After graduating with a Master of Architecture from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2009, Emily Chu started her career as a client-side architect.
While handing new property launches, she was intrigued by the creativity of branding and marketing so she joined American agency 8inc as a project manager in 2013.
That same year, she started up her own boutique agency Grafix Design, which specialises in the branding and digitisation of small businesses.
While managing Grafix in 2016, she completed her MBA (Master of Business Administration) in New Zealand. She then flew over to Hong Kong to market Singapore’s largest fish farm Kühlbarra.
The following year, she moved back to Singapore to start up her own healthy snacks business called Hey! Chips.
From farm to table
“As a mountain lover, I go for outdoor adventure frequently. I needed food that have good nutrition, is lightweight, and most importantly, not dreadful and boring. I noticed that healthy and tasty are often mutually exclusive. Being a food enthusiast, I wanted to create a snack that is both healthy and delicious,” said Emily.
She figured that vacuum-frying technology — which is already used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to nourish the astronauts in space — can help achieve these two elements.
It dehydrates food in low temperatures (60 to 80ºC), retaining the natural nutrients, colours and flavours.
The technology is unlike conventional methods like deep frying, baking, roasting or air frying that utilise heat to cook the ingredients. This method promises low levels of oxidation, while giving a crunchy mouthfeel like the kind in deep-fried snacks that we crave for.– Emily Chu, founder of Hey! Chips
According to Emily, what sets them apart from other snack companies is that it’s the “first (local) fruit and vegetable snack that is sourced traceably from farm to table”.
“Majority of the mass-produced food products we are presented (with) in the supermarkets are not good for health. (For) Hey! Chips, I focus on perfecting it with unassumingly great taste by bringing out the good quality of natural ingredients, and I do not submit to food fads and moving trends,” she said.
Three years perfecting the product
Bootstrapping the business, Emily invested S$100,000 of her personal savings and gathered an additional S$100,000 of investments from her close network to kickstart it.
She spent about three years in research and development (R&D) before finally perfecting the product.
As I wanted to have a snack that is as real as can be, it was a long process selecting a partner who resonated with my belief to take care of the food process. Only after much traveling of visiting farms, factories and meeting partners, I concluded that the only way to achieve a good quality snack was to source and make the chips within close proximity.
Eventually, I found a trustworthy partner in Thailand and we went on to run repeated tests on various fruits and vegetables with the technology to perfect the snack.– Emily Chu, founder of Hey! Chips
While developing the product, she managed to establish a relationship with a network of farms from different parts of Thailand so they can have a steady supply all year round.
Emily stressed that Hey! Chips varieties must be grown in Thailand so that they can directly source from the local farmers. With fresh ingredients, they can produce fresh-tasting chips.
“My traceability belief is we didn’t try to make strawberry or apple chips (because they) are not native plants in Thailand. If we had to import our ingredients, it would not be possible to scrutinise our ingredients to this level of detail,” she said.
“Our traceable sourcing also allowed us to ensure better pays get to our farmers and not lost through the conventional supply chain.”
So far, Hey! Chips has developed interesting fruits and vegetables flavours including mango, pineapple, okra (lady’s finger), broccoli, onion and cherry tomato. Beyond these variety, they have also launched three trail mixes with mixed fruit chips.
When asked if there were any flavours that didn’t make the cut, Emily confessed that they tried making corn, sweet potato, durian and coconut chips during the R&D stage, but they didn’t paste their taste tests despite multiple iterations.
Sold six packets every two minutes
Hey! Chips adopt an onmichannel strategy. Besides keeping an active digital presence, they also make it a point to physically interact with customers to educate them on the basic knowledge of food making.
In 2019, they held 20 events but the number drastically reduced due to Covid-19 restrictions. This year, they only joined five events so far.
When Hey! Chips took part in the events, customers responded positively to their chips, praising that their snacks kept to the actual tastes of fruits and vegetables.
At the Sprout 2019 Farmers’ Market, they sold a six-pack bundle every two minutes.
“At the beginning, there were times my chips were sold out at events unexpectedly. To live up to my promises on standing orders, I had taken many same-day flights to my factory in Thailand and carried the chips back with me on the plane,” said Emily.
Trust is everything in business — it can’t be built in a day, but can be destroyed very easily.
To me, it means to always deliver on what I promise, minimise any errors and be responsible for mistakes I made. From my experience, I find that good opportunities would only present themselves after people start trusting me, my company and/or my products.– Emily Chu, founder of Hey! Chips
In early February 2020, we had just finished production for a few MNC corporate clients with close to one container of chips. When lockdown started, offices and retailers have had to cancel their orders. From an aggressive growth phase, we came to a complete halt.
The situation forced me to explore digital tools. I tried clearing the stock with deals and (livestream commerce) for a while. When 50 per cent of the stock was cleared, I stopped all and focused on building my e-commerce ecosystem.– Emily Chu, founder of Hey! Chips
Their website was completed in November last year and they are now also listed on other e-commerce platforms like Lazada, Redmart, Shopee and FairPrice Finest. They also struck a collaboration with many other smaller websites.
According to Emily, they have over 30 per cent repeat purchase online, which is a lot higher than the average (less than 10 per cent) for mass market food products.
In 2019, Hey! Chips sold 30,000 packs of snacks. When Covid-19 hit in 2020, sales drastically dropped to 18,000 packs but it has since bounced back. In the first half of 2021, Hey! Chips has sold 50,000 packs so far.
Based on the sales so far, Emily predicts that they will break even by the fourth quarter of 2021.
“In a competitive city, there is a number of attention-grabbing unhealthy food products rolled out every other day and consumers are susceptible to unhealthy products,” observed Emily.
Although the healthy eating trend is picking up, it is costly to keep their snack at the top of mind for a large digital audience.
Moreover, the downside to using real and fresh ingredients mean that their production cost is very high, which leads to a higher retail price.
“As a less-known type of snack, the regular mass market customers would find the price point of S$4.50 per pack a lot more costly than the familiar potato chips. Most consumers do not understand the intricacies of nutritional facts and ingredient lists that would explain our point of difference.”
Snagging a slice of the snacks market
The snacks market is very saturated, so what is their strategy on lasting in this competitive industry?
Emily doesn’t deny the competitive nature of the snacks industry, and said that since customer attention span is extremely short, especially with growing digital media and e-commerce (players), they have no choice but to think long-term in every move that they undertake.
Firstly, the product must be able to stand the test of time. I take relatively long to develop the products to achieve a sustainable advantage. Although there are other fruit and vegetable chips in the market, it’s almost impossible to find a substitute to this level of excellence.
Secondly, as a large portion of our revenue comes from distributors, retailers and corporate clients, we need to make it our first priority to serve the clients well. Every project and deal must be fulfilled without a hiccup as trust is hard to build.
Newcomer snacks come and go, but a trusted brand that always delivers on time with quality, will succeed over time.– Emily Chu, founder of Hey! Chips
Sharing her future business plans, Emily revealed that she has ambitions of venturing into Malaysia, the United States, Australia and New Zealand since Singapore is a rather small market.
“We have some small presence as we get adhoc orders from these countries. It’s a matter of time for us to find the right distributors to continue our journey globally,” she added.
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Featured Image Credit: Hey! Chips