Dubai: Irvins Salted Egg is a fast emerging, home-grown snacks giant of Singapore, specialising in a very niche Southeast-Asian delight.
The key to its customers' taste buds: Salted egg yolk.
In Southeast Asia, salted egg yolk is an ingredient that's long been used in small quantities, mostly as a condiment. Now, Irvins it taking it to the big stage.
In so doing, Irvins Salted Egg has taken Asia’s taste buds by storm, with products described as “rich, sweet and habit-forming.”
On its packets are printed words of caution: "Dangerously addictive."
It's a millennial's way of sending a simple, but key, message. Even by Singapore’s standards, Irvins offered something new and exciting. The company is now based on an industrial estate in Singapore's Ang Mo Kio district.
In some Irvins shops, customers often face limits on the number of bags they can buy filled with its signature snack.
Founded in 2015, Irvin's Salted Egg got off to a pretty challenging start. And it's recently become embroiled in a social media storm.
Rise and rise
Founder Irvin Gunawan, 33, was born in Indonesia. He came to Singapore as a child after his parents fled the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Suharto regime.
Having been raised in Singapore, and attended university in Australia, he returned to island state to set up an Indonesian restaurant in the city's central business district.
It was tough place to run a food and drink business in — costs were high and footfall was limited outside of office hours.
It flopped. Gunawan's first restaurant shut down after two years. Undeterred, he used what he learnt from the first one to make things better.
He quickly opened a second one, offering Malaysian and Singaporean seafood, instead.
It was in this second restaurant venture where he started selling salted egg chips. First, he offered them as a side-dish, then as a packaged snack that customers could take away.
The salted egg chips became a hit. He took it forward, rebranded and did his own research and development, with the help of the Singaporean government.
21number of Irvins Salted Egg outlets
The company is now based on an industrial estate in Singapore's Ang Mo Kio district.
It turned out, his two failed restaurant businesses gave him key stepping stones. Gunawan said he had no idea about just how rapidly his creation would take off. What was created first as an added revenue stream, the chips became his main revenue stream.
6Number of countries where Irvins Salted Egg how a physical store. Its products are also available online, through Lazada.
Within four years, Irvins Salted Egg has grown from one tiny kitchen with three employees to 300 people spread across 21 outlets in six countries, including Singapore.
Though Irvins Salted Egg gets support from the government, it remains privately owned, having not taken on any investment money. It is funded by personal savings, preferring to grow organically.
It's become a family business, with Gunawan's brothers now both part of the company — Ivan Gunawan as CFO and the Irchan Gunawan as chief operations manager (COO).
Interview with Gulf News
The following is an interview (via email) Gulf News did with Irvin Gunawan, 33, CEO of Irvins Salted Egg, about his company and the direction they’re taking.
Gulf News: As the founder of the company, did you have an idea of just how rapidly Irvin's Salted Egg would take off?
Irvin Gunawan: I had not the slightest idea when we began that the brand is going to be this big, we were just trying things in order for the Irvins seafood restaurant to survive.
How tough/easy was it to thrive in the restaurant business in Singapore?
Irvin Gunawan: Restaurant business is never easy anywhere in the world. We have to create fresh products on the spot and there are a hundred variables that may cause the quality and service to go up and down.
And while it’s a cash business, we have to face high labour and rental costs as well every month. It’s fun, challenging and frustrating at the same time.
How tough or easy did to find it to break into the chips business?
Irvin Gunawan: Our journey to the chips business and the growth of the popularity of the brand is a gradual process of over 3 years.
He approached the Food Innovation and Research Centre (FIRC) at Singapore Polytechnic to solve one problem: His company's fish skin and potato chips had a shelf life of just three weeks, making it nearly impossible to export the snacks.
In his case, the solution involved finding the right kind of packaging for the products.
"If you have a good barrier in the packaging, it doesn't allow water, air and sunlight to go through and you have a better chance for the shelf life," Gunawan told the Business Times.
"We tried different kinds of materials and flushed in nitrogen to replace the oxygen inside. It took a number of experiments to get to the one-year shelf life."
