Entrepreneur

Meet The Man Behind Irvins: How He Built A Global Salted Egg Empire From A Zi Char Eatery

Homegrown snack brand Irvins has become a household name in Singapore.

It’s well-known for its salted egg snacks and many tourists have been spotted lugging several bags of it back home, making it a quintessential Singapore souvenir.

Founded in 2015, Irvins was started by serial entrepreneur Irvin Gunawan.

The Indonesia-born first moved to Singapore with his family back in 1998, and has dabbled in various F&B ventures over the years.

His first company was Cocoba, which is a wordplay on chocolate bar.

“The first project I wanted to [embark on] was a chocolate cake café, inspired by the many I found in Tokyo,” explained the 34-year-old.

“Unfortunately, for one reason or another, it never got launched so I went back to the drawing board and found that my family had a few recipes of Indonesian food.”

This led to the opening of his first restaurant Chilikong in Tanjong Pagar in 2007. It never broke even, and shut down in a span of two years.

The closure wasn’t surprising since rental is more expensive in the central business district and footfall isn’t the best on weekends.

Despite the failure, Irvin went on to open a few more restaurants, namely Irvin’s Seafood Cze Char in 2008, Irvin’s Live Seafood House in 2011 and Leban HK Café in 2012.

The zi char restaurant at River Valley did well, until they were forced to move out at the end of their contract.

“The landlord increased the rental by almost 50 per cent, so we had to start from zero again,” lamented Irvin.

Business unfortunately didn’t do well after the relocation. The seafood house was “deep in the red every month” so they had to find a way to boost sales.

The answer to this was salted egg snacks.

Striking Gold With Salted Egg Snacks

Irvin first sold salted egg potato chips and fish skin as a side dish on the menu, before offering it as a packaged snack that customers could buy over the cashier counter.

During that time, salted egg crab was clearly the number one signature dish, so we thought, what other things can we put in the menu with salted egg?

We created about 10 or so dishes, of which the potato chips and fish skin were the most popular. The other dishes were salted egg chicken, salted egg tofu, salted egg enoki mushroom and salted egg vegetables tempura, just to name a few.

– Irvin Gunawan, founder of Irvins Salted Egg

The salted egg snacks were a hit — sales multiplied by five or six times, and surged during festive seasons.

He had a “good feeling” that people would love the salted egg snacks, he never dreamt in a million years that it would take them this far.

irvins salted egg potato chips fish skin
Irvins salted egg potato chips and fish skin / Image Credit: Irvins Salted Egg

They did it with a blank canvas and experimented till they stumbled upon the final recipe, which turns out to be a goldmine. What was initially created as an added revenue stream eventually became his main revenue stream.

Although the restaurants are no longer around today (he shut them down to focus on Irvins), they served as an “important” foundation in building the business.

“It wasn’t rocket science,” he said nonchalantly in a separate interview with The Straits Times.

He recounted that their chef used to spend about six hours in the kitchen with two or three helpers, frying potato chips and fish skins before coating them with their signature salted egg sauce.

They couldn’t make enough back then because it’s all home-made. Now that they’ve gotten the process, recipe and consistency down, they can finally produce more.

“The way we hand cook and the ingredients we use have not changed — we just do it in a larger scale,” said Irvin.

irvins salted egg potato chips fish skin
Irvins initial packaging in a plastic bottled container / Image Credit: Irvins

Its packaging however, has seen a revamp from a plastic bottled container to the current snack pouch, which was crucial in extending its shelf life to one year.

When it was bottled, it had a shelf life of only three weeks, making it nearly impossible to export the snacks.

irvins salted egg
Irvins salted egg snacks / Image Credit: Irvins

Irvins has also innovated beyond just salted egg potato chips and fish skin — it has since released different salted egg variations, from cassava chips to popiah skin to pineapple tarts.

“Most of our products are received positively, as we are very strict in what we release to the world,” said Irvin.

They Grew The Business With No Advertising

The growth in the early days however, was very slow.

They didn’t have any marketing budget to advertise their business; people knew about their brand purely from word-of-mouth.

Word [traveled] from one customer to another, so from the inside, I saw a slow incremental growth month-to-month.

My brother Ircahn was really engaged with Facebook and Instagram, and handled the social media platforms, answering every one of customers’ queries. We served with our heart and really took care of each and every customer — I think this was really important in building the brand in the early days.

– Irvin Gunawan, founder of Irvins Salted Egg
irvin gunawan
Ircahn, Irvin and Ivan Gunawan (from left to right) / Image Credit: Irvins

Irvin’s brothers — Ircahn (COO) and Ivan (CFO) — joined the business in 2015 and are now helping him to manage the business.

