They say that women have a stomach just for desserts, but in the case of Singaporeans, all of us, regardless of gender, have extra capacity for an additional serving of ice cream.
And it helps that we’ve got a large variety of desserts available at almost every corner.
From froyo to cheng tng, there’s something for every palette and every craving.
One of these is the carby goodness that is taro balls dessert (芋圓), which finds its origins in Taiwanese mountain town Jiufen (九份).
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While a brand name that floated around a lot when I was still in school is Blackball, it was only last year that I discovered an alternative that I quickly become hooked onto.
I remember trying Nine Fresh (九鲜) for the first time.
Sweet, refreshing, and perfectly portioned to satisfy cravings without being overly cloying, the bowl I got was just $2.30, but it filled me with joy that was priceless.
A combination of grass jelly, taro balls, and aloe vera pearl jelly, their unassumingly-named ‘Grass Jelly Special’ is still the only order I get whenever I visit an outlet.
And with 16 outlets currently open island-wide, satisfying a craving is pretty convenient.
But more than just delicious, the dessert also lends itself very well to photos, and it’s hard to resist Instagramming every bowl you buy.
And from Nine Fresh’s Facebook photo gallery, filled with customer-taken photos, it looks like many are doing the same too.
However, what surprised me about the brand was that the operation is entirely Singaporean, and it had very humble beginnings 5 years ago at Toa Payoh interchange.
I talked to Nine Fresh co-founder, Vannessa Tan and found out more.
Taiwanese Dessert Sold By Singaporeans
Founded by Vannessa Tan (31) and Nick Lim (33), the partners noticed that the trend of Taiwanese dessert being introduced to various parts of Southeast Asia, and felt that the time was ripe to bring it to Singapore too.
“[We wanted to] fill this gap in the local dessert scene. We also had friends who mentioned that they enjoyed eating the taro balls dessert in Jiufen, but [could not find it] in Singapore.”
This was when they set up their first venture, Beans Talk, at Toa Payoh interchange.
She admits that at the start, business was slow “as the general public were not familiar with the desserts [they] were offering”.
“The management office (at Toa Payoh) also came to stop us when we were distributing flyers, but closed an eye when they realised we were young entrepreneurs behind a local startup brand.”
However, it was after they started giving out free samples that Singaporeans took to the dessert, and business started to pick up.
“Gradually, there was more awareness through word of mouth and customer referrals too.”
As “complete greenhorns in the F&B business”, she revealed that the learning curve for running a business was very steep, and the duo relied a lot on trial and error before they finally got the hang of it.
But very fortunately and thankfully, we received a lot of help from very our nice and understanding suppliers, partners, and customers.
“Even the landlord at our Toa Payoh flagship outlet was so kind! He had numerous offers for that prime location but decided to give his support to us young entrepreneurs.”
The new bosses also faced another challenge that many I’ve interviewed also mentioned – manpower.
It was hard to find staff, given that we could only offer low wages as a startup.
With their entire operation confined in a tiny space, they also didn’t have the proper machineries to produce the ingredients used in their various concoctions.
She recalls, “I still remember all that manual stirring!”
Soon, long queues started forming at their humble outlet, and Beans Talk quickly became a favourite not just among Toa Payoh residents, but Singaporean foodies as well.
“Generally, while the journey has been trying, I remain very thankful and appreciative for all the kindness and understanding we have received from people all this while.”
Rapid Expansion And Eventual Rebranding
In spite of their relative inexperience, the new entrepreneurs didn’t fall short of ambition, and opened 2 more outlets in the first year – one at Jurong East bus interchange and another at Bedok bus interchange.
By 2014, they opened 2 more outlets – one at Jurong Point shopping mall, and the other at Clementi.
But in the same year, they met with another hurdle – when another company with the same brand name issued them a notice.
“[They] had already trademarked ‘Beanstalk’ in Singapore, [and we had] to remove all of our signages within a month.”
It was chaotic for us then, and we had to react quickly to the situation.
Settling on the name Nine Fresh (九鲜), it’s an amalgamation of ‘九’ from 九份 (Jiufen) and ‘鲜’ (fresh) “because our desserts are prepared and served fresh everyday!”
Vannessa reveals that this little episode eventually turned out to be a “blessing in disguise”.
“Thinking back, the new brand name helped us move away from any misconceptions that we were selling bean-based desserts.”
At the same time, there was a stronger brand identity that represents our roots and core value more clearly and effectively!
Even with that hurdle crossed, manpower problems still persisted, and they decided that the time was ripe to offer franchise opportunities to expand their brand even further and alleviate manpower issues at the same time.
“Given that most of our outlets are now franchises, I think having a cordial partnership with all of our franchisees and employees are imperative in ensuring smooth operations and effective execution.”
Taiwanese Desserts Created By Singaporeans, For Singaporeans
The company is also big on expansion of their menu, and as covered by our sister publication Discover SG, just released 2 new series of desserts on top of their signature series.
Their Local Flavours menu consists of 3 bowls, two of which inspired by local desserts chendol and cheng tng, while their Fanspiration series consists of 5 customer-generated combinations gathered from their ‘create-your-own-cup’ promotional activity conducted earlier this year.
With an average cost of just over $3, the desserts are pretty affordable.
“We started out as a brand with desserts affordable for everyone to enjoy, and we want to continue doing so by offering a wide variety of desserts that customers of all ages – even students – can afford and indulge in.”
Looking at the addresses of their 16 outlets, it’s also clear that they’ve strategically picked places with high human traffic (heartland malls, areas near MRTs/buses).
It’s no wonder that they sell an average of 300 bowls per day at every outlet!
Continuing To Expand Locally And Overseas
“We are excited to share that overseas expansion works into neighbouring countries are underway,” chirped Vannessa.
“Things are still at the preliminary stage, and we definitely will keep everyone updated once plans are more concrete.”
In the meanwhile, the team is working to create even more unique concoctions and expand into delivery as well.
“We also want to take this opportunity to share that our 17th outlet in Northpoint is tentatively slated to open sometime at end of this year – so Yishun-ers, please stay tuned!”
And to address the elephant in the room – I asked Vannessa about what she thinks about main competitor Blackball.
“I think both brands have certain similarities especially since we’re sharing a little essence of Taiwan in Singapore, and it’s good in my opinion for customers to have options.”
We’d like to thank Vannessa for her time!
Check out their store listing here to find out if there’s an outlet near you!
Featured Image Credit: @sgfoodsteps, Vannessa Tan