Two's Company With The Golden Duck's Jonathan Shen And Christopher Hwang

Meet the young serial entrepreneurs behind The Golden Duck brand of addictive salted-egg snacks

The co-founders of the successful snack company have each other's back and know that when they agree on something, they are on the right path

One is a self-proclaimed "daily snacker", while the other is the complete opposite - give him "proper food" instead.

Yet there is a flavour that Mr Jonathan Shen, 29, and Mr Christopher Hwang, 26, co-founders of gourmet snack company The Golden Duck, say consumes them: salted egg yolk. Snacker Hwang prefers the potato chip option, while foodie Shen goes for the fish skin.

On their differences, Mr Hwang laughs and says: "This is good because we often clash. So through all the research and development, if there's a flavour or texture which we both agree on, it means we've got it."

Indeed, the dynamic duo seem to have nailed the winning formula for the addictive snacks in resealable kraft-paper bags that are sought after by locals and tourists alike.

Last year's global sales peaked with a record high of 200,000 packets sold in a month. Each packet is priced between $7 and $8 in Singapore and between $8 and $11 overseas. The snacks are sold online - in Singapore and overseas - as well as at all 7-Eleven convenience stores and Cold Storage supermarkets.

The company runs 10 stand-alone stores - the latest ones opened at Changi Airport Terminal 2 this month and Ion Orchard two months ago.

Besides Singapore, the brand also has stores in Hong Kong and the Philippines. And for the second year running, the snack is a principal sponsor of the National Day Parade's goodie bag.

The serial entrepreneurs also landed on last year's Forbes 30 Under 30 in Asia list, which recognises innovative, inspiring and game-changing individuals under the age of 30. They also won the Most Promising Startup Award at the Emerging Enterprise Award 2017, which is jointly organised by The Business Times and OCBC Bank.

But the brand is not going to be just about salted egg yolk.

"We are not a one-trick-pony," emphasises Mr Shen.

This year, they are working on new products with a new flavour, slated to launch in line with "a festive period". They remain coy over product details and will only say that it is a "snack that you have never seen before".

Both co-founders have shifted into a more managerial mode this year. They have come a long way from the early days: It was just the two of them slicing potatoes, packing and delivering the goods when the label launched in 2015.

The Golden Duck is one of the early birds in the salted egg yolk snack scene, when Mr Shen spotted the trend of salted egg yolk as a hot flavour in zi char dishes. They decided to bank on the flavour and have been perfecting the chips and fish skin ever since.

To finesse the recipe, they roped in a third chef-partner whom they credit as the "brains" behind the creation.

Now, the business has 150 employees, with more than half of them working to manufacture the products alongside a team of chefs at their factory in Senoko South Road. The rest work in the office in Raeburn Park, or are "brand ambassadors" who sell the snacks.

Mr Hwang, who manages the production, research and development, and finances of the business, says: "Quality and quantity have to come together. When you scale up the business, you have to manage the quality as the volume increases."

Adds Mr Shen: "We have continued to improve and are obsessed with making a good dish great." He handles business development, branding and marketing.

For "added shiok", Mr Hwang recommends toasting the fish skin for 20 seconds and eating it with porridge.

Even as they have tasted success, the road to fortune has not always been smooth-sailing.

They first met five years ago over drinks at a mutual friend's house. At that time, Mr Shen was running an events and marketing company, while Mr Hwang was pursuing his law degree at the National University of Singapore.

After hitting it off, they worked together to open club Vice in Clarke Quay in 2014. It shuttered after four months.

Mr Shen, a bachelor, says: "We became close during this period of loss, the lowest point in our lives. We were upset, drinking a lot of whisky, but constantly brainstorming on what to do next. We had each other's back and knew we wouldn't compromise on ethics and morals."

Other ventures included a media management company and another bar, and they continued to hatch new business ideas.

Their friendship was put to the test when a chance for Mr Hwang to join a new venture arose. Realising that the other partners did not intend to include Mr Shen in the deal, he rejected the opportunity.

With their "aligned business ethics", The Golden Duck started in November 2015 and saw them working up to 18 hours a day while still juggling day jobs.

