IT WAS A COMMITMENT to quality that turned into a condiment of quality for Daphne Hedley, CEO and co-founder of organic food brand Mekhala, a Singapore-Thai start-up that specialises in making Asian sauces and pastes. From rustic roots in the hills around Chiang Mai, through farmers’ markets and more than a few bumps in the road, the company is now en route to broader recognition in the organic food world, with Ms Hedley and sister Diane Wong at the helm.
What started a decade ago with a visit to friends who ran a corporate retreat in Northern Thailand has evolved into a career change for the Singapore-born Ms Hedley, 40, who previously led a peripatetic existence in banking and finance. Her travels took her first as a student to Australia and then to subsequent postings in Sydney, Tokyo and London, with a brief stopover for business school in France before she came back to Singapore. Along the way, she also wrote a digital children’s novel called The Peabody Academy and the Cheese Incident, a food-related fantasy fiction inspired by the Harry Potter series.
The seed for Mekhala was sown at that retreat in Chiang Mai, where the owner’s wife Jang Bauerle, a vegan and strong proponent of healthy living, was finding it difficult to source natural, high-quality and sustainable ingredients for her in-house food programme. She and Ms Hedley joined forces and began working with farms in Northern Thailand. The results were so promising that the pair decided to go into business together. The first iteration of Mekhala, named for Ms Bauerle’s young daughter, began in 2012 with products such as teas and honey, housewares and beauty creams. A failed experiment with a retail store in Singapore, compounded by Ms Bauerle’s untimely passing from illness, led to a re-think and re-launch of the business, boosted by a round of seed funding. This time, the focus was solely on Asian condiments and crucially, acquiring certified organic status. It took a couple of years, but that goal was achieved in 2016 and Mekhala products are now distributed in several Asian countries as well as Australia. The label on each jar in the product range reads: ‘No gluten, refined sugar, nuts, shrimp or fish.’ Earlier this month, the company announced a breakthrough in the U.S. market: namely being stocked by Whole Foods, a behemoth in the organic food industry. By September, Mekhela curry pastes will be available in over 400 outlets across the U.S. – making it the little organic brand that could.
TALK US THROUGH THE MEKHALA PHILOSOPHY AND HOW YOU FIRST BROKE INTO THE ORGANIC FOOD BUSINESS.
The original concept was for a lifestyle brand like Muji, with more Southeast Asian emphasis, sustainable products and design pieces, all made locally. It was not very successful. The source of some of the personal care products was quite dubious and there was no way for me to control it. We started selling at farmers’ markets in 2012 and opened a store in Singapore. The next year, Jang learned she had cancer, so my sister Diane left her job as a tax consultant and joined the company. We closed the store when the lease expired and, once we decided to focus on Asian condiments, we thought we would be capable of producing it ourselves. In 2015 we got space in Chiang Mai next to the corporate retreat at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain, trained people and bought machines. We realised that the biggest market for organic food was in the U.S. so we slowly worked towards getting ourselves certified organic, as well as the farms we work with.
YOUR CORE PRODUCTS ARE PASTES LIKE GREEN CURRY AND TOM YUM AND SAUCES LIKE ISSAN THAI CHILLI AND ROASTED SESAME GARLIC. GIVEN THE PREMIUM PRICES ASSOCIATED WITH ORGANIC FOODS, HOW CHALLENGING HAS IT BEEN TO CONVINCE CONSUMERS?
Getting certified organic was our way through the door, it sets us apart from other Asian brands. We had to ask, why do people need organic curry paste, and what else sets us apart? We can assure you that there are no by-products or seafood. Mekhala has always been vegan because Jang was vegan, whereas a lot of Southeast Asian products use soy sauce, fish sauce and so on. We decided to go vegan, gluten-free, pesticide-free, organic. The eating healthy movement started to explode and plant-based fare is so big. Two years ago, NTUC FairPrice said no to us, but now they have an organic food category and last year they said yes.
THE GLOBAL MARKET FOR ORGANIC FOODS IS ESTIMATED TO EXCEED US$300 BILLION BY 2024. HOW MUCH OF AN IMPACT DOES MEKHALA EXPECT TO MAKE?
All those numbers don’t mean anything – the reality is, you are in the ethnic section for condiments in this huge industry. Asian condiments is a small category, one that moves a lot slower than protein bars, almond milk or kombucha – a paste is probably a once-a-month purchase, so it’s not as intense. I think it’s a market that’s not tapped. Our business has definitely grown a lot in the last four years – we’ve just closed our books for the year and experienced 50 percent growth in sales. When we first had distributors, we started putting pastes and sauces on Amazon to get product reviews and see which ones would sell. Sometimes it’s about perception. In the beginning we sold on Amazon at S$6.50 per jar plus $2.50 for shipping – and sold about 10 jars. Then we changed the pricing to $8.49 per jar including free shipping, and they started to sell.
THE SHELVES IN SUPERMARKETS AND SPECIALTY ORGANIC FOOD STORES ARE STACKED WITH ASIAN-STYLE SAUCES. HOW DOES MEKHALA STAND OUT?
In the U.S., if you’re looking to buy something in the ‘ethnic’ section, it’s a very limited range of products. You’re not going to be an impulse buy. We are the only organic, vegan, gluten-free brand, we produce everything ourselves – and we’re delicious! A lot of Asian brands focus too much on creating products, they focus less on the customers. The sort of product we want to be is one that people are happy to tell other people about. Some people say failure is not a bad thing, but out of that, came this. We saw what might work, and just focused on that. The big milestone was always getting into Whole Foods. If you’re an organic brand, just being on that shelf means you made it, that you are worthy. It’s happened sooner than I expected. My investors say this is the hard part, now we have to execute really
well. One major milestone has been achieved, next we want to be in major chains in the U.S., like Safeway – ‘ethnic’ is the final frontier for organic food.
WAS IT A CONSCIOUS EFFORT TO HAVE AN ALL-FEMALE TEAM RUNNING MEKHALA?
We did try to have a couple of male employees, but it didn’t work out. For some reason the team is female – it’s kind of nice that way. In that region in northern Thailand, illiterate Shan women are the main source of unskilled labour, but we were turning away these women because they couldn’t read. So we created a simple symbol-based system that allowed them to have the autonomy to weigh, wash and chop ingredients. I got the inspiration from the dabbawala food delivery system in India
YOU WERE A YOUNG GIRL WHEN YOUR FATHER PASSED AWAY, BUT YOU’VE CITED HIM AS AN INSPIRATION IN YOUR CAREER AS AN ENTREPRENEUR.
My dad Nelson Wong was MD of an American aerospace company – very rare at the time – and even though he didn’t have a tertiary education, he was an observant person with an enterprising mind. I learned from him, perhaps not consciously. I remember going to his factory – he was strict about tidiness and having an orderly structure. When he was a kid, he helped his father sell lace tablecloths to Russian tourists in Change Alley. He told me that if he had a choice, he would start his own business and take some risks, but he had the responsibility of raising a family. He definitely spurred me on.