Caviars are admittedly one of the most expensive delicacies in the world, and they have even been dubbed as ‘black gold’.
They are essentially salt-cured sturgeon roe and Ben Goh had his first taste of it 20 years ago when he was onboard a Singapore Airlines flight.
I tried Beluga caviar — a highly-prized but endangered species, (which is) now banned from being imported into the United States. I enjoyed it paired with a Brut champagne and its smooth, buttery flavour blew my mind.
I subsequently developed a deep appreciation for caviar not just as a delicacy, but also as a business opportunity.– Ben Goh, co-founder of Caviar Colony
The 51-year-old is no stranger to the business scene — he has been an entrepreneur for over two decades.
He started his first business in 1996, designing smart home solutions when the technology was just starting to take off.
Then in 2006, he picked up go-karting as a hobby and realised there was a gap in the market for fellow enthusiasts.
He went on to start a motorsport business in 2008, and a joint venture with the world’s largest go-kart manufacturer called OTK Kart Asia in 2012.
He only entered the F&B industry last year, opening an Italian-fusion restaurant called 28 Wilkie, which houses Singapore’s first caviar bar. He also opened a café right next door that has a more casual dining concept.
Caviar Colony is his latest business, which he co-founded in May this year with his partner Celine Tan.
“We Want To Make Caviar An Accessible Luxury”
In 2014, Ben stumbled upon an opportunity to visit a sturgeon farm in Yunnan, China.
The 800-hectare farm is located along the Amur River (also known as Heilongjiang), which forms a border between the Russian Far East and Northeastern China.
It is home to the legendary Kaluga and has been operating for over 20 years.
The crackdown on wild-caught sturgeon at the time had helped propel the farm to supply sturgeon eggs to some of the world’s most renowned caviar houses.
He went on to invest in the farm, which later sparked the desire to “make caviar a delicacy (that is) more accessible”.
“I believe in investing in businesses that make sense to me,” he added.
Together with Celine, the two invested a total of S$2 million to start up Caviar Colony.
Caviar is considered one of the most expensive and luxurious food items in the world, and many people think caviar is only for the affluent.
We aim to change that perception with Caviar Colony — we want people to be able to enjoy world-class caviar that is genuinely priced. We want to make caviar an accessible luxury.– Ben Goh, co-founder of Caviar Colony
Harvesting ‘Black Gold’ In China
However, there is a notion that made-in-China products are inferior, so how does he assure that Caviar Colony produces quality caviar?
Ben is well aware of China’s notorious reputation, but shared that it is actually one of the world’s largest caviar producers.
According to trade data from CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), total caviar exports in China between 2012 and 2017 rose to about 136 metric tonnes.
Demand for Chinese caviar has grown over the last 10 years. In fact, it is known in the caviar industry that Chinese caviar is already supplied under OEM arrangements to the largest caviar houses.– Ben Goh, co-founder of Caviar Colony
Almost 60 per cent of the world’s commercial caviar farms are based in China, said Ben, citing a study by market research company Orbis Research.
It’s just that not many companies, including some of the world’s finest caviar brands such as Paris-based Petrossian, declare or advertise that their caviar is harvested in China.
To ensure quality production, Ben said that they harvest in a controlled environment for at least 10 years.
Its fishes are bred in pristine spring water and they are fed a proprietary blend of feed, which is free from antibiotics and chemicals, and includes traditional Chinese herbs and salmon oil.
The most challenging thing about caviar production is that the gender of the sturgeon can only be determined after 3.5 years, so they have to be continually fed until then.
The female sturgeon will reach sexual maturity around the age of eight and produce their first batch of roe. It is only then they can taste and decide if the caviar tastes good — that is how long Ben has to wait before he knows if his investment has paid off.
Farmers will then have to wait one more cycle and collect the second batch of roe when the sturgeons reach 10 years old.
While most sturgeons are harvested at eight years, Caviar Colony harvests them only after a “minimum of 10 years” to yield caviar of better quality.
They also make it a point to harvest the roe within 15 minutes, rejecting anything that goes beyond the timeframe.
After harvesting, the roe is carefully treated and rinsed before undergoing an ageing process for two months. During this time, the caviar is salted sparingly — 3.2% to 3.5% compared to the industry standard of 5% to 8% – to let the true flavour of the grains shine through.– Ben Goh, co-founder of Caviar Colony
The roe is then packed in gold tins that are hermetically sealed to ensure all air is extracted, preventing any accidental oxidation that would lead to deterioration and loss in flavour.
This ensures that the integrity of the caviar is retained till consumption.
“We are committed to offering quality caviar and hope to change the perception of caviar from China,” added Ben.
Prices Start From S$50 For 10g
Caviar Colony produces a caviar collection of five different sturgeon species — Amur, Kaluga Hybrid, Russian Hybrid, Russian and Kaluga.
In particular, the Russian Hybrid is a unique species that is exclusive to Caviar Colony.
Our caviars start from S$50 for 10g for the Amur and Kaluga Hybrid, which are considered in the mid-range of other brands.
Our most expensive caviar is the Kaluga, which retails for S$110 for 10g.– Ben Goh, co-founder of Caviar Colony
Although Caviar has a reputation for being a premium food, Ben trusts that Singapore would serve as a good market to sell caviar.
“Given the sophisticated taste of consumers globally, Singapore is strategically located in the heart of Asia and in proximity to our farms to ensure the strictest standards of quality control,” he explained.
“This enables us to expand quickly, making it the ideal launchpad to kickstart our expansion into the rest of the world.”
Caviar Colony is currently available in 13 restaurants in Singapore, including 28 Wilkie, Alma, Esora, Iggy’s, Lerouy, Meta, Ma Cuisine, Pollen and Whitegrass.
Beyond that, it also exports to over 10 other countries, including Italy, China, Macau, Hong Kong, Bali, Malaysia, the Maldives, the Philippines, Thailand and France.
In the future, it hopes to be one of the world’s largest caviar supplier.
“We aim to be distributed globally and to have at least 10 of our own retail points over the next five years. This is in addition to distributing caviar to restaurants and brands internationally,” said Ben.
When asked to share a piece of business advice to fellow entrepreneurs, he said that one thing he learnt from his experience is that one need to “always keep an open mind to opportunities, especially those that are unexpected.”
If he didn’t make that fateful visit to the China farm five years ago, would he be running a caviar business today?
Work smart and stay focused on your goals, but pivot when necessary. And always do your due diligence — work with people you can trust and respect.– Ben Goh, co-founder of Caviar Colony
Featured Image Credit: Caviar Colony