These days, it feels like there are chips inspired by practically every quintessential Singaporean dish.
In fact, we’ve featured a few of these munchies and the stories behind them.
One of these features was on a Singaporean couple who created a business from chicken rice and laksa-flavoured potato chips. Another, on 2 friends who found themselves on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list with Salted Egg Yolk snacks.
Thus, when I heard about new startup Uncle Jimmy’s, which specialises in homemade tapioca chips inspired by Peranakan flavours, I wondered if they were wary about the volatility of food trends.
“We knew that it would be easier if we [started by joining] the bandwagon,” admitted Vivian Ong (24), co-founder of Uncle Jimmy’s.
“Although we do see the benefit in following such trends, at the same time, we saw the need to be true to the very initial reason that led us to start this business venture.”
For herself and co-founder Jonathan Goh (25), the reason was to pay homage to the latter’s beloved late Uncle Jimmy, and also the delicious Peranakan dishes he whipped up at family gatherings.
To find out more, I got in touch with the lovely couple (yes, Jonathan and Vivian are partners in not just business!) and learnt more about their hopes for the brand.
When Vivian Met Jonathan
Just like many millennial couples, the pair met on a “social networking site” back when Jonathan was still an SAF regular and when Vivian was in her second year at Nanyang Technological University.
“Although we didn’t bond over anything specific, we did share a common interest in many things. I was just half of a world and she was the other, and when I was with her it felt like I was complete,” gushed Jonathan.
One of those common interests was food.
In particular, tapioca chips.
“Just like any other Singaporean, we love to snack. Whenever there was a pack or two of tapioca chips at home, I would always prefer them over the potato variants. They always seemed lighter and tastier, and being an insatiable snacker, I would munch on these endlessly,” said Jonathan.
But more than just buying more packets of these chips to snack on, the duo decided to take their love for it to the next level.
“We were first influenced by all the Korean and Japanese specialty startups sprouting around the country,” explained Vivian.
“[From there,] our love for all sorts of local Asian cuisines and the desire to revive our very own rich culinary history was ignited.”
Paying Tribute To Jonathan’s Late Uncle
As mentioned earlier, the newly-minted entrepreneurs named their venture ‘Uncle Jimmy’, after Jonathan’s late uncle who was the family’s unofficial ‘head chef’ for gatherings.
“He passed a few years back,” Jonathan shared.
[But] before Uncle Jimmy passed on, he compiled all his recipes as well as those from my maternal grandparents. It contained many traditional Peranakan cuisines from his sambal belachan to signature laksa.
“Coming from a large family and being one of the oldest, life was tough on him.”
“[After my grandmother passed on,] Uncle Jimmy was quickly thrust the mantle of responsibility to take care of the younger siblings like my mom, and helped supplement the family income by working as soon as he was out of army instead of furthering his studies.”
These recipes eventually became their source of reference when crafting the flavours for their chips, but more than that, they wanted their new brand to be a tribute to Uncle Jimmy’s years of sacrifices for the family.
They admitted, however, that they were initially worried about the decision to use Uncle Jimmy’s name as they were unsure of how Jonathan’s family (especially his aunts and uncles, Uncle Jimmy’s siblings) would react to it.
We were afraid that we won’t be able to live up to his name.
However, their worries soon disappeared as his family expressed how they were “more than happy to offer support in any way they could”.
On the flipside, Vivian’s parents were initially worried when they heard about her plans to jump into the uncertain waters of entrepreneurship.
“There wasn’t any certainty in [starting up] as compared to getting a regular, stable job after I graduate,” she recalled.
“However, after seeing how serious and passionate we are, they became a lot more supportive, helping us in any possible way they can.”
“We Had To Resort To Googling”
As someone whose culinary skills only extended to “making the perfect maggi mee and pre-mixed mac and cheese”, Vivian shared that before Uncle Jimmy’s, they had very limited cooking knowhow – let alone creating an entirely new product.
We had to resort to googling all sorts of ways to make the perfect chips and seasoning!
“Our flavours are inspired by Uncle Jimmy’s recipe book, but translating all those recipes into seasonings for our tapioca chips is a whole different story altogether.”
“We went through lots of trial and error and many late nights just to figure out what belonged and what didn’t. More times than not we were left there scratching our heads and just feeling defeated.”
They went on to share some funny stories from their experimental days.
“The first few times we tried to produce a suitable glaze for the gula melaka resulted in us almost burning the kitchen down,” said Vivian.
“So after a few more times of us burning our eyebrows off and blackening a few pots, we perfected the method of cooking with the gula melaka.”
Jonathan recalled the time when every tasting session involving candlenut mysteriously caused them to go to the toilet.
“[So,] we started to google which of these ingredients might be the cause and found that candlenut in its unprocessed form has a laxative effect.”
“Luckily, we also found out that this ingredient in laksa was a thickener so we quickly removed it from the spice mixture. But don’t worry, you won’t be getting any stomach aches from our chips,” he assured.
“We Didn’t Think People Would Pay Attention To Us At All”
More than just the challenges that they faced in the kitchen, running a 2-man operation is similarly as daunting as it sounds.
“We had very little knowledge of how to start up a business in Singapore. Many weeks were spent familiarising ourselves with the procedures and the many licenses we needed and courses we had to go for,” said Jonathan.
With little budget, marketing their brand wasn’t as straightforward as paying exorbitant amounts to social media platforms and ‘influencers’ to plug their products.
“We had to come up with the most affordable but effective ways to get our brand out, this includes emailing media companies like you guys (Vulcan Post),” revealed Vivian.
“When approaching media companies, I was a little skeptical at first because we didn’t think that people would pay attention us at all since we are pretty much a brand new startup!”
“But […] luckily for us, our concept is gaining interest from many people including our friends and families.”
Sold 200 Packets In 2 Days
The team soft launched their brand on 12 Sept, and sold close to 200 bags in the first 2 days of pre-orders.
And on 16 Oct, they officially launched the brand.
Reflected Jonathan on their experience so far:
I would say that my decision to start Uncle Jimmy’s gave me something to look forward to as I reached the end of my stint in the military.
“At that time, it was a mere idea with no concrete plans to realise it. This whole venture took off when Vivian and I met up to discuss the details over dates and one day we just realised, ‘Hey, we might actually be able to pull this off!'”
On future plans for their month-old venture, Jonathan shares that they’ll be selling the chips at pop-up events, and are working on new flavours to add to their current line up.
I’d like to thank Jonathan and Vivian for their time!