Dr Heng Ri-Liang (33) is the founder of Shake Salad, a firm that specialises in salad vending machines.
While owning his own business was something Dr Heng had “always dreamt of”, his initial life plan was to pursue a career in the research of renewable energies.
As a child, his fascination with “human ingenuity in the application of science” was sparked when his parents bought him his first set of encyclopedias.
A former coach at the Singapore Sailing Federation, Dr Heng was a national sailor in his teens, but struggled with unhealthy eating habits and weight gain when he was studying for his PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
“As a graduate research student, I was under constant stress to produce results,” he recalled in an interview with Vulcan Post.
“This led to stress eating, and my go-to comfort food was fast food. After several months, I put on a significant amount of weight and […] had low energy levels.”
Unhappy with how he looked and felt, he committed to exercising every day while eating healthier.
“Salads were an obvious dietary choice for weight loss. It was very convenient as every supermarket [in the US] offered a huge range of serving-size, ready-to-eat salads.”
“They were [also] delicious and relatively cheap.”
While keeping to a healthy diet was affordable and convenient in the US, it was a challenge to replicate this diet plan upon his return to Singapore.
I noticed that it was difficult to buy a salad outside of the CBD.Dr Heng Ri-Liang, founder of Shake Salad
“Also, salads tend to be significantly more expensive than other food options and this deters people from eating healthy.”
Meeting up with friend-turned-business-partner John Lin, Dr Heng “complained about [his] difficulties in finding reasonably-priced salads in Singapore” over drinks.
The conversation eventually moved to them toying with the idea of opening a salad retail store, “but the exorbitant cost of rental (up to $20,000 per month) was a huge turn-off”.
Suddenly, they had an epiphany – they could greatly reduce rental costs and optimise manpower by using vending machines as their distribution channel.
As fate had it, Lin owned a vending machine business and Dr Heng’s expertise in mechanical engineering also came in handy for their new venture.
“We had the confidence to start the business and to make things work.”
Invested An Initial $300,000 To Achieve Proof Of Concept
Dr Heng revealed that the team had invested around $300,000 at the start of the business to achieve proof of concept.
They have raise another round of funding since then.
Customising a prototype in China, he debuted their creation at VendTech Singapore 2016 and launched their first machine in Sept 2016.
In the first 6 months of operation, they deployed nine Shake Salad vending machines islandwide.
While their vending machine worked without a hitch, the biggest challenge the Shake Salad team faced was getting customers on board.
“[They had a] reluctance to purchase fresh food from a vending machine.”
Even with us shouting out the fact that we restock our vending machines with fresh products every day, it was still difficult to convince customers to change their mindsets.Dr Heng Ri-Liang, founder of Shake Salad
It was then that they knew that a more personalised and hands-on approach was needed – conducting localised sampling events.
“This lowered [customers’] inhibitions of making the first purchase from us [and] after that, it was [just] a matter of delivering consistently fresh and good quality products.”
Shaking Up The Vending Machine Scene – Not Just In S’pore
There are currently 40 Shake Salad vending machines in Singapore, and while Dr Heng declined to reveal sales figures, he shared that “there is a healthy demand for the machines”.
“We will be increasing this number very soon. The intention is to make healthy food more accessible to the public.”
They have also moved beyond just selling salads.
Customers are now able to purchase sandwiches, yogurt with granola, drinks, and even cut fruits from Shake Salad’s vending machines.
As for their future plans, the Shake Salad team is “constantly launching new products to keep customers coming back”, but also working on perfecting their vending solution.
“The long-term goal is to make our business model scalable and replicable in other cities outside of Singapore.”
I’d like to thank Dr Heng for his time!
- Find your nearest Shake Salad vending machine here.