Meet the Singaporean - Stephen Suriyah

Meet the Singaporean - Stephen Suriyah
Let’s start with how ‘The Original Vadai’ began. What was it like in the early days? 

It first started with my mother who found a way to create a fluffier and lighter version of prawn vadai (dough fritter) to cater to Singaporean taste buds. She started selling them at Ramadan bazaars in the late 1980s, and it became a hit. It has now become a ‘traditional’ snack that customers look forward to breaking fast with during Ramadan!  

How was it like when you first took over the family business? 

I first took over the family business when I was 18 years old.

After my father passed away, my mother was the sole breadwinner of our family. She worked odd jobs apart from running the vadai stall to provide for the family – such as being a cleaner and a carpark attendant. But things got bad. There was a time when she couldn’t afford to pay for my school fees, nor give me an allowance. 

Being the youngest child, I am very close to my mother. I really wanted to help her with the stall. That’s when I decided to drop out of school. At that time, I had only planned to work at the bazaar until our finances stabilised so that I could afford to go back to study. However, after completing my National Service, I continued to work at the bazaar for the next ten years. 

What were some of the challenges you faced along this journey, and how did you overcome them? 

One of the many challenges I faced was trying to set up a brick-and-mortar store. When we were running a bazaar stall, the money we earned was not consistent and we hardly made any profit. We thought setting up a proper shopfront could be the solution. However, our first two attempts weren’t successful, and we lost $70,000-$80,000 each time. 

Interestingly, an opportunity came along when I was encouraged to tender for a stall at Golden Mile Food Centre. At first, I was sceptical about the location but eventually decided to go for it. I secured a unit in early 2020, and figured I’d just wait till after the Ramadan bazaar to set it up.

But COVID happened and my plans had to change. Without even a signboard, I started operations on 26 April 2020 – the fourth day of Ramadan. A Facebook post that I’d uploaded about our soft launch went viral, and the queues were crazy by the second day! My siblings had to help because I just couldn’t handle the order volume. It was really hectic but I’m thankful that even when all doors were closed, this door remained open for us – and that was how I started our first shop. Two years on, and we’ve since opened ten outlets!

(Photo by Type A)

After a few years of running the family business, you finally went back to school to get your diploma. What made you decide to do so?

My wife (then-girlfriend from my polytechnic days) had been nudging me over the years to continue my studies. I decided that I wanted to study something that I could apply in my day-to-day life, running the vadai business. So I took up a part-time diploma in Business Management. 

How was it like juggling between your business and studies?

Getting a diploma wasn’t a walk in the park and it was stressful at times. I would often start work in the morning at the bazaar stall and leave for classes in the evening, only to return to the stall again after classes till midnight. I’d only have time to get started on school assignments when I get home in the wee hours of the morning.

Sometimes I had to skip class as there was no one else to help run the store. I was also diagnosed with tuberculosis halfway through my studies. The coughing was bad and affected my concentration at work and at school and I needed to take frequent rest breaks throughout the day.

Despite taking a few semesters off because of work, I eventually pushed through and completed my diploma in 2021 — five years later! I was so happy and proud of what I had accomplished. I’m now even thinking of continuing my studies.  

(Photo by Type A)

Has going back to school changed the way you run your business?

Before taking the diploma, I learnt everything I knew about the business from my mother. Her priority was to make money to support the family. So when people spoke to me about actually running a business, the terms and concepts they used were foreign to me!

After obtaining my diploma, I felt like I had a better understanding of the business world. I was able to assess business proposals and feel secure in the decisions I made. I was able to immediately apply what I had learnt in class to my vadai business, especially in the areas of operations and social media marketing. I remembered asking my lecturers once how I could set up a website and a payment platform — Of course, I returned the favour by treating them to vadai! 

That's amazing to hear! Is there a motto in life that you live by?

My mother is my biggest inspiration and the toughest person I know. She always did her best to provide for the family. No matter how much she struggled, she never gave up. At times when we were short on staff, she would assure me that both of us would be able to manage the store together.

So, my life motto would be my mother’s motto, “Nothing is impossible.” 

(Photo by Type A)

Do you have any advice for young Singaporeans who aren’t sure what they want to do in life?

Oh, I’ve been there and I can say that it’s okay to feel lost. There were times I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do either. But I believe that everybody has something that they are good at. Sometimes, you’ll only find out what you’re good at later in life, and that’s perfectly fine! 

– Stephen Suriyah, 33, Owner of The Original Vadai