LOCAL snack brand Irvin's Salted Egg may be a regional empire now, but its famed chips were once a stopgap solution to bolster a struggling seafood restaurant.
Born in Indonesia, founder Irvin Gunawan, 33, came to Singapore as a child after his parents fled the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Suharto regime. After attending university in Australia, he returned to Singapore and eventually opened a series of fledging restaurants.
One of them was a seafood venture that ended up in the red due to a misstep. Then, in a bid to shore up sales, Mr Gunawan started to sell salted egg chips, first offering them as a side dish on the menu, then as a packaged snack that customers could take away.
The restaurant eventually closed, but the chips remained in popular demand. Today, Irvin's Salted Egg has grown to 21 outlets in six countries.
Mr Gunawan tells how his runaway success came about.
How did you get into the F&B industry?
I've always wanted to have my own cafe or restaurant since I was in university. Initially, the idea was to run a chocolate cafe (hence the company name, Cocoba, which stands for chocolate bar), but I pivoted because it was really hard to find a chocolate expert in Singapore.
So in 2007, I started my first restaurant, Chilikong, an Indonesian restaurant near Tanjong Pagar MRT station. Since then, I've also run Irvin's Seafood Cze Char (2008 to 2011), Irvin's Live Seafood House (2011 to 2014) and Leban HK Cafe (2012 to 2015) before starting Irvin's Salted Egg in 2014.
What motivated you to start up Irvin's Salted Egg?
In the beginning, I was motivated to create great food with great design. But Irvin's Salted Egg was born out of a need to survive, as Irvin's Live Seafood House was not doing well after it relocated from River Valley to Upper Thomson. We were popular for our salted egg dishes, so we experimented with creating menus and products using our salted egg sauce.
How much did you invest to start up the company, and when did you break even?
There were many starts and stops during the last 12 years. Chilikong never broke even.
What do you think was your worst bet for the company?
When we moved the seafood restaurant to Upper Thomson, we invested in a big space and extensive renovation, assuming that our customers would follow us everywhere and sales would increase with better decor - it didn't. Our bad bets usually involve extravagant spending on unnecessary things like decor.
And your best?
Getting my good friends from church to join us during Irvin's Salted Egg's early days. It's great working with smart people, but even more fantastic to work with nice and kind-hearted people. It makes working more memorable and enjoyable because we have trust and love.
What are some of the skills that you have had to develop and that you think are most crucial to your role?
Leadership is something I had to learn over time, being wiser in making decisions and fair in treating people.
An even temperament is needed too. On good days we have to be diligent and on the bad, we should be thankful - because they are necessary for our growth - and hopeful, because they will not last forever.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far?
The process itself is the reward. Being in this incredible company and connecting with people from many walks of life continue to give me lessons every day on being a better person.
Being able to share my experience with others is awesome. Well, maybe one day the company can gift me a salted egg-coloured Lamborghini - that would be cool too!
Could you talk about a challenging moment in your work and how you managed to overcome it?
The most challenging is when there are problems with my brothers, as we three run this company together very closely. I have to push myself to apologise first, because family is more important than anything.
It was also difficult when we were running the restaurant in Upper Thomson, as we were very deep in the red every month. We were never sure if we could generate enough cash to continue operating for the next month. It took us courage and optimism to continue. The game is never over until we give up.
When you are not working hard in the office, where are you to be found?
Working at home!
I play the guitar and sing. Hopefully, I can get some gigs in cafes one of these days for fun. I also love playing basketball and badminton.