After coming to Klang Valley for university, Ipohrian sisters Carmen and Kelly often craved traditional desserts like tau fu fah. Their liking for it was developed in childhood, as they grew up with a father who began selling it from his hawker stall in 1994. His stall was called Woong Kee Bean Curd in Bercham, Ipoh.
They struggled to find tau fu fah sellers in the Klang Valley as most came from food trucks located in night markets and weren’t consistently available. Even while present, customers are only given the option to take away the desserts, and it wouldn’t be as fresh when brought home to be eaten.
“We saw other desserts such as cakes, ice cream, and bubble tea being served in a café setting, where [customers] can chill and lepak (hang out) with their friends while enjoying their desserts,” the sisters realised. “We wanted to have that for traditional dessert lovers as well.”
And so they founded Dáo. Starting in 2018 with a dessert café in SS15, Dáo has now expanded to 4 more outlets around Damansara Jaya, SS22, Puchong Jaya, and Kuchai Lama.
3 siblings, 1 business
Apart from the 2 sisters who act as co-founders of the business, they also have their brother, Joe, on board. He previously assisted their father with the hawker stall back in Ipoh.
Dáo’s desserts such as its dáofufah, dáo nai (soy milk) and dáo nai hak (black soymilk) have been adapted from their dad’s original recipes.
The siblings have also injected their own ideas by adding black sesame and red bean pastes to their desserts to offer more product variations.
Using their soymilk as a base, they’ve even created a soft-serve ice cream, which is one of Dáo’s top-selling products to date.
Riddled with nostalgia
Perhaps it’s the shift in Malaysians adopting healthier lifestyles or a growing, dire need for more sustainable alternatives in food that’s leading a trend in soybean as a milk alternative.
However, the appeal of Dáo remains in its strong branding, reminding customers of simpler times.
Dáo’s cafés are nostalgic in their interior design, with décor around the store evoking a sense of familiarity. For example, the team has incorporated items customers would’ve seen around their house, like the off-white Good Morning hand towels and tin can telephones hung on the walls.
A bicycle that the siblings used to ride is also plastered on the wall of the SS15 outlet, intended to resemble the hawker stall in Ipoh. This motif has carried through in all of Dáo’s outlets.
The cafés have become a spot for families to gather, with teens and young adults bringing their parents and grandparents to the store.
Carmen reported that customers would often point out the tricycle mural and reminisce about how their own parents would pack the desserts for them in Ipoh when they were little. With the availability of Dáo in KL, they’re now able to share the same sentiment with their own children too.
“To us, it is a reminder of our roots, which is the core of our branding. Our brand name “dao” is the pronunciation of the word “bean”, the main ingredient of our products in Cantonese, which is our mother tongue,” Carmen told Vulcan Post.
The biggest challenge the team of 40-50 faces is maintaining a consistent quality for the products. As no additives are used, flavours in the food are reliant on the raw materials attained.
It didn’t get any easier during the lockdowns as the business had to rely on delivery platforms for sales. Tau fu fah, by nature, has a delicate texture and can be broken when the container is shaken. Customers would sometimes receive them in their broken-up forms, which Carmen shared harmed Dáo’s brand perceptions.
“To make up for that, we offered a 1 to 1 replacement,” she explained. This was where customers could receive a replacement pack of tau fu fah if products were damaged along the journey.
Unfortunately, doing so subsequently affected Dáo’s profit margins, which also worsened due to the commission rates on delivery platforms.
But as dine-ins pick up again, it seems that things could start looking up for Dáo, especially since the draw of the brand is in its physical outlets. As of now, Carmen reported that its outlets are seeing a rough 5,000 customers per week.
Sprouting the bean
Due to Dáo’s issue with damaged products via deliveries, the team is now looking to expand their outlets and operations. Doing so would hopefully open up the opportunity for more customers to try Dáo’s products scooped fresh in-store.
“It does give a different experience in my opinion,” Carmen shared. But in the short term, Dáo will be producing more varieties of its soy-based desserts that are dairy-free.
Safe to say, the brand has come a long way from its early days of struggling to even cover its overhead costs. It wasn’t just relatable branding that got it to where it is today, but unwavering faith that the quality of its products will keep customers coming back for more.
As for their father’s business, Woong Kee Bean Curd is still standing strong with a few branches in Ipoh today, regarded as one of the go-to tau fu fah brands in Ipoh, if its Google ratings and reviews are anything to go by.
Featured Image Credit: Carmen, Joe, and Kelly Lau, co-founders of Dáo