Small Roots, Big Ambitions
We might be known as the little red dot, but we’re home to big talent. But what ingredients make a winning recipe for success? We speak to Irvin Gunawan and Janice Wong to find out.
Over the years, many of our local brands have embraced their entrepreneurial spirit and built themselves up from the ground. We’re proud that many of them have found a home within CapitaLand properties, and have made a name for themselves both locally and overseas.
As we celebrate our nation’s independence this month, amidst tumultuous times, perhaps it’s fitting to remind ourselves that resilience, determination, and a pioneering spirit are characteristics that have helped us, and these brands, to persevere. What ingredients make a winning recipe for success?
We reached out to IRVINS, famous for its Salted Egg Fish Skin and Salted Egg Potato Chips which has found a following amongst both locals and international visitors to Singapore. Did you know that the company has its roots in a zi char restaurant, and is distributed in 12 countries around the world? Irvin Gunawan founded Irvin’s Seafood restaurant in 2014, where salted egg crab quickly became their signature dish. They came up with about 10 dishes that also incorporated salted egg, of which the potato chips and fish skin were the most popular. It wasn’t long till Irvin decided to solely focus on building his snacks business, which he continues to grow in IRVINS’ production facility at 2 Senoko South.
We also spoke to Janice Wong, one of the names that comes to mind whenever you think of dessert in Singapore. Although Janice had originally intended to pursue the same career path as her parents—studying economics and finance in Melbourne—the fresh produce and variety of ingredients available Down Under inspired her so much that she was convinced that a change was in order. She enrolled in a pastry program at the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and set up 2am:dessertbar in Singapore in 2007. Over the years, she has also honed her craft and experimented with ideas that blend food and art, and launched her eponymous brand. Janice Wong desserts can now be found across Singapore, including a store in Raffles City, and in Tokyo.
From humble beginnings, to global ambitions—read on to find out what it takes to get there.
Often, there is no substitute for hard work.
You can expect every new brand to face different issues upon inception. For IRVINS, the issue was one of manpower—but if there’s a will, there’s a way. “We didn’t have people to help out the operations, even though business was booming,” Irvin says. “So my brother Ircahn and I took turns to deliver orders to customers' houses, and also man our pop-up stores.” Putting in the hours also meant investing time to experiment on other flavours—such as tom yam, ayam bakar, chili crab, steamed fish, and sambal—though ultimately, not all made the cut.
Embrace new challenges
Janice started creating desserts in 2007, just three years after Facebook was founded. She’s had to evolve over the years to match the digital boom, setting up an online platform in 2014, and focusing more on digital channels to engage with her customers.
“It is extremely important to connect with our customers through the digital world, so we are working towards increasing our presence with other vendors,” she says. 2020 brought about another set of challenges—the Circuit Breaker period meant that F&B businesses were severely impacted, so Janice and team adapted by bringing the Janice Wong experience to homes. The result: a Bake At Home series of cake pre-mixes and baking kits that proved to be a hit.
For Irvin, being able to meet a challenge head-on means having the right mindset. He acknowledges that the popularity of a product or a brand inevitably plateaus, but this isn’t something that he’s worried about. “It motivates us to innovate and create something new, something more unique and delicious than the last,” he says. “Salted egg has been around for centuries so I don’t think it would ever wear out, but we must find new ways to incorporate this traditional ingredient .” He’s wise enough not to pigeonhole himself, however; IRVINS has been experimenting with other ingredients as well.
In 2020, they launched the Chicken Curry Potato Chips, going back to their restaurant roots to transform one of Singapore's most iconic dishes, and in June 2021, Japanese Ebi Potato Chips were introduced.
Business owners are at risk of becoming too absorbed in numbers and charts, focusing on granular details without seeing greater possibilities. Both Irvin and Janice find it important to look up once in awhile, and take inspiration from their surroundings. “Most of my inspiration comes from cultural exchanges—I’ve lived in Japan and Hong Kong, and also studied in Australia,” Janice says. “It’s very important for me to not be subjected to just one culture and one type of flavour. My main inspiration is to inspire others, and this has helped me to think differently and push the boundaries.” In 2011, Janice set up 2am:lab, which was a non-profit expansion of 2am:dessertbar’s philosophies of discovery, innovation, and education.
Irvin’s inspiration comes from a little closer to home. “Singapore has one of the world's most unique food cultures given its diversity. This creates a rare opportunity for IRVINS to innovate within this melting pot,” he says. “Singaporeans simply love food and are never afraid to try new things, even if it's something out of this world. This inspires us to really think outside of the box and serve quality products to an audience that is so accepting.”
Always look towards what’s next.
The fast-changing, fickle nature of the F&B scene is certainly a strong motivator for constant adaptation and evolution, but this desire to always move forward is something that sets most successful brands apart. Whether it’s exploring new recipes, technologies, or avenues for creativity, it pays to pursue what’s next, as Irvin and Janice can attest. “Every day, our passionate team of chefs, R&D specialists, and food technologists are innovating and crafting new contemporary flavours and textures,” Irvins says. “We want to continue to leverage our unique location right here in Singapore, and promote its diverse food and culture to people over the world.” Janice is also widely recognised for her ingenious work that blends food and art—including marshmallow- and popsicle-covered ceilings, or edible flowers sprouting from a wall. “We embrace food technology and innovation, experimenting with ingredients, cooking techniques, and machines. This has led to the creation of many of our edible art pieces and even 3D-printed chocolates,” she says. “We’re continuing to invest in innovation, and have a new concept coming up.”
In closing, we ask Irvin and Janice about uniquely Singaporean quirks or characteristics that they can identify with. “For me, it’s a “never say die” attitude,” says Janice. “As a small nation, we're very resilient, and seek to do better every day.” Irvin concurs. “It’s important to work hard and humbly every day, like we are new challengers,” he says. “There is no bigger blocker of growth than complacency and thinking that we have achieved it all.” Wise words—ones that have not only guided them throughout their careers, but should certainly serve as sound advice to anyone who’s hoping to make it big on this little red dot.
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