Starting small, but with big ambitions

Fancy a helping of Chicken Rice flavoured popcorn? How about some Teh Tarik? Well, The Kettle Gourmet offers these interesting flavours and more. Its founder, Zac Chua, who is in his 20s, said he was inspired to create these unique choices after being sick of just the usual sweet or salted popcorn on offer. 

Having had zero experience working in the food and beverage industry, the Businesses Administration graduate had to find his footing along the way. Mr Chua, an alumni of Temasek Polytechnic and Singapore Management University, described an event where he and his team gave out free popcorn which they made using an off-the-shelf popcorn maker as “our validation phase”, which created Kettle Gourmet, an “accidental startup”, in his own words.

A couple years on, Kettle Gourmet is doing well and Mr Chua has his eyes set beyond Kettle Gourmet. Having recently launched The Nutkins, a “nuts” variation on the unique flavour strategy, he clearly is not going to settle. We sat down with him to look back at his journey and find out how he comes up with all these interesting flavours as well as what his plans are for the future.

What inspired you to create Kettle Gourmet?

Our story is actually quite an amazing one. We were an accidental startup that took off. Why I would say that is because of the following. Back when I was in Singapore Management University (SMU), what we did was we went for an event where we gave out free popcorn. Long story short, that was when it took off, that was our validation phase. People started ordering online. We then created a one-page landing page and printed out those $2 namecards and we just tested the idea and it really worked. The online orders started coming in. After that, one lady wanted us to supply her company’s pantry for one year. We subsequently collected pre-payment and the rest was history.

How would you describe the journey you have been on thus far?

It’s been a crazy journey. It has been fun and very meaningful as well. I meet many people, such that I am already on my third name card album.

What was the biggest challenge you faced along your whole journey?

I would divide the challenge into three parts: People, Product and Process. People would be both internally and externally. Internally, managing people is, in general, a headache. Externally, when you first start, you meet a lot of people and they are just there to “sell” you. You don’t know if they genuinely want to help you or are just making use of you. For product, as I am a business student without background in the F&B business, we had to rely a lot on common sense to slowly validate our ideas. We also needed people to help us in Research and Development, as I do not have a “magical palette”. For process, the fact was that we also had to use a lot of common sense.

Which of the products would you say are the most popular?

For Kettle Gourmet, it would be Teh Tarik popcorn, in terms of lifetime sales. However, the Chicken Rice flavour is likely to overtake it in the future. For Nutkins, though it is a relatively new company as of 2019 and the price is relatively higher compared to other nuts, the sales outlook is quite alright.

What’s the thought process behind the creation of the flavours you have? How do you choose flavours which will work?

It all goes back to brand strategy and what you stand for. For us, we wanted to be known as the crazy flavour popcorn company and peanut company. Why do something normal when you can stand out instead? Once you are the only one in the market, you can not only command a premium but also build your brand equity and get more people talking about it. We did not want to do a flavour like salted egg which everyone is already doing. We wanted to do something crazier, like Chee Cheong Fun, those kinds of random flavours.  Our next flavour is actually Nasi Lemak. It is still in the research and development phase as is the hardest to create, due to the many components. We are also thinking of releasing a ‘Chilli Crab’ flavour.

How would you describe yourself? What aspect of your character helped you overcome the challenges that you have faced?

Grit, I would definitely say grit. I would also say the “just whack mentality” and seeing what happens helped me out.

Do you have any tips for entrepreneurs?

At the idea phase, just whack, in a sense that you only need to be right once and the rest is history. For the starting up phase, when you are running it, watch your cash flow as cash flow is everything

I see you mentioned lack of flavour choice as a key driver behind starting up Kettle Gourmet. As cinemas are the place where people consume the most popcorn, do you have any plans to market your flavours at the cinema?

We spoke to them, but they do not need me because they will do it themselves. They cater to a different value segment of the market compared to us, where we target the premium end. They wouldn’t want to buy the popcorn from me and resell it as they can make all the money themselves.

Where else do you position your product then?

We are a very popular pantry snack, distributing to the corporate pantries of Multi-National Corporations. We also distribute to a lot of hotels to place in their rooms, cafes as well as bars, as the popcorn goes well with coffee and beer. We do a lot of events and roadshows, so that’s all part of our business model.

What do you have planned for the future?

My end goal is to build a Food and Beverage snack conglomerate in Singapore. Slowly, we will start acquiring or building food companies to distribute through existing channels. We love to do something random, maybe a reinvention of a childhood snack like the “wheel snack”.  We like to be the crazy flavour food company.