19-year-old ITE College student Nadira Zaini started dabbling in an Instagram home-based food business Na Cuisine just two months ago when Covid-19 began to cause financial strain on her parents.
She roped her entire family into the business to boost production, but also to ensure that revenue is kept within the family.
This is crucial because the business is currently the only source of income for her family of four.
For the Hospitality Operations student, it never really occurred for her to start a business, much less one that is unrelated to what she is studying.
But as with most home-based businesses that emerge from the pandemic, tough times force them to do things they never thought possible.
Finding opportunities during a pandemic
Prior to June, Nadira’s father, Zaini, was working as a private hire driver for Grab.
At the height of Covid-19 in Singapore, there was a sharp decline in ridership which naturally affected his earnings.
With earnings so low, he could barely cover fuel costs.
Eventually, the father of two decided to stop driving altogether.
Nadira’s mother, Variya Oylao, was also struggling with her job managing a Muay Thai gym.
In Phase 2, new rules allowed for organised classes of up to 5 persons only, and this drastically affected the gym and her revenue.
The family’s financial future was at stake, so they knew they had to collectively find a solution before it became a crisis.
They looked inwards to see what they could do together as a family, and quickly decided to lean into Variya’s Thai roots.
Variya was born and raised in Chiang Rai, Thailand. In the mid-90s, she met Zaini, got married and moved to Singapore.
Variya takes pride in her Thai heritage, particularly its cuisine. So when things got dire, she turned to her cooking as a potential source of income.
Coincidentally, Zaini has 10 years experience in sales and marketing of Thai and Indonesian food, so starting a small F&B business was a no-brainer for him too.
Variya is now in charge of the kitchen, churning out authentic Thai food using recipes that have been passed down from her Thai family.
Nadira manages the business online presence and orders on Instagram.
Zaini and his son, Firdaus, are responsible for delivering the food to customers.
Whipping up home-style Thai dishes
Na Cuisine’s forte is definitely traditional Thai food.
However, unlike food in Thai restaurants that are decidedly more complex or ornate, the food from Na Cuisine is remarkably simple.
If you have ever eaten at a hole-in-a-wall eatery or roadside stall in Thailand, Na Cuisine’s food will evoke a similar homely and unpretentious vibe.
The food menu is also very lean, comprising of only four dishes at this point.
Their best-selling item, according to Nadira, is certainly their mango sticky rice ($6).
Whilst its recipe is very traditional, Variya took creative liberty to produce multi-coloured sticky rice so as to appeal to visually-driven customers on Instagram.
She is also able to customise orders in varying degrees, with the most recent creation being a mango sticky rice cake which is essentially the same Thai dessert in cake form.
Na Cuisine’s Basil Leaf Chicken ($6) is delicious and adequately spicy. It also has a slightly anise-like flavour which we appreciate.
But of all the dishes we tried, we absolutely love their salads.
The Vermicelli Salad ($8), as we understand, is a staple dish in any Thai home, and theirs definitely felt very homely.
The flavours are bright and refreshing, unabashedly spicy, ideal to tempt a jaded appetite. We also appreciate the medium-sized prawns in the salad.
Similarly, the Papaya Salad ($8) or som tum has more or less the same elements, except for the green papaya that provides a satisfying crunch.
There are also five spice levels to choose from. We went for middle of the road, and it was already quite fiery, so be warned.
Family business not without its challenges
When asked about her experience running the business with family thus far, Nadira says that it is definitely eye-opening.
Despite working with people she are close with, problems are still inevitable.
For instance, miscommunication happens from time to time.
As Nadira only takes manual orders via DM on Instagram, it can get quite overwhelming at times, resulting in mistakes down the line.
Taking orders via an online form is something that Nadira had tried in the past, however customers still prefer to speak one-on-one via DMs.
Yet, Nadira acknowledges that automation has to happen eventually, especially if she wants the business to grow.
Her mum, Variya, certainly wants to grow the business and increase her daily capacity.
“She is currently making up to 70 boxes of mango sticky rice a day,” Nadira says. “But she wants to increase it to 100!”
As it is, Variya wakes up at 5am every morning to start cooking. But she does not seem to mind it at all.
In fact, on top of increasing capacity, Variya is also keen to introduce more items to the menu once they have achieved a steady flow of customers.
If the four dishes we tried are anything to go by, we suspect Variya has more interesting ideas up her sleeves, and we cannot wait to see what happens next for this family.
To place an order, fill up the order form on @nacuisine_.
This story is brought to you in collaboration with Na Cuisine.