It felt easy because there was a lot of excitement in those three years. We were on a high-growth mode, even though behind the scenes the whole team is putting hours and hours of tireless work.
What do you say to people who call you the "King" of premium salted egg chips in Asia?
Irvin Gunawan: I don’t like to be called “king”. I feel the responsibility to have to prove ourselves again and again. Maybe, after we have (scored) 10 successes, then it’s OK.
Where did you get the idea of making sell salted egg chips? Did you have them as a child? Did you imagine it would be a hit to customers, when you first offered them as a side-dish on the menu?
Irvin Gunawan: It came from our restaurant menu. We were famous for our salted egg crab (a Singaporean traditional dish), literally, like everyone who eat at our restaurant would order it.
I had the cheeky idea of expanding that dish to a bigger menu that includes things such as chicken, lotus, mushroom, and of course the fish skin and potato chips.
They were a hit with the customers. Because they loved our sauce, which is runny–sweet-salty, compared to other restaurants which usually served the dry type.
The pace of expansion of Irvins has been quite mercurial. How do you manage such a huge spike in demand? Do you think it as a good problem to have? What were the key challenges you face?
Irvin Gunawan: Yes it was, thank you, we were very blessed. The challenge is always adapting from running a small team (disorganised) to a big team (structured).
There are 100 things that we learnt by doing the first time on this journey which I am grateful for.
What are the key lessons for you in terms of managing suppliers as, from what I understand, many of your raw materials come from different parts of South East Asia?
Finding good suppliers who want to grow and be your partner long term, whose focus is on quality, not short term money-making, (is a challenge).
Singapore has good importers and suppliers of food stuff from all over Asia s, that makes it easier for us. We still need to quality-audit each individual factory, however.
Irvin's salted egg chips had taken Asia's taste buds by storm. The market acceptance of your products cannot be denied. Given the extremely popularity, what do you say to your detractors?
I don’t really listen to detractors. The good — and bad — thing about me is I am not a social media person.
You're on Amazon, Lazada and other online platforms... but you're also building physical, pop-up stores everywhere.
They go hand in hand, it’s the O2O (online-to-offline) model.
When did you start expanding overseas? How many branches do you have now outside Singapore? You have your hands full... how many more stores are planned this year and next year?
We started first with the Philippines 2 years ago. Now we have 13 stores in 5 countries (Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, the UAE [Dubai] and the Philippines).
You think your success is partly due to explosion of social media, and how your customers rave about your chips?
No, I don’t think it’s because of the explosion of social media, although it certainly helps. It’s because the quality and uniqueness of our product, that’s what makes it long term viable, and not a fad.
The Thai woman revealed on Facebook that a dead gecko was found in a pack of Irvins Salted Egg Fish Skin.
Irvins, based in Singapore, did not prevaricate. Instead of shilly-shallying, the company immediately and “sincerely apologiSed”, with a promise to investigate further.
The social storm, later caught traction with traditional media outlets.
In a press release, Irvins stated they were “shocked and devastated” to hear about the incident, and that “sincerely apologise” for it and promised to “take full responsibility for the goods that [they] sell”.
They also reached out to the customer — and “will continue to do so to make sure that she and her family is all right”.
Though the company said they cannot fully explain how it happened, Irvins also said will make the necessary changes in their production process “to ensure this will never happen again.”
Irvins resorted to simple humanity. Irvin Gunawan, the company’s 33-year-old CEO, personally apologized.
After one of the customers reported the incident to Singapore’s food regulator, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA), the company said it was cooperating with the authority.
After a probe, AVA informed the customer it did not find hygiene problems at Irvins’ premises.
Irvins, for its part, said it was open to recalling — and refunding — salted egg snacks that expire on October 16, 2019.
Customers who are “uncomfortable with consuming [their] snacks” can also return their products and get a refund should, after emailing their Customer Experience team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“All recalled products would be disposed of,” they added.
A company is made up of people. Authenticity — not canned corporate spin — is key: The attitude a company reflects the ethos of the people the run it.
Following the gecko storm, what happened next, the words used and actions taken by Irvins won over the hearts of many.
It was no PR stunt, but it won over people to its side, with some customers commenting “PR crisis management at its best”.