When you think about Punggol, what comes to mind?
BTO projects and young families, perhaps.
But given how relatively young it is, Punggol often feels like a watered-down version of older, heritage-rich estates like Bedok, Ang Mo Kio, and Yishun.
Think about it – other than Ponggol Nasi Lemak (which isn’t even in Punggol anyway), what other famous food stalls or heritage sites in Punggol can you name?
A group of Punggol residents (or ‘Punggolians’) want to change the way the rest of Singapore sees the estate, and they are doing that one durian at a time.
Durian Empire: For Punggolians, By Punggolians
Located at Punggol Plaza, Durian Empire was started up by 4 childhood friends in December last year.
Like many Singaporeans, they shifted to Punggol to start their families and quickly noticed the lack of established durian sellers in the estate.
Shared co-founder Martin with us over a few durians, “I think there are a couple of [sellers in the estate], but we just didn’t go to eat durians there.”
“We noticed that many others (Punggolians) would travel very far to Clementi, Balestier, or Geylang to have their durian fix. So we thought, ‘Why not bring it here, since we’re all durian lovers too?'”
But more than just bringing fellow Punggolians closer to the king of fruits, Martin and his co-founders wanted to give their neighbours something to be proud of.
The first thing that comes to people’s minds (about Punggol) is that there’s a lack of ‘good food’ as there aren’t many hawker centres or markets around.
“So we’re trying to see if we can make Punggol special in her own way!”
No Landlords Wanted To Accept Their Proposal To Sell Durians
While passion for the fruit came easy to them, finding a space to accommodate their business wasn’t.
“Finding a suitable venue in Punggol was a real challenge as we needed an area which is convenient, well-ventilated, and yet big enough to cater to all our friends and customers.”
We actually approached many landlords, but none of them want to accept our proposal to sell durians!
Eventually, they managed to find a space right outside Punggol Plaza, and the business has been drawing in crowds of durian-loving customers ever since.
“We’re extremely grateful to the management of Punggol Plaza!”
For the entire duration of our visit on a Tuesday evening, the queue was relentless, with many customers (still in their work clothes) waiting in line for their turn.
We also noticed that staff were busy handing out bottles of water to both seated customers and those in the queue as well.
Explained Martin, “We always tell our friends that while we can’t control the quality of the durians, we can control the quality of our service.”
Profit maximisation is never the main objective of our business.
“We always believe that customers are the foundation of any business, and they are also the ones that keep us alive!”
“We will exchange any bad or inferior durians whenever we get customer feedback, and also top up the quantity of durians if we feel that it’s insufficient for the price they’ve paid.”
80% Of Customers From The Northeast
Martin revealed that it took them around 3 months from idea to launch, and between their day jobs, made trips to Malaysian farms to ensure that their source of durians were trustworthy.
“We wanted to ensure that the quality of the durian is good, instead of starting the business just for the sake of making money.”
I think one of the main problems that durian sellers face is a bad reputation, as there are a few unscrupulous sellers out there.
“We are trying to revolutionise the durian industry by digitising it and making it more transparent and only selling quality durians with awesome services.”
With an average of 4.9 stars from 236 reviews on their Facebook page, it seems like customers are also convinced that the team has been doing a great job so far.
Some of our friends who stay at Punggol actually told us that now, at least we have something to be proud of.
“[There have also been] people who have travelled from Bukit Panjang, Choa Chu Kang, and Woodlands just to support us! This is something that we’re very proud and grateful for.”
At the moment, durian lovers from Punggol and neighbouring estates Sengkang and Hougang make up 80% of their customers.
Selling “More Than 1 Tonne” Of Durians A Day
Being a seasonal fruit, Durian Empire only opens whenever the durian season is in town.
While this might sound like a pretty chill side business (all 4 co-founders are running separate business), Martin shared that Durian Empire is far from a side gig.
Due to the demand and long working hours (they put in more than 12 hours a day), the manual nature of the business is also “taking a toll” on them and the staff.
“Most of our team members haven’t been resting well since we started, and we usually only get to eat our dinner at around 10pm,” he sighed.
The store remains open until the durians run out, and while Martin remained mum on the number of durians they sell each day, he estimated that the amount is “definitely more than 1 tonne (a day)”.
Sometimes on weekends, the stock will sell out at 9pm. There are also days when we sold everything within 2 hours of opening.
“There was once when [the durian stock delivery] was delayed until 10pm, and the whole place was filled up! We felt very honoured that many customers were waiting for our durians.”
Martin also shared that while social media has been their main medium to communicate with customers, their occasionally sporadic responses have ignited the ire of some of them.
“A lot of people have been asking us why we haven’t been replying to Facebook messages and calls, but we don’t even have time to use the toilet, let alone reply messages or answer calls.”
“We are trying to get more manpower, but this is not an industry that many Singaporeans want to enter. Furthermore, new staff might not be experienced enough to judge the quality and quantity of the durians, and that might upset customers.”
One of the most difficult things is trying to appease everyone. We know that they have been queuing for a long time, and we are trying out best, but there’s only so much we can do…
Going Online, And Starting Delivery Services Again
Albeit being a relatively young business, Martin and team already have big plans for Durian Empire.
For one, they wish to re-establish their delivery service, after they had to put a pause on it due to overwhelming demand.
They are currently using a vacuum pack machine to pack durians for air travel, and they’re also hoping to digitise the business further, with an e-commerce website already in the works.
A lot of people are skeptical of pre-packed durians due to bad experiences, so we hope that we can create a platform where people can feel assured that the durian from us is of utmost quality and is sold at a reasonable price.
We’d like to thank Martin and his team for hosting us!
168 Punggol Field
Punggol Plaza B1 Atrium