Couple brings local flavours to potato chips

After the successful launch of its laksa and chicken rice flavours, F.East will launch more varieties soon.

EVEN though the potato chip market may seem already saturated, husband and wife team Lee Yue Jer and Kee Vern Cheng, both 32, saw a gap in it.

Ms Kee said: "Although there are many brands, they usually carry the same flavours like barbecue, sea salt and cheese - and these flavours also tend to be dominated by western brands.

"It got me wondering why our delicious Asian flavours from such a wide variety of cuisines were so under-represented."

Brands such as Jack 'n Jill and Calbee cater to Asian palates, said Mr Lee, but most of them tend to be "single-note" flavours - such as wasabi, seaweed, or hot and spicy.

"Nobody has really done flavours which capture the complex and full flavour of a dish ... In Western countries you can find potato chip flavours like the full English breakfast or fish and chips quite easily."

Asked about the more complex Asian flavours now available, such as salted egg yolk, he said: "The established brands in the salted egg yolk space have done very well, and ... while these are popular flavours, we feel there are many other interesting flavour profiles of full Asian dishes which are worth exploring and that no one else has really tried."

For a start, the couple have taken the flavours of Hainanese chicken rice and laksa and made these the first two flavours in their line of chips.

Their product is marketed under F.East, short for Flavours of the East, which aims to bring the complex flavour profiles of local dishes to potato chips.

Ms Kee said: "Our focus is on celebrating the wide range of culinary delights that can be found (in Singapore) ... Through our chips, we aim to bring the veritable feast of Asian cuisines available in Singapore to the region and beyond, and to let Singaporeans overseas enjoy a taste of home."

Both Mr Lee and Ms Kee were working in the finance industry before founding the company in 2015. Ms Kee said leaving her job to found a company was not a decision she took lightly. Mr Lee, on the other hand, still holds a full-time job in the industry, in addition to being F.East's co-director.

Ms Kee told The Business Times about the "incredibly steep" learning curve they had to overcome in managing F.East; neither of them had a background in owning and running a business.

And with no other staff on the payroll, the couple did everything themselves - from sourcing for suppliers, taking orders, managing deliveries to marketing, taking part in trade shows and business development.

F.East's chips are made in a factory in Malaysia; an external company takes care of its warehousing and logistics. Finding these partners was one of the first challenges for the company; it took almost a year to secure its Malaysian supplier.

Said Ms Kee: "Because we were new to this industry, we didn't have the background or the contacts. It took us quite a while to source for our supplier, but in the end, we were lucky that we found great partners who helped us with different parts of the business like design, logistics and warehousing."

Asked how the company developed its laksa- and chicken rice-flavoured chips, she said both of them took a very hands-on approach, tasting and adjusting the flavour of the chips until they were satisfied with the final product.

The company's capital constraints meant they could not conduct market research or have big focus groups, Mr Lee added, so they roped in family and friends in developing the flavours.

Mr Lee said he felt very "lucky" that the company found success with its initial launch despite the capital constraints from being entirely self-funded; the couple's funds were expended on R&D, production and warehousing.

Hiring someone with marketing experience was out of the question. The chips were launched with zero marketing budget, relying on no more than the launch of its Facebook page in November 2017 for publicity.

Despite the limitations, F.East said it received strong media attention and enthusiastic responses from consumers at the launch.

Mr Lee said: "The queues for our initial Raffles Place booth where we sold our chips were fantastic, and we were selling out every single day."

Ms Kee added: "We didn't really know how to gauge the level of demand for the launch, so we initially planned to order just one shipment of chips per day. We quickly realised that wasn't enough. Each shipment of chips sold out in two hours or so."

F.East said that since then, the company has scaled up quickly. Within four months of its Raffles Place launch, packs of their potato chips have found their way into local retailers Giant, 7-Eleven, NTUC FairPrice and myCK department stores; Redmart is the company's main online sales channel.

Mr Lee said: "We've been very fortunate as local retailers have been highly supportive of our local brand."

On pricing, Ms Kee said that despite facing higher business costs, they wanted to keep costs as low as possible. The retail price of S$2.95 per pack positions the company in the premium mass-market segment, she said, but allows them to remain accessible to a broader market. Some gourmet brands of chips are being priced significantly higher - S$7 to S$9 per pack.

F.East did not reveal any financial figures. Mr Lee would only say that the company has experienced "strong demand" for its product, and that enquiries from overseas markets have come in.

The chips are already being exported to the Japanese market.

The firm is also looking into expand its repertoire of flavours.

Mr Lee was tight-lipped, but would only say that the next flavour would not be salted egg yolk.

He added that the new flavours would debut "soon", but did not specify a timeline.