The name, they say, is meant to be a "tribute" to the golden orb of the salted egg yolk, which comes from duck eggs. "Gold is also a sign of something more premium and each packet is filled with gourmet chips," says Mr Shen, who likens the product to American premium ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry's.

When asked about the competition, they laugh at the mention of copycats who use names or logos similar to The Golden Duck. As far as possible, they have tried the chips from competitors and Mr Hwang, who is engaged, affirms that the current version of their product is "a better chip than you've ever had".

There are no fewer than 17 similar brands on the Singapore market, but the potential is still immense, they indicate.

Mr Shen says: "The snacks sector is an immensely robust industry that is very hot in Asia. You can't say that the market is saturated. It is mature, just like the bubble tea market."

Adds Mr Hwang: "Brands such as BreadTalk and Paradise Group have ventured overseas and put Singapore flavours on the global map. Singapore brands need to gun for bigger results and the world of snacks is wide open."

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Jonathan Shen on Christopher Hwang: A head-strong straight-shooter

Mr Jonathan Shen recalls thinking that Mr Christopher Hwang was "not your regular 21-year-old", when they first met in 2013.

Mr Shen, 29, says: "He's a very head-strong and determined guy. I figured he was too smart for his age and own good."

Calling him a "straight-shooter", Mr Shen says that he never had to second-guess anything Mr Hwang said. "Now, he thinks 10 times before saying it," says Mr Shen with a laugh.

"Or I'll just say it anyway and get into trouble," adds Mr Hwang immediately.

Mr Hwang, 26, did not follow the path of his doctor family.

His 55-year-old mother and 54-year-old father - along with his 25-year-old sister - are all doctors. Another sister, who is 23, is in her final year at the National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School Of Medicine.

Mr Hwang, on the other hand, dropped out of the National University of Singapore while pursuing a law degree. He is an alumnus of the Singapore Sports School and Raffles Junior College.

"I had to live up to the expectations of studying. But I have a rebel streak in me and I was just trying to find the right path," says Mr Hwang, who is engaged. His 29-year-old fiancee works in tech sales.

As Mr Shen puts it: "We either fall through the cracks or we break the rules."

While the two young men are the face of The Golden Duck brand, Mr Shen emphasises that though many people may portray a different personality to the media, both of them remain true to themselves.

He says: "It is not a front when we do interviews and that forces you to change yourself and grow up."

Mr Hwang is the more optimistic of the two. Mr Shen says: "When we do projections, his will be more optimistic and I'll be more pessimistic. Then, we meet in the middle. It is not the best if two people are too like-minded. Conflict breeds creation."

But when they balance work with play by going out for meals, Mr Hwang is banned from choosing where to go for dinner.

In the early days of The Golden Duck, he had chosen a French restaurant for a celebratory meal.

Mr Shen, a bachelor, recalls: "The moment we walked in, it became painfully obvious that the place was primed for couples to have romantic dinners. So there we were, two well-dressed young men attracting curious glances from other diners.

"It was a wonderful evening, but I vowed to never let Chris pick a dinner spot ever again."

Christopher Hwang on Jonathan Shen: His heart is in the right place

Calling Mr Jonathan Shen, 29, a "solid fellow", with his heart in the right place, Mr Christopher Hwang notes that he has matured over the years and remains grounded.

Mr Hwang, 26, says: "He is an incredible partner and you know that he appreciates every level of success, and he's not done."

Mr Shen, an alumnus of the Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road), has a diploma in mass communications from Ngee Ann Polytechnic. After completing national service, he gave up the opportunity to study at the University of Melbourne to start his event and marketing company.

His 62-year-old mother is a property agent and he has a 24-year-old brother and a 26-year-old sister.

Preferring his food over snacks, Mr Shen enjoys Asian cuisine, especially dim sum.

He is also always ready for a food challenge.

Mr Hwang says: "We were out with friends for dinner at a Japanese restaurant which had a challenge to grab as much edamame as we could with one hand and that would be our portion. Jonathan has the largest hands and he grabbed so much edamame, it couldn't fit into the bowl.

"The next time we were back in the same restaurant, they wouldn't let us play again."

But when it is time to get serious, the duo are able to "let go of friendship" when necessary.

Mr Hwang adds: "No drinks, just strictly business and work for three to six months straight - we can make that work. I'm proud to call him my brother today."