Coconut water’s comeback as a drink of choice, especially among the health-conscious, yoga-doing, avocado-chugging crowd, is no surprise.
Low in calories and filled with good stuff like electrolytes and potassium, beverage companies have all jumped onto the bandwagon and produced coconut water packed in bottles and cartons of various capacities.
A quick search on NTUC Fairprice’s online store for coconut water already reveals a sizeable variety of brands for one to choose from.
Personally, I’m a big fan of coconut water – even before the whole trend emerged.
Buying a small coconut for $1 from a street vendor, then consuming the refreshing juice and scooping out its firm flesh with a wobbly plastic spoon by the roadside is a tradition that I looked forward to whenever a pasar malam came to my neighbourhood.
But then, my experience of drinking coconut water was always confined to the roadside, or at a restaurant where they serve coconuts for $5 and up a pop.
So when bottled options came to town, I was pretty excited because I could finally get my fix of coconut water without needing to lug around a bulky shell.
However, I found that the taste was always slightly ‘off’, and it didn’t have the clean, refreshing taste that I craved for.
Perhaps, my friend explained, it’s due to the adding of preservatives to the water. Unable to argue with that logic, I just accepted that I needed to live with the inevitable trade off between convenience and taste.
The first sip left me looking something like this:
It tasted like actual coconut water.
Noting my surprise, Aloha Poké co-founder John Chen explained that COCOLOCO’s owner is actually a 2nd-gen entrepreneur that decided to take his family coconut-importing business to the next level – by bottling it.
Intrigued by both the drink and the story behind it, I got in touch with Kelvin Ngian (33), the founder of COCOLOCO, to find out more.
A ‘Millennial’ Spin Off Of A Family Business
COCOLOCO finds its roots in Siam Coconut Pte Ltd, Kelvin’s family business.
“It started out as a trading business. My dad, through some Malaysian relatives, was given an opportunity to distribute Thai coconuts in Singapore via the Malaysian distributor. And he took it.”
Other than fresh coconuts, the company also imports Cha Tra Mue Thai Tea Mix – popular among Singaporeans who love their creamy Thai milk tea – and other popular Thai ingredients.
“Slowly the business grew organically and we started to import directly from Thailand and do the processing here in Singapore.”
Having graduated with a degree in Economics and Finance, Kelvin previously worked in banks like UOB and SCB and understood, first-hand, the popularity of coconut water, but the sheer inconvenience of drinking from the fruit itself.
He also realised that in recent years, many have become aware of the health benefits of coconuts – “almost like they’ve discovered a new fruit”.
This was when an idea struck him – reinterpreting his family business and giving it a twist, calling it COCOLOCO and launching it in July 2014.
“COCOLOCO is my interpretation of Siam Coconut. A younger vibe [coupled with] convenience.”
I mean, I don’t think the younger generation would be caught dead walking around Raffles Place with a coconut in hand!
But just like myself, he realised that while many of the brands claim that their coconuts are “fresh” and “taste like real coconut”, the actual product was anything but.
“I felt that there was a big gap between what a fresh coconut tastes like and what’s from a packet. Hence, we started a mission. To be the next best thing to a fresh Thai coconut.”
And it started simply enough – they cracked open coconuts and put the juice into a bottle, “kinda like dabao-ing the coconut”.
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Response to this common sensical (Kelvin even calls it “primitive”) idea garnered “pretty good” responses, and he found that people were actually willing to fork out a little more for convenience.
However, they hit a roadblock – the bottled coconut water had a very short shelf life.
Improving Shelf Life From 2 Days To 90 Days
Having had the backing of his family’s company, which has close to two decades of experience in importing coconuts to Singapore, Kelvin had his supply down pat.
Using only Nam Hom coconuts, described to have a “Pandan-like fragrance and a light natural sweetness”, their supply comes from a single origin in Thailand.
A lot of companies cut corners and simply use the by-products of the coconut milk industry.
“They also use old coconuts. These coconuts were grown for their meat for the coconut milk. Now, they are simply bottling it up, and they do so because it’s cheap.”
“It sold cheaply because no one has any purpose for it. It’s still coconut water nonetheless, but not the variety that one would normally use to drink from.”
To ensure that the coconut water had a longer shelf life, Kelvin and team also deployed a heatless, high pressure processing method (albeit it being more expensive) to inactivate bacteria but also keep the enzymes and antioxidants alive.
With this method, they managed to improve shelf life from 2 days to 90 days.
“Most conventional coconut water companies use high heat treatment because it’s cheaper to do so and it would give the water a shelf life of 2 years. But doing so would completely alter a delicate juice like coconut water and not to mention, destroy its nutrients and enzymes.”
It is also because of their ‘delicate yet effective’ processing method that the living enzyme Polyphenol in the water isn’t destroyed.
This is also the reason why their coconut water has a unique trait – it can turn pink!
Explains Kelvin, “That’s the enzyme reacting with light that’s turning the coconut water pink! It’s living proof that we didn’t cook and kill everything in the coconut water.”
R&D itself took two years, and they relaunched COCOLOCO at the start of this year, officially organic and Singapore Healthier Choice-certified.
“A Lot Of Blood, Sweat And Tears”
I wouldn’t say we’ve invested a lot in terms of money. But definitely there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears invested into this product.
Given that they’re working with a natural product, Kelvin admits that consistency is a “constant issue”, as there are times that certain harvests are sweeter than others.
“Production processes are constantly being tweaked to try and keep our products in tip top condition.”
Marketing and educating consumers on why their product is pink, and how they’re different from their counterparts is also something that they need to constantly engage in.
“It’s been a long and windy path, and we’ve had various setbacks. But we always bounce back stronger each time.”
Supermarkets, Pop-Ups, Appearing At Public Events
Not just an online operation, COCOLOCO is stocked at supermarkets like Cold Storage and F&B spots like The Daily Cut and Aloha Poké – both known for their healthier food options.
Kelvin admitted that this is actually a need for them to get more visibility, especially amongst the many other coconut water brands.
It’s a matter of fulfilling a need. Like a customer thinks: ‘I’m thirsty. I need to drink this now.’ And if you’re not readily available, you’ll lose out – the consumer will simply grab something else. They will not be holding out and waiting for you.
They also don’t miss the chance to appear at pop-ups and public events, like this year’s Pink Dot celebration, for example.
“We Are Rolling Out More Juices”
Remaining tight-lipped on how sales are, Kelvin can only reveal that sales are still “not enough!”
What he could reveal, however, was that they’re planning to roll out more juices – albeit it not being under the COCOLOCO brand because they’re not going to be coconut-related.
“We are coming out with 3 pure juice flavours by end of this year. And you’re the first one to hear it from us.”