Before the trend of local Singaporean ice cream cafes, one place was known as the OG: Udders Ice Cream at Novena, which opened its doors in 2007.
Sporting cheeky slogans on all its store decor and offering bold and unusual flavours, it was a popular hangout among young people; and a fun place where parents brought their kids for a treat, so they themselves could indulge in the strong alcoholic and durian flavours.
More than a decade later, Udders is now armed with five ‘Scoop Shops’ and supplies to 400 retail points around Singapore.
Behind the sweet success that husband-and-wife team David Yim (49) and Wong Peck Lin (48) have found, it all started out with a gamble.
Diving Head-First Into The Deep Freeze
They say if you want to become good at anything, you have to just start doing it, even if you’re terrible at it at first.
When David and Peck Lin first started making ice cream, they knew nothing about it.
David was previously a secondary school teacher, while Peck Lin had been a lawyer for four years before switching careers to be a business consultant.
In an interview with Straits Times, the couple said their venture sparked off when David decided it was time to leave “the bureaucracy of the civil service” behind and start something of his own.
A self-professed foodie, he contemplated the ideas of starting a business selling either ice cream or burgers.
Unable to choose, and having no experience to back up either option anyway, he went ahead to order equipment for both and see what he could do with them.
Fate would have it that the ice cream making equipment arrived first and they dived in right away, learning everything they could from books and the internet.
Peck Lin tells us they made their decision in July 2007, firmly settled on opening an ice cream shop.
Then we spent the next four months developing flavours, testing and re-testing ice cream in our kitchen like crazy, tasting ice creams till 2 or 3 am in the mornings.Peck Lin, co-founder of Udders Ice Cream
“To speed up the R&D, we ordered a big dewar of liquid nitrogen, plonked it in the middle of our sitting room, and poured it into pots and pots of ice cream mix as we refined the flavours,” she says.
Looking back on it now, she laughs at the realisation that it was “pretty dangerous” to be handling liquid nitrogen at home like that.
While a little reckless, their determination finally reaped 12 flavours they liked, with which they opened their first Udders store.
Even though they were new, David and Peck Lin didn’t try to play it safe. They went in strong with some highly boozy flavours from the get-go, like Rum Rum Raisin, Orange Choc Bitters and Baileys & Bourbon, and they’re still mainstays at Udders today.
“We were curious why liqueur had not been meaningfully designed into ice cream yet, as it occurred to us that both are “happy foods” for people out for a good time,” Peck Lin shares.
It struck them that they had the chance to occupy a new market space instead of competing in the same area as others.
For that same reason, they also made Asian flavours like Teh Tarik, Chendol and Mao Shan Wang Durian to stand out from western brands that people were familiar with at the time, like Swensens and Ben & Jerry’s.
First Paycheck After One Year
Our first shop had only 20 stools cramped together, a wall mural painted by my best friend, orange stool covers sewn by a friend’s mum, and handwritten signs—everything was put together with love [from the people supporting us], and a lot of hope.Peck Lin, co-founder of Udders Ice Cream
The couple pumped in $150,000 of their savings to open their first store, but they were strapped for cash to do any marketing or advertising. In 2007, social media was non-existent.
So in the early days, the store was often quiet and empty.
As the money they made had to be channelled back into operations and paying off loans they took for the business, David couldn’t draw a salary for a year.
Peck Lin, on the other hand, still “brought home the bacon” working at her full-time job, and helped her husband out at nights and on weekends.
“The financial stress was a [challenge] because we were in our mid-30s by the time we started, and we had two kids below five years old, as well as a mortgage,” she shares.
Their only option was to “plug away every day” and hope that their ice cream would eventually stir up some word-of-mouth.
And it did. The tipping point finally came about a year later, when they noticed that queues were starting to form at nights.
Eventually on their 13th month in business, David wrote himself a cheque for $200 for the first time.
That $200 meant the world to us, because we had reached a milestone where we could actually pay ourselves something.Peck Lin, co-founder of Udders Ice Cream
From that point on, Peck Lin describes their growth to be fast and steady over their first five years.
Udders opened its second and third outlets at Westmall (now closed) and Bukit Timah in 2009, and continued to open one outlet each year till 2012.
In 2013, after she’d gone through another job switch into social work, Peck Lin formally joined Udders full-time.
She took on the business development, branding, marketing and public relations aspects, while David continued to helm product development, production, outlets and staff.
Digging Into A Bigger Scoop With B2B
After hitting five stores in 2012, the Udders founders slowed down on expansion and let growth come more “organically” for the next period.
They kicked into high gear again around 2015, when they decided to evolve into selling ice cream business-to-business.
Rather than just an added-on revenue stream, Peck Lin says this was an entire pivot of their business model.
“More than 50% of our sales now is wholesale and B2B, and we’re quite pleased [about how it has] increased our volume exponentially,” she says.
Turning their efforts to reaching out to supermarkets, convenience stores, hotels and airlines, they began to gain a wide network of sales channels.
Udders is now sold at FairPrice Finest, 7-Eleven, Cheers, and Caltex to name a few, and has also served 3 million cups of ice cream on Singapore Airlines, Scoot and Jetstar flights.
The company is expecting to hit between $18 and $20 million in gross revenue for 2019.
Entering the B2B space pushed David and Peck Lin into new challenges to think on a larger scale, no longer just operating like the simple mom-and-pop-shop they started out as.
For one, they had to look into equipment automation and adapt to the “steep learning curve to move into serious manufacturing”.
They purchased a fully-automated continuous freezer earlier this year, which has enabled them to churn out 5,000 cups of ice cream per hour and increase production by 10 times.
Their team has also grown much more than they imagined, with about 100 employees currently, half of which are full-timers.
As they’ve taken on a larger headcount, they share that one lesson has become increasingly important:
[Running a business] is 99% team and 1% self. Or to put it another way, 1% of the team is more important than 99% of self, otherwise there is no way to grow. It’s the humans that push a business forward.Peck Lin, co-founder of Udders Ice Cream
The move into B2B was their first step to start exporting and franchising, so they can tackle the overseas market.
Udders has its sights on Indonesia, where there’s a “growing middle class, yet still a relatively low cost structure”.
They plan to start opening franchise outlets in Indonesia in the next four months, then hit 10 major cities in Asia over the next three years.
Strip Away The Calories And Go ‘Nuude‘
In recent times, the Udders team has had to keep up with trends and new consumer behaviours, constantly innovating new timely flavours and getting on board with delivery and ecommerce platforms like GrabFood, Deliveroo and Redmart.
But one trend in particular that they decided to work on was the demand for healthier food.
In 2019, they launched Nuude Ice Cream, a new label that is up to 35% lower in calories, sugar and fats, but doesn’t skimp on its flavour.
“We started with a blank canvas and asked ourselves: What flavours and pairings would lend themselves to being lower-calorie, and yet still be naturally delicious and authentic to the ingredients?” says Peck Lin.
This process led them to develop 14 all-natural flavours featuring “health-boosting” foods.
For now they’ve launched the first four: Dark Chocolate & Cacao Nibs Sorbet, Vanilla & Goji Berry, Alphonso Mango & Kaffir Lime Sorbet and Strawberry & Camu Berry.
Each flavour is also certified with the Healthier Choice label by the Health Promotion Board (HPB).
With Nuude, the founders hope to see “a new phase of growth for the company” through an alternative product line developed to appeal to health conscious consumers.
Featured Image Credit: Udders Ice Cream