Singaporeans have an undying love for durians despite its reputation of being a ‘stinky’ fruit.
Maybe that’s why Ah Seng Durian has the confidence to open not only a second outlet, but also a durian cafe in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This infamous durian stall just launched its new cafe Durian Lab and a second branch at Bukit Merah last week.
Aside from being a renowned durian seller in Singapore, Ah Seng Durian is also notorious for a tax evasion scandal in 2019. The founding brothers of the brand has evaded over S$160,000 in taxes for the past six years.
Despite the scandal, it looks like the brand is bouncing back with the expansion of its business.
The new cafe is heavily Mao Shan Wang (MSW)-themed, offering MSW shortcakes, durian tarts, and even the now-trending burnt cheesecake for prices that range between $5 and $12.
Reception to the pastries has been positive, with over 120 pastries sold out by 2pm on the cafe’s opening day. That’s quite an achievement under Covid-19 conditions, as traditional F&B businesses struggle to turn a profit.
Durian Lab May Be Jumping Onto An Outdated Trend
Durian pastries aren’t a new trend. Food blogs like DanielFoodDiary have commented on the rise of durian-themed cafes over the past couple of years.
However, unlike bubble tea or Korean barbeque, the durian cafe trend has slowly died down amidst the allure of newer food trends.
Enterprising cafes like Double Durians and Mao Shan Wang Cafe have shut down despite the management expertise of established F&B groups like Four Seasons Durian.
However, cafes that strategically target a specific customer base, like Ms Durian, have been able to ride the ever-changing waves of the F&B industry.
This durian cafe targets a predominantly female demographic with an eclectic menu of durian-themed pudding and craquelins.
It’s a safe entryway into the often smelly, sticky business of eating the King of Fruits, which has been banned on public transport for its stench.
Durian pastry cafes seem to act as the more palatable, everyday alternative to the raw fruit.
An Attempt To Modernise A 40-Year-Old Business
Much like other F&B heritage brands such as the 40-year-old Four Seasons Durian and 100-year-old Tong Heng Bakery, the opening of Durian Lab seems to be an attempt to modernise an old-school durian stall.
Four Seasons Durian successfully transformed an atypical fresh fruit stall into an islandwide franchise selling durian-infused products like durian puffs in 2002. The fruit stall was originally founded in the 70s.
Similarly, Ah Seng Durian has a long, illustrious history as one of Singapore’s most-trusted durian sellers.
Opened in the 80s, Ah Seng and his younger brother “Ah Chung” first started off selling kampung durians at their parents’ provision shop.
Following in the footsteps of other heritage businesses, Ah Seng Durian’s second-generation owner, 29-year-old Leonel Shui, reported that Durian Lab was opened in an attempt to level up the brand’s look and vibe.
The brand has already received a digital facelift over the years.
Ah Seng Durian has acquired a strong social media presence on Facebook and Instagram, amounting to over 65,000 followers. The durian stall even has its own website.
Catering to modern sensibilities, Ah Seng Durian has partnered with popular local cafes like Flor Patisserie and Keong Saik Bakery to create Durian Lab’s menu, reinventing the taste of fruit for millennial cafe-hopping audiences.
The goal is to encourage people who dislike eating durians to try more modern durian-themed desserts, and provide an event space for corporates. It also helps that Ah Seng’s second outlet is located right next to the cafe.
By capturing a new, younger audience with a cafe, Ah Seng Durian is insuring its survival for years to come.
Can Singapore’s Love For Durian Beat The Pandemic?
Ah Seng’s strong brand name among the rabid durian-eating fanbase is a strong draw among local foodies.
However, opening a retail outlet during the Covid-19 period is a major risk for any F&B player.
70 per cent of the businesses in the F&B sector reported that sales fell by over 50 per cent in July, according to a spokesperson from the Restaurant Association of Singapore.
Many F&B have also turned to food delivery to save sales figures. Over 10 new delivery players have joined the sector, and the sector is expected to be valued at US$464 million (S$635 million) by the end of this year.
Unlike other F&B that have hopped onboard the food delivery train, Durian Lab is currently available only for dine-ins and takeaways. Yet, the brand seems to be bucking the downward trend within the F&B sector.
In spite of a delayed opening that spanned over eight months, Durian Lab reported that its limited-stock pastries sold out within hours of opening. It’s even actively hiring baristas despite poor labour market conditions.
Since it’s durian season now, this could explain the high demand for durians and durian-based product.
With durians being a seasonal fruit, it’s hard to tell if Durian Lab will continue to thrive; but if it does, it would be an impressive feat for any F&B business in this current climate.
Featured Image Credit: kkelvin blogspot / Seth Lui