Hakim Isman, 23, was working alone at Arab Street one day when he received a dreadful phone call.
Just a week ago, he had entered an agreement with the owner of a baking supplies store to retail his homemade jars of edible cookie dough at her outlet in Yishun.
That day, she called to inform him that officers from food hygiene regulator Singapore Food Agency (SFA) had dropped by after receiving a complaint against the retail sale of his products.
Limitations of HBBs
Under SFA’s guidelines, food prepared by home-based businesses (HBB) are not to be sold to retail food establishments or at temporary fairs. Such food should only be prepared in licensed premises or obtained from “approved sources”.
Shaken by the unexpected turn of events, Hakim immediately suspended sales of the remaining jars of cookie dough at the shop, and posted on @thecookiebrothers.co about the complaint and that he would be fined by SFA. This was based on his understanding of the situation then.
“I decided to be transparent about it. I also didn’t want customers to come down, not knowing that the cookie dough wasn’t available anymore,” he shared.
Then SFA knocked on his door
A few days later, Hakim was again caught by surprise when four SFA officers showed up at his house for an inspection. Fortunately, Hakim had completed a basic food hygiene course in early January, and made sure to implement the food safety practices learnt.
“Thankfully, every single time I do my baking it’s all organised properly. For example, there’s only edible cookie dough in the freezer, with nothing else like raw meat or fish. For hygiene purposes, my workspace is not near a washroom or on the ground.”
There were no findings by the officers, at least none that were made known to Hakim that day. After taking his statement, they essentially told him that no news is good news. If they need to investigate further, they would be in touch with him again. No specific timeline was given.
When The Halal Eater spoke to Hakim, he was still left in a limbo, unsure if any regulatory action would be taken against him.
Meanwhile, Hakim started a #savethecookiebrothers movement on social media to raise awareness about his experience. It gained some traction as fellow home-based business owners rallied around him.
The run-in with the authorities also sent Hakim headlong into research on how to do business “the right way”. He started reading up on food licensing and business registration so that he could take the necessary steps to continue The Cookie Brothers without breaching any rules. At the same time, he began exploring shared kitchen options and partnering with a cafe.
Not the first time he got into trouble
Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time he’d gotten into trouble over his business. Back in 2018 when he was still serving national service (NS), he had already started The Cookie Brothers by selling soft chewy cookies.
One particular Sunday evening, he was due to book into camp but was behind his baking schedule. He texted his sergeant to ask for permission to book in at 7.00am the next morning instead. His sergeant agreed.
Hakim baked until 4.00am that night, and then took a quick nap.
Except, it stretched into deep slumber. By the time he woke up, the sun was bright, and it was 10.00am.
Hakim got charged for his late reporting, and had to spend two weeks’ confinement in camp. He reflected upon his mistake and admitted to himself that it probably wasn’t the best time for him to run a side business, even though he wanted the extra cash to boost his low NS pay.
Reviving his cookie business
After he completed his NS, Hakim decided to pursue digital marketing. As a budding entrepreneur who had started at least 10 different businesses, he wanted to master the craft of marketing and branding. He began watching YouTube videos about digital marketing and listening to various audiobooks about the topic.
He picked up some freelance marketing gigs, scored an internship doing internal communications for a non-profit organisation, applied and got accepted into a part-time diploma course at Republic Polytechnic, and later found a job as a marketing executive for a tech company.
Unfortunately, the role didn’t work out for him as he felt unequipped to meet his bosses’ high expectations. In November 2020, he resigned and decided to revive The Cookie Brothers and focus on it full-time.
Instead of reverting to baking soft chewy cookies, he made a strategic decision to sell edible cookie dough.
“I felt that edible cookie dough would be so much easier in terms of the baking,” he explained. He also observed that there was a market gap and saw the potential to succeed if his branding and marketing are done right.
His parents were not thrilled with his plans to rebuild The Cookie Brothers instead of finding new employment, given his spotty history with failed businesses. But this time Hakim was determined to prove them wrong. Slowly, he showed them that he was able to invest in the business and grow back his money. He started buying baking ingredients in bulk, procuring a bigger dough mixer, and maintaining a larger inventory.
Eventually, his dad came onboard. “From him telling me to get a job every single day, now he’s giving me ideas on how to scale The Cookie Brothers.”
Nonetheless, the early days were tough, especially when business was quiet with no orders. It was then that he took the opportunity to create content on TikTok and Instagram.
Ironically, it was his marketing content about his edible cookie dough being available in a physical store that went viral and caught the attention of the person who eventually filed the complaint.
No hard feelings
In the aftermath of the complaint, Hakim has gone ahead to register his business with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. Instead of simply registering The Cookie Brothers as a sole proprietorship, he went one step further to also incorporate a holdings company called The Rebirth, which now technically owns The Cookie Brothers.
Once he figures out how to automate his edible cookie dough business, Hakim plans to revisit his previous business ideas and “rebirth” them. This time, with a stronger emphasis on marketing and branding. His next venture will likely be a clothing line.
Despite the ordeal, Hakim remained positive and had a respectful view of the entire incident. “I’m actually quite blessed that the person complained,” he said. “Thank you for complaining because if not, I wouldn’t be thinking about doing business the proper way.”
To find out more about business registration requirements in Singapore, visit ACRA’s guide.
To find out more about guidelines for food-related home-based businesses, visit SFA’s guide.
And by the way, The Cookie Brothers’ edible cookie dough is still available online. To order, visit their website www.thecookiebrothers.co. Or get them at Comme Me Das. Follow them on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook.