The Popcorn Explosion: The Straits Union Story
April 2016, Singapore - It was 1985, and entrepreneur William Chin Tik was of the mind that Singapore’s snack scene could do with an injection of fun.
The 44-year-old qualified accountant helmed Straits Union, a 14-year-old industrial and commodities trading company with a 500-sq ft office in Syed Alwi Road. While the company had achieved success with timber, forklifts and spare parts, he was constantly on the hunt for new and untested ideas.
At the time, the ubiquitous kachang putih man still reigned supreme in many Singapore cinemas. But with the rise of popcorn’s popularity in the US and Australia, Mr Chin saw change on the horizon.
After discussions with the world's leading fun-food equipment manufacturer Gold Medal Products Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio, high quality popcorn machines and premium-grade corn from the US began to find their way into carnivals and theme parks, bars and hotels. By the 1990s, he made it onto Singapore's cinema scene in a big way.
As popcorn overtook other cinema snacks in popularity, Straits Union and Mr Chin were forerunners in bringing in new glazes and flavours. In 1994, he engineered a tie up with South Africa’s BIGGI brand, and Straits Union was appointed as its distributor of non-GMO premium grade yellow butterfly and mushroom corn kernels.
That pop hasn’t stop - the company, which has supplied leading cinemas, like Cathay Cineplexes, Eng Wah Cineplex and Shaw Theatres with popcorn machines, non-gmo corn kernels, flavourings and other fun food like nachos and cheese since the 1990s, imports a staggering 180 tonnes of corn kernels on average each year, much of which is consumed by movie-goers.
Over time, the company has also begun to cater to more demanding palates and preferences, providing more flavours and shifting to healthier flavouring ingredients.
When Mr Chin passed away last year, his elder daughter Elaine Chan, then 42, stepped in to take over.
Elaine, who started her hospitality career in 2003, has spent the last 12 years working in the hotel industry in Singapore, London and China. She has set up new hotels for brands such as Shangri-La and Kempinski, in Ningbo and Beijing.
Over the last year, Elaine, popcorn taster and assistant popper from age 12, has brought her understanding of branding and marketing to the company, sharpening its focus and modernising its operations.
Today, Straits Union supplies popcorn and nachos, as well as their machines and flavourings and other fun snack equipment, such as cotton candy floss machines, Belgian waffle and giant cone bakers, and hot dog grills to a growing customer base. They include cinemas, private gourmet popcorn labels, event organisers, hotels, restaurants, bars, and private clubs and associations.
The company supports its customers not just with supplies, but also installation, maintenance, training, after-sales technical service, customised design of fun food retail shop spaces, and by helping aspiring entrepreneurs to start up snack businesses.
On the drawing board are plans to break into supermarkets with its extended range of popcorn flavours, to add local flavours to the mix, and to expand its operations in the Asia Pacific region.
Did you know:
- Popcorn sold in cinemas like Cathay Cineplexes, Eng Wah Cineplex and Shaw Theatres comes from South Africa. It is grown in the rich soils along the Orange River, and the water used to irrigate the crop is from the diamond-rich river.
- Even before organic became a buzzword, BIGGI’s corn kernels, a non-GMO premium-grade corn, was grown in a completely natural environment.
- The kind of corn used in the cinemas Straits Union supplies to is non-gmo butterfly corn, which opens up like its namesake. This allows it to absorb flavours like salt and sugar more evenly, but are too light to take heavier flavourings. The kind usually used by gourmet corn retailers are the rounder mushroom corn, which allows flavouring and additions like nuts to be coated on in layers.
- In addition to 180 tonnes of corn from BIGGI in South Africa, Straits Unions also imports 24 tonnes of caramel, 35 tonnes of nacho corn chips, and 32 tonnes of cheese sauce from Gold Medal in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.
Straits Union was established in 1971 as industrial and commodities traders.
In 1985, Straits Union was appointed authorised distributor for fun food equipment and ingredients, manufactured and produced by USA’s Gold Medal Products Co. In 1994, Straits Union was appointed distributor for South Africa’s BIGGI Brands, producer of non-GMO ‘A’ grade yellow corn kernels. In 2016, Straits Union started distributing food products by MEXEX, a food producer from South Australia, and premium-grade corn kernels, produced by AGT Foods from South Africa.
Fun food equipment include popcorn machines, cotton candy floss machines, Belgian waffle and cone bakers, hot dog grills and bun warmers, nacho chips and cheese warmers, and more.
Raw ingredients include non-GMO 'A' grade corn kernels, buttered oil, buttered salt, flavoured sugar such as caramel and chocolate Glaze Pop, savoury flavours, including cheddar cheese, bacon and cheese, sour cream and chives, hot jalapeno, as well as low sodium baked nacho chips and cheese sauce.
The business encompasses import and distribution of fun food equipment, ingredients and snack food items, to the food service and retail sectors, including hotels, private labels, restaurants and cafes, cinemas, and event organisers etc.
For more information, please visit www.straitsunion.com.sg.
Straits Union Holdings Pte Ltd
No. 2 Kallang Pudding Road
#02-08 Mactech Industrial Building
T: +65 6741 2235 | F: +65 6741 2851
M: +65 8533 1063