Everyone loves a success story, and when it is one as sweet as Awfully Chocolate’s, the temptation is simply too great to resist. That was why, within hours of the invitation, over 70 CapitaLand staff signed up for the company’s ICE (Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship) Talk by Awfully Chocolate’s founder, Lyn Lee.
“We are all so familiar with the Awfully Chocolate brand and have read and heard so much about how the business started off, I just wanted to hear from her first hand,” said Melissa Chin, Leasing Executive, Funan DigitaLife Mall, CapitaMalls Asia.
Others warmed to the idea of a business built on one of the most universally loved candies.
“I love chocolates and wanted to know what her business model is,” said Belinda Kee, Manager, Legal and Secretariat (Commercial), CapitaLand Singapore.
Since the inception of the ICE programme in 2007, there have been 17 ICE talks and visits. These sharing sessions by and excursions to progressive companies in various industries are designed to inspire CapitaLand’s employees to innovate, create and be entrepreneurial.
Being entrepreneurial was precisely why others came to the talk.
“I wanted to learn from them their entrepreneurial spirit and how they started the business,” shared Zhao Hanbin, Senior Executive, Business Development & Asset Management, North Asia, The Ascott Limited.
It Started with a Dream
Like many great endeavours, it started with a dream. In Lyn’s case, it was a dream for that perfect chocolate cake.
“The whole idea began because of my love of chocolates. I wanted a chocolate cake that those who liked the taste of chocolate but didn’t like rich and creamy concoctions would enjoy- a cake to showcase the pure taste of chocolate, something you would be able to eat again and again.” began Lyn.
The then lawyer, who was only in her twenties; and a few close friends, including fellow lawyer and boyfriend at that time and now husband and business partner, spent a year’s worth of weekends working on that single dream. But it was more than just a culinary quest.
“We were all employees at that time with our own jobs. We used to meet to talk about our work and how to manage our situations. We had our own theories on how to run a business. So we decided to start a little business on the side to test out these theories,” explained Lyn.
Dare to be Different
Then, came the time to transform thoughts into action.
“No bank would ever loan us the money to start a business. We had all been working only about one to three years. We didn’t want to borrow from our parents because these ventures carry risks. We wanted to be conservative,” said Lyn.
So, the partners pooled together what money they had instead and realised they did not have much.
“We had only about a quarter of the budget it would take to start a regular cake shop,” laughed Lyn.
But that only forced them to be creative, which ended up making their brand different and distinct.
“We couldn’t get a shop in Orchard Road because the rent would be too high. So we settled for a place in Joo Chiat because it was a food enclave and we wanted to tap on that vibe. We sourced for second-hand equipment instead of buying new ones,” said Lyn.
“We were very focused. The business was going to be about one cake, one product. People were horrified that we were not even going to slice up the cake, we were selling it whole!”
Until Awfully Chocolate came along, there was no cake shop in Singapore, at least, that ever succeeded on a single product.
“Because we had only one product, we could bypass the regular chocolate suppliers and go straight to the manufacturer. We convinced them to customise the chocolate for us. We dictated everything – the roasting time, the grade and kind of cocoa, the amount of cocoa butter to put. It took guts for small players like us to approach them. But we were so passionate, they were won over.”
Driven by Passion
But Lyn was careful to add that a dream and being different are only enough to get a business started. Drive and dynamism are what causes a business to thrive.
“I am always on the move, always on my feet. I go down to all the stores, I clear the tables, help out, carry things, rush around, multi-task. I am very hands-on,” said Lyn when asked how a chocoholic could possible remain as svelte as she was.
The food business is a brutal one, she also reminded, with long hours and low returns. Those who go into need to be aware of that and be willing to put in the hours.
Discovering Other Dreamers
To protect the culture of the company, Lyn is careful about who they hire. They make no compromises even though there is a labour crunch in the food and beverage industry.
“Everyone who works with us, right down to the auntie who sweeps our floors in the office, is dynamic. Our team has a certain edge and there is a buzz in our office,” said Lyn.
To further foster this dynamism, Lyn encourages her staff to innovate and credits the evolution of the company to the vibrancy they bring.
“Until 2010, we were only selling three types of cake and one ice-cream,” said Lyn. “Then the staff asked to reinvent the shops to offer single servings and different products to take advantage of walk-by crowds at the mall.”
Today, Awfully Chocolate not only has chocolate cakes but also sells chocolate ice-cream, chocolate and has full dine-in restaurants like Loola’s and Nine Thirty as well.
In the same way, Lyn also supports her staff in their other endeavours, acting as a mentor-cum-venture capitalist for their budding business ideas. This adds to not only the dynamism of Awfully Chocolate but also nurtures the SME environment in Singapore.
“Everything With Fries started in 2009 because my staff loves to eat fries and they wanted to sell a product that youngsters these days love but a more wholesome version. So, we make all our own sauces, and patties,” said Lyn.
There is another food venture involving local desserts in the works that is also the brainchild of her staff, she revealed.
15 years, 10 Awfully Chocolate stores in Singapore, 16 licensed ones across Asia, six different restaurants with more to come in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai – Awfully Chocolate is proof that dreaming, being different, and staying dynamic is really the recipe for success.