Due to shortage of funds, they also had to undertake many hats in the early days. “We simply didn’t have the money to hire specialists,” said Irvin.

For example, Ircahn and his wife Keshia, hand-drew the first two factory layout themselves. They didn’t have any expertise or knowledge in industrial designing — Ircahn was a movie graduate, and Keshia was fashion designer.

“This is the sort of can-do spirit that pushed our brand forward. We didn’t complain, we just did it,” he said.

Stepping Out Of The Snack Zone

Irvin started out with restaurants and later focused on the salted egg business. Now, he has come full circle and ventured back into the F&B space.

He wanted to literally “shake things up” by letting customers shake their own zi char-inspired takeaway bowls.

irvins messy kitchen
Irvins Messy Kitchen / Image Credit: Irvins Salted Egg

Called Messy Kitchen, it is his latest two-in-one concept at Wisma Atria that sells Irvins’ regular snack offerings as well as their new range of bowls, sides and desserts.

Beyond salted egg flavours, they also have other offerings like truffle rice or noodle bowls.

irvins messy kitchen
Irvins messy bowl / Image Credit: Irvins

They are taking their move into hot food so seriously that they’ve brought in the ex-head chef of Irvins Seafood to create the bowls.

“My personal favourite is the spicy truffle noodle with lala. We have a great team led by chef Heng Yong Chua who played a key role in my previous restaurants. I wanted to showcase his talent and the team’s creativity [with Messy Kitchen],” said Irvin.

‘Could the new offerings potentially hint at a new truffle-flavoured snack from Irvins?’ I probed.

“Unlikely, as truffle-flavoured snacks are not new in the market,” said Irvin, adding that they are looking to continue to introduce other new flavours to the Messy Kitchen.

irvins fish head curry fish skin
Irvins fish head curry fish skin / Image Credit: Irvins

When it comes to the snack, Irvins has launched its first non-salted egg flavour — fish head curry fish skin — which is a nod to Irvins’ zi char roots.

In fact, chef Heng was the one who came up with the snack’s recipe after being inspired by the claypot fish head curry served at Irvin’s restaurant.

Conquering The Global Snack Market

irvin gunawan
Irvin Gunawan / Image Credit: Irvins

Irvins has enjoyed steady popularity not just in Singapore, but also overseas.

Today, they are available in nine countries, including Dubai, United States, China, Japan and Taiwan.

In Singapore, they have 12 outlets and booths, and are also available in 7-Eleven convenience stores and Cold Storage outlets islandwide.

It’s not uncommon to see snaking long queues at its stores, to the extent that certain outlets have had to impose purchase limits to each customer.

When asked about their business expansion strategy, Irvin said that they have been “courageous.”

We are not afraid to give something a try even if that means failing and making mistakes all the time. But we are also careful when it comes to choosing who we partner.

– Irvin Gunawan, founder of Irvins Salted Egg

“Finding good suppliers who want to grow and be your partner long-term, whose focus is on quality, not short-term money-making, (is a challenge),” he said.

In a previous interview with Nikkei Asian Review, Irvin also said that they are not looking to open tens of stores in each country.

While physical stores might work as marketing tools, majority of customers will get its products through online resellers. The growth of e-commerce in Southeast Asia means that Irvins does not have to expand its physical footprint to grow its business, he added.

It’s not like 30 years ago, people can always buy online. You need to have a good distribution hub, but nowadays you only need a few stores and then the rest [of the customers] you can reach online.

– Irvin Gunawan, founder of Irvin’s Salted Egg in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review

Irvin acknowledged that the snack market is very saturated and competitive. To stand out from the crowd and last in the game, achieving and maintaining “quality” is key.

This is why when Irvins faced a PR storm early last year involving a dead lizard found in a snack packet, they knew there was only one way to go about it: they apologised to the affected customer, and offered refunds for batches of its snack.

While the incident did affect sales, it also garnered respect from customers who lauded the way they handled the issue. Rather than avoiding it or giving excuses, Irvins tackled the situation head-on and learnt from its mistake to provide a better experience to its customers.

Moving forward, Irvin said that they have “stepped up [its] very stringent control [and] will continue to uphold the high standards of ‘made in Singapore’.

It’s clear to see that Irvin holds its homegrown status in very high regard. Sharing more about his future business plans, he said that they will continue to “create many more exciting, innovative products” so more people in the world can get to know Singapore food.

Wrapping up the interview with a piece of business advice for fellow entrepreneurs, he stressed that it’s important to adopt a can-do spirit.

Don’t keep on practicing in your room, you have to put yourself on the stage and perform. There will be days when you fall, but you have to get back up and persevere.

– Irvin Gunawan, founder of Irvins Salted Egg

Featured Image Credit: Peter Guest via Nikkei Asian Review / ChinaHao.com

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