a photographer and cinematographer. I’m so happy that she’s now back in Singapore, but I also worry that she may not be able to find a suitable job with the limited openings here,” she shares.
Her younger son Nathan Hartono, 27, has seen his star rise after he came in first runner-up in the first season of the China variety programme Sing! China in 2016. “He just wrapped up his first movie, and is currently doing some performances in Singapore and China these few months. We travel together quite a bit — sometimes for his work — and we have the same passion for food!”
Is dieting a must to maintain her figure since she’s in the food business? Tjioe says no, although she tries to reduce her carbohydrate intake during dinner and exercises regularly. “I believe in having an exercise routine,” she says. “I go for pilates once a week — I’ve been doing that for almost a decade! I also go for brisk walks regularly; just around the neighbourhood on a weekday, and the Botanic Gardens on a Saturday or public holiday. That averages about three times a week. I believe pilates and regular walks help improve my flexibility and posture as well as increase muscle strength and tone. They also help in maintaining my weight — I am in the food business after all!” Tjioe says, laughing.
Weakness for Indonesian desserts aside, her biggest vice is jewellery, she confesses with a glint in her eyes. “I love diamonds! They’re always elegant and can be worn for any occasion.”
Fashion direction: Johnny Khoo
Art direction: Audrey Chan
Photography: Joel Low
Fashion styling: Jacquie Ang
Hair: Vanessa Choo/Duo using Kevin Murphy
Makeup: Cindy Goh using Cle De Peau Beauté
Photography assistance: Alfie Pan
Fashion assistance: Hillary Kang