Taiwanese sisters, 18 & 16, run home-based bagel business in S’pore while studying full-time

Maybe don't show this article to your mum.

Natalie Teo |
January 8, 2023, 2:06 am

We’re not starting a cult but some followers on Instagram would be nice. Thank you.

Craving for a taste of home during the pandemic, sisters Kay and Kat Cheng decided to start a business serving up Taiwanese bagels.

Starting your own business is impressive enough, but what makes it even more outstanding is that both bakers are full-time students who are only 18 and 16 years old.

With recipes refined from YouTube tutorials, the sisters, who are also Singapore Permanent Residents, have been serving up their version of the snack for over a year via their Instagram account jiababa88.

The business currently operates under the Home-Based Business Scheme.

So, what is a Taiwanese bagel?

Unlike traditional bagels that have a hard crust, the Taiwanese version tends to be soft and chewy, and made with Asian flavours such as sesame, red bean and matcha.

Kay and Kat were inspired by the trending bake, which has gained popularity in Taiwan and Hong Kong in recent years.

A key ingredient which features in many of their creations is mochi—a food which Kay says brings back fond memories of her childhood.

cross section of 3 bagels displayed on a board

(L-R): Black sesame bagel with black sesame brownie and taro paste, purple sweet potato bagel with milk mochi and sweet potato paste, black sesame bagel with hojicha mochi and peanut butter.

“There was this shop in my father’s city where they just have this big pot of mochi. And it’s really simple—they just sprinkle some peanut and sesame powder on it, but it’s so good!” she says.

Masters of multi-tasking

The sisters first started the business in September 2021 with the modest idea of sharing food that they enjoyed with a small community on Instagram.

In fact, they did not tell any of their family members or friends about their entrepreneurial venture at first.

Though their parents have since found out, and have even been recruited to help out with pickups when the sisters are busy with school, the business still remains a secret from their friends.

“We thought it would just be a side interest and didn’t expect it to grow, so we didn’t really think about telling anyone. And now, I don’t know what to say to them!” Kat shares.

The sisters serve up about 120 to 200 bagels each week from their kitchen in One-North.

As full-time students and business owners, time management is crucial.

They make use of pockets of time during breaks at school and the precious minutes they have before the school day starts to reply to Instagram messages and carry out administrative tasks such as collating orders.

Time after dinner on most days is typically spent preparing and assembling the bakes of the week for pickup and delivery, which usually takes place during the weekends.

The business, Kat says, has brought the two closer, especially since they spend so much time working together.

Experimentation is key

Kay, who calls herself the “flavour incubator” of the duo, is in charge of coming up with new flavours for each of their bake sales.

The bagels of the week are often inspired by both personal preferences and trending flavours that she comes across on Taiwanese social media.

The older baker tests out her own recipes before putting them on the menu.

cross section of four bagels displayed on a board

(L-R): Matcha bagel with taro and red bean paste, sweet potato bagel with taro and sweet potato paste, matcha bagel with milk mochi and red bean paste, taro bagel with taro paste and salted egg yolk

Every ingredient is made from scratch and in small batches, since the flavours change each week.

The bagels are also made with all-natural ingredients, and are minimally sweetened. This, Kay says, is a main draw for some of her customers, who are parents looking for a healthy snack for their children.

The flavours are also a selling point for her growing number of fellow Taiwanese customers in search of a familiar taste.

They’ve even had customers from France and Malaysia make an order while in town for a holiday.

Trial and error

However, things started off rocky for the Kat and Kay.

With no prior experience in running a business, they first collated orders by manually writing them down in a notebook.

“We had no idea how to standardise anything, and we messed up quite a few orders,” says Kat.

Though they tried to make amends by resending orders and issuing refunds, some of their customers remained dissatisfied, which greatly demoralised them.

Once, they even had to buy a replacement mini oven after their home oven broke down.

Despite these setbacks, the sisters pushed through, taking in feedback on the way to improve their offerings.

To date, they’ve had more than 50 flavour combinations, and are constantly working on new and innovative ones, such as this festive Halloween special with bagels shaped like mini pumpkins.

Their efforts have paid off – within the year, they’ve made enough from their bakes to cover their initial investment in equipment.

So, what’s next for Jiababa?

With Kay leaving for university soon, what’s next for the duo?

Now that travel restrictions have lifted, they have plans to invite their their Taiwanese cousins from the F&B industry over to contribute to the Jiababa menu in future.

For now though, the siblings will continue to focus on perfecting their core product.

You can order from Jiababa via jiababa.cococart.co, or follow them on Instagram at @jiababa88.

Top image by Natalie Tan, Jiababa’s Instagram page

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